Virtual Reality: Defining and Applying

There is quite a lot out there at the moment about virtual reality.  News just today in the NY Times assesses the current position of this technology in Gartner’s hype cycle – apparently we are now in the “trough of disillusionment.”  Indeed, some have even claimed that this new tech may even be the “ultimate empathy machine”.  Okay.  As I said back in 2007, let’s get real about the virtual.

Defining it:  Virtual reality, to my mind, falls into three different categories.

  1. Augmented – Digital content applied through a visible overlay onto one’s current physical environment
  2. Immersive Video – 360 video as experienced through a head-mounted viewer.
  3. Synthetic – Completely computer-generated environments to be experienced on a flat screen or through a head-mounted viewer.

I know that there is a growing number of haptic systems that allow for additional input / feedback systems (Oculus and HTC Vive, for example), but I’m only talking at the moment about broad categories of virtual reality.  To that end, I’d like to share a few examples and offer some possible applications of these virtual reality technologies to learning.

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Lunches with Chuck Sullivan

The following was written hastily and with NO edits in 1998.  I had just started an office-based job after having taught elementary school for 9 years.  I had the great pleasure of working with Chuck in the summers of 1994-96.

My brief daily interludes from

my cubicle:  What would Pablobasic-cubicle

think of this ergonomically safe

climate controlled sound absorbing

cubist interior designer’s creation?


The close squareness the

quiet tapping, clicking, beeping

and buzzing of computers,spiced

by the occasional song of the fax.

One could quietly die in one’s

fantastically adjustable wheeled chair

and padded chair and maybe in

a day or two or a week someone

would notice that you had not

yet taken your break.


I’d like to take a break now,

before returning to previously

programmed material and activities

edited for your enjoyment and formatted

to fit your scream, to exit the

hall, to step out, to be

“outside the box” and mention

my little friend and personal

savior Chuck Sullivan.  Many

of you don’t know him, some of

you might, and certainly none of

you could appreciate him as

much as God Himself.


Chuck is a monk on sabbatical.

Chuck is a soldier of God’s fortune.

Chuck is gifted with the Word,

and lots of others.


Chuck builds the mile-high stadium

where The Game is played.  Life

wearing the face of a refugee, a nun,

a mother, a father, a milkman

a ball player a president or an addict,

and death wearing, well, a hood.


We’re all invited to the game,

and few of us attend.  We all

want to know what the score is,

but none of us wants to take to

the field.


A field of springtime beauty,

sun shining, breeze blowing

snowing petals of lily white dogwoods

down to the still cold eyelids

of the sacrificed child, asleep

in perpetuity at the new and

last home away from home.


Please don’t let the children of

Kosovo pay your price for loving

your God and hating your brother.


(Please consider getting your copy of Chuck’s Alphabet of Grace)


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Lessons from the track

Over the past few years, I’ve been able to realize a life-long dream of driving fast.  Er.  Driving fast, safely.  Lots of people drive fast – too fast – on public roads.  I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about going green on a closed track where your only objective is to go as fast as you can.

It started with my friends Mo and Charlie’s invitation to join them in autocross – a straightforward, come-as-you-are time trial on a flat course, dodging traffic cones.  You spend most of the day helping and preparing at the course, and then take 4 shots at the track – each run only lasting about a minute.  After a couple of years of that, and then a few years off with a work assignment that took me away, I came back to the US and decided to get into a form of auto racing that would get me more ‘seat time’.   Hello, Chump Car.

After turning wrenches, busting knuckles, multiple parts store memberships, and a whole bunch of camaraderie, my race team (myself plus a guy who runs a cancer research lab, and another guy that is a senior software implementation consultant) ran two endurance races this year in a car that was, well, manageable for us newbies.

After some reflection, I have realized that you can learn a lot about yourself, your teams, and your approach to the future from doing this kind of hair-raising sport:

  1.  The teamwork is the cake.  As our team spent time together wrestling engine

    Lots of time in this view.

    mounts into place, fussing with cam shafts and draining and re-draining coolant, I think it was Alex who said:  “This is the cake!  The racing is just the icing!”.   Lesson:  Take time with your teams.  Make the drudgery fun.  Realize the value of team discussions, shared responsibility, allocation of talent, and checking-in whenever big choices are in front.

  2. Make sure you can stop.  I learned this long ago, and we should’ve paid a bit more attention to it at the last race, where we ran out of brakes in the last of 7 hours on day  2.  Lesson:  While the glory may be all about forward momentum, the ability to slow down and even stop if you need to trumps ANYTHING that the engine and power train can deliver.  Slowing down to make turns is essential.  Hitting them hard to avoid a pile up is not only great for your personal safety – it keeps you in the race.
  3. Looks ain’t everything.  Look, there are lots of fancy cars out there.  In fact, there were 45 or more cars in the field when we raced. Most of them had a lot more money in them, were later models with bigger engines, better gear, and even better drivers 🙂  But when it came down to it, our time in the garage paid off.  We outlasted half the field in our last race.  Lesson:  Make sure what’s under the hood and behind the wheel are in good shape.  You may be slower than most, but it’s not about ultimate speed.  It’s about how long you’re there, and how many laps you turn.  (See results – Team Integrenader)
  4. Keep your eyes up!  When you’re really cooking down the track, and there are a lot of loud, fast cars VERY close to you (sorry, Miata, for the paint-trading in Atlanta), it’s easy to completely lose it – your body gets incredibly tense, your head drops down, your grip gets too tight, and your eyes focus, oh, about 20 feet in front of you.  That’s bad.  Lesson:  You drive where you look.  This is so terribly true.  If you only look at what’s right in front of you, you will go there.  No matter what.  And the ‘there’ can be another car, a wall, or worse!  Keeping your eyes above the fray, and off to the left, or right, up and down the straight – that’s where you want to be, and your body (and car) will follow.


    The Integrenader post-AMP race

  5. Hold your line.  There’s a crazy dance that occurs, typically at the end of a straight before the first big turn.  Drivers jockey for position and more or less get in each other’s way to try and get through the turn first.  If you picture the optimal ‘driving line’ of a track, you know what the most efficient, and fastest, route is on the course.  That’s what you want.  The ‘line’.  Some cars that are better equipped can take multiple fast lines, but there is one that is optimal.  Even in our slow-ish car, we had to hold the line and make it our competitors’ job to try and find a way around us.  Lessons:  There is an optimal way to do things that maximizes your speed and conserves your brakes.  It’s a ‘path of least resistance’.  Find it and stay in it as much as you can.  Also, not driving that line makes you unpredictable, and dangerous, to yourself and the other drivers.
  6. Give up your line.  If your mirrors are FULL of grilles, fenders and front air dams, maybe you need to step out of the line and let some faster folks go.  It’s called ‘blocking’ if you don’t.  Lesson:  Know when to yield.  Be a grown-up.  Enjoy the sport and the competition, but don’t deny reality.  Remember the long game.  This is just the icing.
  7. Let the pressure off.  When you first start out on the track, everything’s kind of cold.  You are, the engine is, the track is, your brakes are, and so are your tires.  Unless you’re really fancy with nitrogen in your tires, your tire pressures will change (increase) as you heat them up in the first few laps.  That changes how they, and your car, handle.  It changes how much grip you have on the road, and therefore how fast you can go.  Lesson:  It’s good to check the pressure, and if it’s too high, let some of it out.  This is a simple thing about workplace dynamics, project work and relationships.  When work or relationships get to an intense place, through stressful projects and circumstances, find the time to let some of that pressure off.  Stop the madness for a bit and go get a smoothie.  You’ll have much better grip when you get back into it.
  8. If the track is going sideways, you are now likely just a passenger.  I came over a hill after a fast 944 cut my line off in a turn.  I had too much speed, got my right front wheel over the apex into the ‘gators’, and that was all she wrote.  The rear end came around and now I was going sideways down the hill towards the next turn.  I went from driver to passenger really fast.  Lessons:  Know what to do when you have a different role.  Know what to do in a crisis.  This is talked about – the ‘what to do when’ scenarios – in the drivers’ meeting before the race starts.  Put both feet in

    Drivers’ Meeting

    (clutch/brakes) and try to keep the steering in a direction that will keep you out of trouble.  Perhaps similar ‘drivers meetings’ need to occur to help your team members know when they need to adjust their roles when a crisis or change arises.  (I ended up in a cloud of dust and grass.  Restarted the motor and became a driver again.)

  9. Cut corners.  Use the whole track.  Everyone is (hopefully) going the same direction, so going wide and cutting corners is REQUIRED if you want to be competitive.  Plus that is the fabled ‘driving line’ mentioned earlier.  Lesson:  Just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to drive on it.  The driving line is your strategy.  Find the optimal path to streamline things, and then go as fast as you can.
  10. Never cut corners.  I like to have fun, but I don’t want to die (and neither do my team mates).  So when it comes to safety and preparation, don’t cut corners – even if it slows you down.  We added an additional bar in our roll cage, added 3 fire extinguisher nozzles pointed toward the driver (and 2 at the engine), bought new 5-point harness straps, use a window net, bought new helmets, fireproof suits, socks, shoes and gloves.  Most of this is required, but some of this was elective on our part.  Lesson:  What are the practices, equipment, processes, structures that are non-negotiables?  How can you have the maximum fun with the greatest security?


    Team Integrenader:  Mostly cake, and just a little icing!



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There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” -Isaac Asimov, scientist and writer (1920-1992)

*Coulrophobia:  (n) The fear of clowns.

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Education for Effect

Having been in the business of executive and management development for 18 years, I’m quite familiar with the questions clients have about return on investment (ROI).   We routinely include positioning on this in our work proposals, and follow through with components of program design that are explicitly intended to answer that question.  While some program outcomes can be readily measured, others take more time to see impact – so there is a range of applications that can and should be brought to bear as education service providers do their work.

Fundamentally, however, there is often a mindset shift that is required of education service providers.  It is all too easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the event of education, and not on the impact it should have.  Think about how many resources are wrapped up in answering questions about the who, when, what, where and how of education.   Event planners, internal learning and development staff, assessment experts, systems engineers and support staff – all focused (and rightly so) on the delivery of the education.  But what about the ‘why’ of the intervention?

Mindsets need to change about why we, as learning and development leaders and providers, are here.  We are not here to provide learning events alone.  We are here to drive successful, behavioral impact in the business to improve business performance, on whatever metrics have driven the need for learning in the first place.  This has a few critical implications:

  • Often, different conversations with different stakeholders are needed.   You really need to be asking the question:  “As a result of this learning and development initiative, what organizational performance effect are you hoping to realize?”  That may mean that you need to talk to business leaders, and help forge or strengthen the alignment between the L&D function and the line.
  • Your designs, however beautiful and compelling, will be insufficient as long as they do not incorporate the insights from answering the question above.  No learning intervention design should leave the shop without a clear articulation of how you are going to assess the impact of the learning at the organizational level.

These can be tough conversations, especially in ‘hardened’ organizations where traditional educational models reign and budgets and infrastructure are relatively secure.  It can, in fact, be quite threatening to put your reputation on the line, as a learning and development professional, by putting real business impact metrics in place.  However, this is our responsibility – to do anything less would be a disservice.   And, with the many options we have available to us for ensuring that there is accountability, support and process to favor effective application of learning at work, we really don’t have any excuse.

Further good resources here:  Arun’s work at Design4Performance; Conrad and Bob’s 2012 article on the 5 moments of learning need.

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Towards a Pedagogy of Technology, 2

Next installment in this mini-series.  This one is about critically assessing the pedagogical utility of the technology at hand.

Claim 2:  Every tool has its purpose.  Or purposes.

Effectively – every tool has its purpose.  Some can serve more than one, from a pedagogical standpoint.  Thankfully, some good work has been done on this front:  The SAMR model (thank you, Dr. Ruben Puentedura) gives us a framework for thinking about whether the tech at hand is a

  • Substitute – for some existing method or practice.  Think about how polling platforms on mobiles provide a replacement for hand distributing polling questions, or just counting physical hands.
  • Augmentation – enhancing a particular method or practice.  The same example above can be applied here.  New polling tech doesn’t require people to be in the same physical location.  Polling is now ‘augmented’ to reach beyond a physical classroom.
  • Modification – significantly changing the method.  So, think about using shared Google docs to compose a paper.  The rapid collaborative nature of that approach to composition is significantly different than doing hard-copy edits / reviews.
  • Redefinition – my personal favorite:  tech that allows us to do things that were previously undoable.  Think about digital geo-location scavenger hunts.

More recently, that model informs a display created by Allan Carrington that captures a vast array of modern tech, and classifies them along the SAMR categories.  Click here for a PDF of that.  Carrington has done the yeoman’s task of combining a list of modern tech, aligning those with the SAMR framework, detailing what activities these apps and technologies allow, and also what action verbs (think Bloom’s Taxonomy) are implied in these.

For those of us in the adult education arena, we must, must, MUST not fall into the all-too-common trap of recreating bad pedagogy in new technology.  For example, some years back, a tragic thing occurred when a brand new and amazing technology – 3D, avatar-based environments – came into being.  Universities and institutions around the world leapt into action, and nearly every one that I visited (either in Second Life, or in Protosphere, or others) set as their first task to replicate the very buildings of their campuses, complete with tight classrooms with fixed chairs…. in rows…. facing a wall where, guess what, some version of PowerPoint could be displayed.

I nearly cried.

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Towards a Pedagogy of Technology

This is the first in a series of ideas I’d like to share about how to position technology tools in the design and delivery of education.

Four claims for better learning design:

Claim 1: There is an ‘e’ in learning.  It is time for us to move beyond the 1990’s interpretation of technology-mediated learning design.  We still say ‘e-learning’ and that implies often (unfortunately, and understandably) a sub-standard and lonely learning experience – picture the poor soul subjected to hours of ‘click-and-learn’ under the buzzing fluorescent light of the after-hours office.

E-Learning t-shirt 2001

A t-shirt from 2001 from a very recognizable high-tech firm (who shall remain nameless).

Here’s a simple way of thinking about it: There is an ‘e’ in learning.  You may think it trite, but my contention is that as long as we continue to differentiate what is ‘electronic’ from whatever the rest of the learning is, we will continue to constrain our thinking and handicap our designs.  It is our opportunity, as learning designers, to prove this to the world.

Fortunately, that should be easy with more brainpower devoted to appropriately innovative (attention, here, as innovation needs to follow learner context rather than lead with shiny tech) uses of new technologies, the extensions of learning outside the classroom (as referenced in 70, 20, 10) and care in how we develop the designers in our businesses and our network of education providers to operate in these models.

This calls upon us to go beyond content production and to deeply examine the range of tools available to the learner participants, and assess their pedagogical value.

More on that later.

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