Virtual and augmented reality in education: huge benefits, but also ethical concerns

Over the last decade, people have been suggesting that digital immersive technologies (DITs) such as virtual reality and augmented reality could supplement – or even replace – a variety of education activities of schools and universities. These technologies can create lifelike virtual environments for the students. What are the opportunities, but also: what are the challenges?

We asked Matthew J. Dennis, assistant professor in ethics of technology at the Technical University Eindhoven (Netherlands) and speaker at the workshop of the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) “Human-computer confluence in education” on Wednesday 27 September at 15h CET.

What are the digital immersive technologies we are talking about with regard to education?

Matthew Dennis profileMatthew J. Dennis: In my research, I situate them on a spectrum from fully immersive to partially immersive – this helps identify important commonalities and differences between the ethical deployment of these products.

Let’s start with fully immersive digital technologies (FIDTs). This term is reserved for virtual reality (VR), which recreates an intensely lifelike perception of the real world using a VR headset. The wearer can usually move around, explore and manipulate virtual objects, which further increases its apparent reality.

If we look at VR products that are on the development horizon, they will soon include sophisticated haptic, aural, and olfactory components, simulating real life even better. Although existing VR technology already has astonishing abilities, within 10 to 15 years it is likely that it can recreate all kinds of sensuous experiences with such a level of clarity that they will be prima facie hard to distinguish from non-virtual environments.

Partially immersive technologies (PIDTs) are at the other end of the spectrum as they are less technically sophisticated, although they may well prove to be more valuable in education practices. This technology overlays digital information in the real world, examples include headsets and glasses with augmented reality (AR) functions, such as the pioneering (now discontinued) Google Glass.

Commercially speaking, it is worth noting this is the direction that Apple has moved in with its recently released Vision Pro, which is a headset with sophisticated AR functionality. The promotion and design of this product has so far been tailored to the education, business, and entertainment markets, at least in terms of the apps that it supports. As well as Apple, I anticipate that there will be an explosion of other companies offering FIDTs and PIDTs to serve the education markets over the next decade.

What are the advantages and risks of using these technologies in education?

Matthew J. Dennis: There is no doubt that education stands to benefit hugely from both FIDTs and PIDTs. Allowing children and young people to be digitally immersed in the topic of their study – allowing them for example to get first-hand experience of “The Large Hadron Collider” or a simulated solar system – has many attractive features.

Not only does it reduce the need for expensive (and environmentally detrimental) trips to CERN or to a physical planetarium, VR technology can also allow children and young people to do things that required either sophisticated, imaginative abilities or that would be simply unavailable to them. Moreover, children and young people typically enjoy this use of technology, in part because they are already familiar with it in computer games – perhaps children also have a natural affinity towards technologies that adults and their parents are unfamiliar with.

Nevertheless, there have been serious ethical concerns about how these technologies are deployed in schools and universities, which have not only come from ethicists, but also from educators themselves. For example, some point to the dangers of engaging with commercial partners who are eager to provide digital educational environments on a large scale. Many ethicists, including myself and some of my colleagues of the ESDIT (Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technologies) research programme, find these arguments compelling: deploying commercial DITs in educational environments greatly increases the potential for the surveillance of a range of intimate data from young and potentially vulnerable individuals, data which have so far been inaccessible to tech companies. This data is extremely valuable for them as it captures information about a future generation of consumers.

Another ethical concern is that DITs can be used to digitally recreate violence or sexual crimes, in a way that glorifies them or connects them to entertainment. But such ethical concerns usually do not apply to the kinds of DITs that are used in education environments.

Could DITs change education extensively?

Matthew J. Dennis: One thing that interests me as a philosopher and ethicist is how deploying DITs in a targeted way stands to radically improve ethical education. Philosophers have always regarded the ability to “see the world through another’s eyes” as a key ethical ability – connected to the moral virtues of empathy and compassion – and DITs clearly have the ability to accentuate this capacity in unprecedented ways. This can be done synchronically, of course, and this technology has already been deployed in many struggles relating to social justice. Examples of this include using VR to see the world through the eyes of historically marginalised groups, to see what it feels like to be subject to discrimination.

I am also interested in the recent use of DITs to collectively educate us about slow-burning environmental challenges, such as climate change or the impact on human life of plummeting biodiversity. It can be difficult to explain the urgency of these issues to both adults and young people, but DITs allow us to take a first-personal point of view of the kinds of environmental challenges future generations will face.

This creates opportunities to shake us out of our own time-bound perspective, allowing us to see the future world through the eyes of an individual who is yet to be born – through the eyes of our children or our grandchildren.

From an ethical point of view, this opens new horizons for moral education, which is perhaps an early indication of how DITs can improve our moral abilities and our ability to live consciously in the face of future ethical challenges. There has been much fascinating public-engagement work done in the Netherlands on this topic, including by Next Nature Network.

What could we do on a European level?

Matthew J. Dennis: For the past 20 years, Europe has led the way in the regulation of digital technologies and the use of personal data. This has not only occurred via the influence of the EU general data protection regulation (GDPR), but through the so-called “Brussels effect” more widely, as regulated entities, especially corporations, end up complying with EU laws even outside the EU for a variety of reasons.

I see an analogous opportunity in the case of the regulation of DITs in education. There are strong ethical and political reasons that mitigate against allowing tech companies to regulate themselves in this area. The dangers of letting tech incumbents and other interested parties create what Wijnand IJsselsteijn, my Technical University Eindhovencolleague, calls, a “Virtual Wild West” is very real. We have already seen rapid commercial exploitation in screen-based technology and artificial intelligence has been used to create applications that keep ethicists up at night. Given the power of digital immersive technologies, some regulation is clearly appropriate, especially in the context of virtual depictions of sexual or violent crime.

In addition to this, there is another area in which European policy makers could play a decisive role in the education context. This concerns setting standards for the intelligent deployment of these technologies in classrooms. Perhaps the key issue here is ensuring that digital immersive technologies are not regarded as a way to replace the core aspects of education with virtual equivalents.

Unfortunately, there was a huge drive on the part of tech, companies and lobbyists to promote their products in this way during the Covid-19 pandemic. One thing many of us learned from this, is that many of these “digital classrooms” and other immersive educational environments are ineffective, unless they are robustly integrated into a more traditional educational framework. This has often left national governments and local authorities saddling the costs of high-tech equipment without it being able to fulfil its original promises.

There’s always been a tension with relying on the commercial sector for products and services that require long-term use: the lifecycle of a company or its product can often be far shorter than the amount of time an education institution will want to reliably use it.

Wednesday 27 September at 15h CET: Workshop of the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) “Human-computer confluence in education”. Watch it online, live or the recording.

Leave a Reply