Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Virtual science education

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

So William Gibson began his classic cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. That sentence captures the inversion -- or is it sublation? or negation? of the human-nature relationship. Human-made technology is not like nature. No -- the opposite is the case. Nature is now like our technology. Our technology has become the reference point, more real than nature. Our life around and in technology has become more primary, a more recent and ready reference point, and in that sense more real, than our experience with grass, breeze, sunlight, woods, robins, etc. etc. Quick -- can you say what phase the moon is in?

River City is an interactive computer simulation application for middle school science students. The program is hosted on the ActiveWorlds virtual world platform. Students work through different stages of a simulation of an American town in the late 1870s beset with a mysterious disease. Students adopt avatars and move around the town, "interacting" with town residents, visiting town sites, collecting data, and conducting virtual experiments. Students can chat with each other in the virtual world, collect notes, make hypotheses, and test them. The simulation was developed as part of a National Science Foundation Harvard research project.

One of our 7th Grade classes did the project last year. I can't say how much their science knowledge grew by using the project, but I was impressed by how engaged students were in the project. The silence in the classroom as 30 students focused on their laptops was ... amazing. As simulations go, River City looked varied, well thought through, and fun. The students tool on new bodies, traveled through time, flew through a 19th-century town, and investigated disease without the risk of getting sick. What's not to like? I look forward to seeing the research results (the research portion of the project officially ends this month; Activeworlds is considering keeping the project alive on a fee basis).

In a world where virtual science activities are just part of an overall rich science curriculum, with lots of "wet science" and field trips and nature walks and other real world experience -- in such a world River City-type projects could be a useful addition. Virtual worlds create certain guided experiences difficult to achieve otherwise.

But... (as Pee Wee Herman famously said, "everyone I know has a Big But -- Let's talk about your Big But") In my school we don't have a rich science curriculum, and River City was the closest that that 7th Grade came to a real world in-depth scientific investigation outside of science fair projects. This is not the fault of the teacher, or the school necessarily. The ultimate factors I think are the big ones of the polarization of wealth and poverty associated with globalization, the related processes of de-industrialization, the privatization of education, the overall destruction of the working class, the war on the poor, ... As a result: the destruction of the family unit, deep social problems transferred to schools, and in the school, shorter school days, large classes, stressed teachers, crumbling infrastructure, the rule of the standardized computer-scored test, and on and on. We know this already don't we?

These desperate times become a rationale for the expansion of technology in the classroom. Save money -- do science virtually! One of the problems in this line of thinking is that virtual reality is a poor, poor replacement for real reality (somehow, perhaps sadly, I don't think that that phrase is redundant). It also makes for poor scientists. Goethe (who considered himself as much a scientist as a poet) said that "Insofar as he makes use of his healthy senses, man himself is the best and most exact scientific instrument possible." (the quote is from Douglas Miller's 1988 translation of Goethe's scientific works, p. 311) This may sound heretical to those who have been taught to mistrust their senses in favor of the cold precision of technology. But I think it gets to the notion that scientists need to be open to the sensual world to successfully investigate the world. Science has an intuitive and imaginative dimension that comes into play in the identification and the formulation of hypotheses, and this dimension is crippled when robbed of the interaction with the real world. Science cannot adequately be done in a virtual world. Too much is not there. (More on this: Maura Flannery wrote a nice article, "Goethe and the Molecular Aesthetic"; see also Stephen Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute.)

Computer applications cannot encompass (support, yes; encompass, no) an inquiry-based learning experience because computer applications are programmed experiences. They incorporate rules of the program designers, a minuscule subset of the law system of the universe. Regardless of the possible paths of investigations that programmed worlds offer, they are nevertheless impoverished representations of the world. The learner is channeled into the limited imagination of the programmer further constrained by his or her chosen technology. Inquiry-based learning -- the heart of the scientific adventure -- is supposed to avoid the "sage on the stage" teacher model; but instead, in virtual worlds, the teacher's role has been supplanted by the programmer. And worse, the supplanting is not immediately apparent. The programmer is a hidden presence, the wizard behind the curtain.

Given the dismal funding of education and the awful pressure on public schools, teachers are between a rock and a hard place. Yes a rich set of real world interactions supplemented by developmentally appropriate technology would be ideal. But the real world is more and more out of reach of the public school. We are offered up virtual experiences instead. And in the inversion (or is it sublation? or negation?) captured by Gibson, the scary part is how compelling the virtual experience can be.

Let's hear it for the negation of the negation...


1 comment:

Ed Caster said...

Jim, I enjoy the depth at which you look at a subject. The kids at my school also used River City and the like your 7th graders, in the class the silence was golden. Many of the students live in the virtual world. [I'm living in a virtual world, and I am just a virtual girl, (or boy) with apologies to Madonna.] I also found it strange when we were visiting Second Life, that my son, a serious gamer, walked by and said "I didn't know you were into rpgs." Of course I replied, "Huh?" Roll Playing Games. He went on to denigrate the graphics. But from his response, I found that he was interested in it, just because it was a part of his world. It may become another learning tool for the kids. I also wonder if the use of River City has positive effects on learning over a period of time. I don't think it can hurt.