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Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be

“With a growing range of virtual interfaces continuously evolving around us, reality isn’t what it used to be[,]” writes Amy Webb, Professor of Strategic Foresight at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and author of The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology (2022). Webb posits that leaders need to consider carefully these evolving interfaces. To my mind, school leaders in particular need to consider these developments and emerging signals at least as much as leaders in any other industry, because we are in a position of needing to help and guide young people to become familiar (even conversant) with these interfaces, as they will begin to show up in greater frequency in digital resources from textbook and curriculum providers, among others.

A key mechanism for interpreting these emerging signals lies in gaining a working knowledge of and appreciation for what is called the metaverse.

The metaverse is an all-encompassing virtual universe: think of it as a ‘place’ where wireless network infrastructure, sensors, existing technologies, and new technologies convene (collide?!) in a sort of mash-up, governed by existing and evolving protocols. People use these things in constantly-evolving ways to engage with each other, as well as engage in new ways with the real world around them.

It is important for school leaders to form literacy in the range of interfaces in the metaverse so that they can assist their communities in recognizing the distinctions among the interfaces, which includes identifying where there may be appropriate opportunities for supporting meaningful learning, while not losing our humanity along the way.

Augmented Reality (abbreviation: AR) This first interface makes digital alterations or enhancements (additions) to a person’s existing, physical environment in an immersive way, allowing that person to remain aware of and anchored in that physical environment. Use cases for AR are currently (autumn 2022) more prevalent than use cases for VR, below (note that AR and VR use similar equipment).

Virtual Reality (abbreviation: VR) This second interface, in contrast to augmented reality above, immerses a person entirely within a virtual environment, with that environment generated by artificial means that looks entirely different from the person’s existing, physical environment: it could, for instance, emulate a person’s real-world surroundings OR emulate real-world surroundings from somewhere else in the world OR bring to life a completely new and foreign environment that is not a real-world environment (e.g., a fantasy environment).

Mixed Reality (abbreviation: MR) This third interface places virtual elements in a relationship with physical elements in a person’s (real) environment in such a way that the person can continue to interact normally (physically) with those physical elements (objects and surfaces, for instance). What changes, though, is that the MR either enhances or alters the appearance of those physical elements, and sometimes how those elements react to a person’s touch. In other words, MR creates experiences that require the physical and virtual worlds to intersect.

Extended Reality (abbreviation: XR) This fourth item is not a true interface; instead, it is a term that captures the spectrum of virtual-real spaces and experiences. Interfaces on that spectrum are the aforementioned AR, VR, and MR. So, one may speak notionally of an ‘extended reality experience,’ and mean any of the interfaces mentioned above. As such, it is a general catch-all term, and it can cause some degree of confusion. School leaders might be tempted to use it as a catch-all, but as we consider the design of learning and learner experience, we owe it to ourselves and our communities to refer to each interface in a distinct way.

Diminished Reality (abbreviation: DR) This fifth item, another interface, is not fully immersive. Like AR, it leaves a person anchored in their physical environment, but the difference is that DR suppresses (as opposed to augments) certain items such as sounds, visuals, or other sensory elements. In education, as we look to maintain that which is human within the maelstrom of technological developments in and for the classroom, there is likely a strong argument for DR in terms of helping young people recognize how best to focus on tasks by minimizing distraction(s).

School leaders, then, would do well to engage teachers, teams, and governing boards in generative discussions and strategic thinking around the potential near- and long-term impact of the metaverse and its interfaces, allowing time, energy, and budget for creative exploration in classrooms, across grade levels, and even in other areas of school operations such as admission and advancement, ideally all within a research framework. In this way, school leaders can translate the school’s learning(s) into forward-looking guidance for the school community, providing enhanced value to all stakeholders.

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