I like to think that we’re no more than 15 years away from virtual reality styled class assignments. No, really, hear me out on this. The transition period from some of the early HTML editors to ePortfolios (content that is much like a webpage) was about 15-20 years. Given the early state of where VR development software is now I picture a similar timeline for consumer grade products to be available to mass markets.
Rise of the ePortfolio
Schools of Education and other disciplines have had portfolio requirements for a long time. The basic idea behind a portfolio when compared to a traditional paper assignment is that it aggregated more than just the paper. It would include your own written work, examples of other projects that supported your work, excerpts or copies of primary and secondary resources that support your work, and various forms of multimedia (although initially it was usually monomedia in the form of pictures). These types of assignments were designed to be more reflective, and to go much deeper than a simple paper.
In the same way that the process of writing papers moved to being done using a program on a computer, portfolios made a similar transition. But it didn’t just happen overnight. No, things needed to be in place for ePortfolios to become a staple assignment. For one, we needed an easy way to create an ePortfolio. Sure, the concept of ePortfolios afforded new forms of attached media including video and audio clips, or even interactive webpages, but back in 1996 only a small part of the population would have had the ability to put this together in HTML.
In order for the ePortfolio to succeed as a concept there needed to be a simple way to create webpage-like things – well, simple, affordable, and accessible. I can’t tell you the precise date that transition occurred, but I can look at our modern technology landscape that has things like WordPress and Squarespace, and even learning management systems such as Desire2Learn with built-in ePortfolio modules, and tell you that we’ve arrived. Your mileage may vary, but I have seen people who can’t even tell you what browser they use cobble together an ePortfolio.
And what we get from this is something way cooler than just a traditional paper. We get something like a quasi-interactive multimedia paper that both shows and tells the viewer a story, and better demonstrates the student’s ability to put together a complex and coherent argument.
VR: Virtual Revolution
The same types of things I remember seeing with webpages once upon a time is what I’m beginning to see in VR now, and the prospect is an exciting one. It makes me think about what the future assignment might be. Where I think the defining quality of the ePortfolio is multimedia (multi-sensory), I think that what will define the VR assignment is interaction and immersion. Not only will a student be able to describe a world, they will in fact be able to bring others into created worlds to share research and findings. Instead of looking at pictures of some ancient vase the student will be able to conjure a representation of that vase that can be held, turned, and examined more closely. Instead of just watching video of a speech we will be transported to being a person watching the speech. The effect of this will not only be to improve students’ understanding of material, but will also improve their ability to describe and share these experiences with others in a classroom setting to be something not entirely unlike devised theatre.
We’re not entirely there yet, but I think a cursory glance at our technological past is all one needs to understand that this is one place we might be going.
Can we get there now?
I think that most of the tools we need to do this already exist, but the time and effort and knowledge required to do it now is likely too much (remember that simple, affordable, and accessible line from earlier). That said, I don’t think it’s unwarranted that we create at least one example for how this could look, despite the costs involved. I think that by being able to show an example now – even a primitive one that will one day be looked back upon in the same way we look at mid-90s Flash-filled pages now (even though they were amazing at the time!) – we can help to guide what this will one day look like, and maybe even be able to get there a little sooner.