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Dr John Spencer began his teaching career in 1981 armed with a Sinclair ZX81, thereby demonstrating two things at once: Firstly he was in at the very start of ICT in the classroom and secondly he is a sucker for duff technology. Thereafter he taught joining a start-up open source company as their Head of Education in 2002. Now John is bringing his iconoclastic disposition and tendency to throw a spanner in the works to blogging.

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Virtual Learning... why?

The disconnect makes me feel uneasy... as does the new reality

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Two figures produced in 2012 impressed me mightily, as both are all-time records. The first, is that world production of carbon dioxide has hit an all-time high and the other is that HIV reached its highest ever level in the UK. 

I first taught about AIDS and the ‘Greenhouse Effect’ 25 years ago at the very start of the digital ‘information age’ and those early students are now in their forties. 

Assuming I was not the only teacher doing the above, I conclude that we are not successful in persuading generations to change their ways even though they are in receipt of sufficient information to inform their future individual or collective behaviour. We fail, I now believe, because we have steadily moved education from the experiential to the virtual... and continue to do so.

Obviously I am not advocating that one learns from experience that global warming and HIV are bad for you, but I would argue that when ‘lessons learnt’ are grounded in experience, it is more feasible to create engagement with more abstract proposals. 

By ‘virtual’ I mean teaching through presentation. For example, a good lesson today (as judged by an OFSTEDesque tick list) would involve high quality work-sheets, video clips, PowerPoint slides, rapid context switching and of course e-learning resources! 

The latter includes dedicated tutorial software, games, in fact simulations (i.e. reality models) of every type, and not to forget the VLE (virtual learning environment). 

Workshops, fieldwork and laboratory work have in contrast been in steep decline during this time. Did you know that it is common in Primary Schools to buy plastic fruit for the nature table and to learn their names with the aid of a computer game? 

Ok, I’m being a bit Daily Mail here and good schools ground their pupils in experience whenever possible, but the drift to virtual holds true.

However, you may reply that the world is now increasingly virtual and virtual is the new real. For example a surgeon can carry out an operation remotely across the Net and it is hard to find a more real example of virtual. Ditto, flight simulators are used to train pilots before they strap themselves into the real thing; ditto battle-games train soldiers. 

This is all great until you dwell on our fighter pilots, comfy at work, dropping virtual (sorry, ‘real’) bombs via airborne drones on some real (or are they virtual?) people in some remote country. The disconnect makes me feel uneasy... as does the new reality.

So is this HIV thing real or is Global Warming? How do I know when I am not sure any of my school ‘learning’ was real? 

“Oh yeah we did a PowerPoint on that... I think."
  
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