Real Learning is No Replacement for Virtual Learning

Real learning is no replacement for virtual learning, not as we begin to consider the affordances of virtual reality. That opening statement is a direct contrast to a 2008 video explaining that “virtual learning is no replacement for real learning” from the National Institute on Media and Family (which closed in 2009). Please consider watching the first 35-40 seconds before proceeding.

Did you notice anything interesting about the opening illustration? The speaker held up an orange and asked the viewers what it can tell us about virtual versus what he called “real” learning. He continued by holding up a photograph of an orange, explaining how you can’t peel, smell or taste the picture; but you can with the other orange. The irony is that you, as the viewer of the video, can’t smell, taste, feel or peel either orange. They are both mediated. Yes, this is a lesson about the importance of the “real world” that is being taught to us in the “virtual world.”

The video explicitly teaches that it is important to consider the benefits and limitations of virtual environments, not to assume that a virtual learning experience is always an equal to a physical experience. Of course, I’ve not run into many (or honestly any) people who do not recognize this fact. Perhaps they/we do not always choose wisely between virtual and physical options, but most of us generally get the idea that there are benefits and limitations to both.

There is something natural that drives many of us to keep our fascination with virtual learning in check by arguing for the value of the physical, or what the video called, the “real world.” Yet, we are nearing a time in education when virtual learning experiences are going to give learners far more realistic experiences than they had in traditional physical classes of the past. I am referring specifically to the emerging developments around virtual reality and its implications for teaching and learning. This is an area that has immense promise. It can turn lessons that were previously taught as abstractions into rich and immersive multi-sensory experiences for learners.

Consider the possibilities. Imagine traveling through a human’s blood stream as if you were in some microscopic submarine. How about virtual journeys through distant galaxies? Virtual reality will give each learner an immersive experience of archeological sites, distance lands (from past or present), oceans, or complex machinery (from almost any perspective). Many of these were learned as abstractions in the past, but virtual reality has the potential to ground those abstractions in a multi-sensory and largely immersive experience.

These point us to examples of how what the video referred to as “real learning” will not be an adequate substitute for the virtual. It will not be as real. It will not be as vivid. It will not engage the senses or be as easy to comprehend, solve problems or make connections. We are finding ourselves in an age where the real is sometimes not a viable substitute for the virtual.

These are exciting times in education, times that allow us to deepen our understanding of blended learning. We continually return to reflections about how to leverage both the physical and virtual for learning. We can’t content ourselves with answers from a decade ago about what is best in a virtual versus a physical environment because the affordances of the virtual are in flux.

Marshall McLuhan’s classic on Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, continues to have relevance. Technological developments are not just distinct tools. They are sometimes extensions, expanding our natural senses, our ability to understand concepts, and our capacity to solve complex problems. Just as the microscope and telescope allowed us to experience what was previously invisible to the human eye, virtual reality can sometimes extend our vision of the world in new ways. It is not just a rich learning environment. It provides completely new experiences that will change our comprehension of the natural world. As such, we are entering a time when real learning will not be a replacement for the virtual world.