Virtual learning: real or imaginary?

Young people think differently to older people because technology has rewired their brains. I’m not kidding, this is the currency of the day and you can take your pick of articles and research peddling such ideas. The latest in a long...

Share

Young people think differently to older people because technology has rewired their brains. I’m not kidding, this is the currency of the day and you can take your pick of articles and research peddling such ideas.

The latest in a long string of such forebodings is that gamers have problems differentiating their virtual worlds from real life, so nothing new there then. Most of what is said is nonsense but there is a genuine concern that the growth of the virtual life will have a bad effect on the next generation.

It’s natural for us to live at least part of our lives in an a imaginary dimension, one only has to watch the young absorbed in play or work in an open source company to appreciate that the simulacrum is in some way a vital part of living. However no matter how engaged you are in this imaginary world the only direct outcome is its effect on your mind.

Technology has enabled us to take another step in the development of the simulacrum. Increasingly sophisticated ‘simulators’ model aspects of the world using rules within which we can make some input that can affect the play of the model... we call it interactive, a term beloved by school ICT.

In computing ‘virtual’ is often used as a synonym for a simulation. A ‘virtual machine’ for example is just a software model of a traditional OS-on-hardware, and a ‘virtual world’ is a software model of the real world. A VM is ‘real’ (although ‘virtual’) as opposed to imaginary because to all intents and purposes it behaves like a regular computer, that is, when attached to the appropriate interface its inputs and outputs are as real as you like.

The word ‘virtual’ thus spans the real and the imaginary. For example, a flight check for a commercial pilot on a simulator is very real when he can lose his licence to fly if he is failed by the watching instructor.

Same goes for a US Reaper drone may be ‘flown’ in software by a pilot who has never been airborne, but for those upon whom his bombs fall it is very real indeed. Or in a rather more sympathetic note, a surgeon carrying out an operation via the Internet using virtual robotic hands is connected in a very real way to the patient. Thus a virtual world is real when it has consequences outside of the user’s mind.

On the other hand a virtual world without real world consequences is imaginary and thus an illusion. Computer games often fall into this category, and like reading books or playing chess can range from a harmless absorbing past-time to a full-on delusional state.

Ninety years ago arguably the 20th century’s greatest philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein opened his Tractatus with the immortal lines:

The world is all that is the case.
The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

Thanks Ludwig, you had not played World of Warcraft, but you got it right. The modern world is as real as it ever was, but simply more facts replace things in the virtual world. But the world is all that is the case and it is still real, not imaginary.

In my opinion, if the worries about kids brains are in anyway founded then the problem lies with the virtual/imaginary world not the virtual/real world. I had a chance to test this many years ago with early computer-marked testing of students.

All was fine, they enjoyed the process when we called them quizzes and happily competed for different levels. When I decided to use the system for an end of module grading all hell broke lose. Somehow I was violating a real-imaginary barrier, and we swiftly abandoned the idea. The students knew the difference between real and imaginary.

So in conclusion I would appeal to all designers of virtual learning software to firmly ground all of your work in the virtual/real world or else the link between action and consequence, which is tenuous enough in this generation, may be further eroded and that would be bad.