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Computers and Education: Teaching Virtuality (2009)

Between Reality and the Virtual:
Computers and Education in the 21st Century


Paul Grobstein
29 June 2009

(notes for a talk in the Computer Science Education Summer Institute)

Questions to start

  • What role do computers and the internet/web play in education today?
  • What role will they play in the future?
  • What role should they play?
  • Your thoughts ... (for on-line forum below)


Acknowledging the virtual in "reality"

The computer as tool for inquiry education, comparable to telescopes/microscopes

Learning in/from virtual worlds

Bottom line of this story

  • The line between reality and the virtual is becoming, will continue to become increasingly blurred
  • Students need (have always needed?) to acquire increased sophistication in working in the space between reality and the virtual ... in virtuality
  • Computers and virtual worlds have an important role to play in enhancing such sophistication
  • Computer models, like any other subject of exploration, need to be approached as incentives for inquiry rather than as answers
  • Computers should additionally be used to promote exchange of observations/stories

Your thoughts? (for on-line forum below)


DIane O'Fee Powers's picture


The most important concept that I got from Paul's talk on Monday is that computers take us away from our small world. Providing our students more access to computers can introduce them to a different world(s), people, ways of thinking ETC.
This is my third summer as a participant in the Serendip program & I am always amazed with what I learn from Paul & the other facilitators!

Joyce's picture


Sampling different perspectives is certainly an advantage that can be advanced using technology but blurring the line between physical and virtual is a difficult nugget to swallow.
I do accept your point that all perception is developed in the brain. However we can analyze and compare, use instrumentation to verify our perception of reality.
One problem with the virtual world produced by technology is that people may begin to have false perceptions that could cause them or others harm because it's much easier to create false data, and incorrect perceptions.

Anonymous's picture

easy, fast, smart

easy, fast, smart

Fran's picture

your talk

You had asked us to post the things we wrote down during your talk. The three things that came to mind when you said "computer" for me were "tool," "entertainment," and "games." I am very interested in games as a teaching tool.

You also asked us to post the things we could do with computers that we couldn't do without them. I wrote down:
* demonstrate small things via video
* take data quickly
* solve problems through iterative calculations quickly.

You also asked us to add any additional thoughts. You made me think a lot about the "virtual world" that you say we live in all the time. I understand the idea intellectually, but I don't like it. I don't reject it, but it is not comfortable for me.

I also have been thinking about how our eyes and brain work, since I teach physics and I did a unit with my physics 2 class with light and we had tough questions like "how do we perceive colors like pink which are not in the spectrum?" and why we perceive a color as yellow when it is illuminated only with red light. So I appreciated the color illusions that you showed. I had not seen the yellow square/brown square one before.

Paul Grobstein's picture

teaching virtuality follow up

I find myself increasingly thinking that the most satisfying thing about talking is the opportunity it provides to find out what other people are thinking, myself included, and from that to discover/create new ways of thinking.  Thanks to all for sharing that process with me this morning.  A few things that struck me particularly ...

More and more teachers (25%?) are indeed thinking of computers not only as something that makes it easier to do what they have always done but as providing the possibility of teaching in new and better ways.  That's a big change in a relatively short time (fifteen years or so), and very encouraging.  Hopefully our conversation this morning provides new grist for successfully spreading the word to additional teachers.

I continue to think that the notion that we all live all the time in "virtuality" is an important part of this grist.  Computers can both help us better understand this (by, among other things, making it obvious that our own ways of seeing the world are not universal), and help both ourselves and our students develop the skills needed to live in virtuality.  Among these are

  • recognizing that there are multiple ways to see the same thing
  • using the multiple ways to create new ways, and sharing those with each other to generate still more ways
  • testing ways of seeing things ("stories") with new observations, in new contexts to see how useful they continue or don't continue to be
  • becoming part of a world-wide discourse community, one in which everybody shares in the ongoing development of ways to see things 

Looking forward to seeing what other people made of our conversation, both now and in the future.  Materials used this morning are all available on our Serendip web site using the links in the notes above if any one wants them either for classes or for spreading the word to other teachers.  Again, thanks all for an enjoyable/generative conversation. 

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