As artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality make the transition from buzzwords to fixtures in everyday life, these cutting-edge tools are increasingly making appearances in one place where technology and tradition often collide: the classroom.
While some educators swear by these innovations’ ability to engage children’s attention, others worry about the potential social isolation brought about by technology in education, as well as a marked decline in reading skills.
VR, AR, and AI in the Classroom
Take virtual reality, or VR. While still in its infancy as an entertainment offering, a burgeoning industry is offering stimulating and immersive experiences to schoolchildren. For example, Nearpod offers VR field trips to the Roman Colosseum and the Great Wall of China. Google Expeditions takes kids on a virtual visit to a dinosaur park. According to education website Daily Genius, these tools “are just a handful of new applications coming into the classroom to enhance student learning using virtual environments.”
VR’s close cousin AR—augmented reality—is showing up, too, allowing teachers to superimpose digital images over real-world environments. For example, an AR mural of Paul Robeson, the African American actor and political activist, allows viewers to trigger historical videos and original content that highlight the many facets to Robeson’s life—all via a standard smartphone.
And artificial intelligence, often referred to as AI, allows schools to create custom curricula for individual students, with each learner proceeding at their own pace rather than being forced to learn in a one-size-fits-all environment.
Technology in the classroom certainly has its proponents. “Integrating technology in education helps students stay engaged,” says Danny Mareco, marketing manager at SecurEdge Networks, a wireless infrastructure firm. “Most students today have been using mobile devices like tablets and smartphones to play and learn since they could crawl. So it only seems logical to align today’s classrooms with the way that your students want and are used to learning.”
Despite these advantages and the fact that many school districts now provide either computers or tablets to students, the use of this kind of high technology in the classroom is still controversial.
Among the most frequently cited criticisms? Technology can be a distraction. It can foster cheating in the classroom. It can reduce verbal communication skills, since students interact with a screen rather than a teacher or fellow student. And even if technology does have some positive effects on education, it can breed inequality, as students in more affluent school districts benefit above those in poorer areas where schools can’t afford the latest tech.
Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at the University of California’s Children’s Digital Media Center, argues that while visual media can enhance learning, most forms “do not allow time for reflection, analysis, or imagination,” which she says are some of the skills at risk. Additionally, she notes that with the rise of tech innovations like smartphones, reading for pleasure has declined among children.
Others argue that children between the ages of eight and 10 already spend an average of six hours a day staring at TV, computer, and phone screens as it is.
While most schools deploy some form of technology in the classroom, a few are proving resistant to change. Among these are the Waldorf schools, which use the German Steiner education system, emphasizing “physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks,” according to the New York Times. Adherents believe that computers inhibit creative thinking and moving around during the day, in turn undermining human interaction and attention spans. Even Waldorf schools in Silicon Valley, where they’re attended by the children of tech wizards, refuse to use any technology.
One potential solution to this technology dilemma might involve adopting programs that allow for a limited time dedicated to technology combined with reading and other tried-and-true skills. “No one medium is good for everything,” UCLA’s Greenfield says. “If we want to develop a variety of skills, we need a balanced media diet. Each medium has costs and benefits in terms of what skills each develops.”