Humans living in abject poverty are warring over the few resources they have left. There’s an energy crisis, and fossil fuels are in low supply. The weather has gone to extremes.
This is the setting of Ernest Cline’s science-fiction novel, “Ready Player One,” where human civilization is in decline, and life in virtual reality beats any day in the real world.
This page-turning novel (which is being turned into a film by Steven Spielberg) follows a geeky protagonist named Wade Watts as he undertakes a mission to win billions by finding an egg hidden inside a virtual video-game universe called the OASIS.
Among the many rich themes explored in the story is education, painting a picture that could provide lessons for how teachers and school leaders design for education today.
EdSurge spoke with two educators who are working to merge ideas from science fiction novels with our reality:
- Amanda Licastro, an assistant professor of digital rhetoric at Stevenson University, in Maryland. She encourages students to draw from science fiction in the writing courses she teaches and has entire assignments built around Cline’s novel.
- Sophia Brueckner, a former Google engineer, and artist who currently works as an assistant professor at Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Her work teaching engineering students to prototype from science fiction has been featured on NPR, WIRED, the Atlantic and a few other publications.
Listen to a complete version of the interview above, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Read highlights from the conversation below (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).
EdSurge: How are you merging science fiction and reality in the courses you teach?
Brueckner: For many years, I've been teaching a class called Science Fiction Prototyping. In that class, we read a lot of science fiction novels, short stories, and we watch science fiction movies and TV. We talk about these author's predictions for the future and for how technology is going to change. Then I have students build functional prototypes inspired by what they've read. The goal is to really teach students, who are going to be the designers and innovators and engineers creating the technology that we're all going to use someday, trying to get them to learn to think extrapolatively about what happens when technology scales up. When you make a design choice, thinking about what it'll mean if tens of millions of people are using it or hundreds of people are using it hundreds of times a day. I really want the students to start thinking about the ethical impact of the things they decide to put into the world.
Licastro: My students do very similar work in my English classes. They're reading, watching and thinking about science fiction, and then they actually do prototype their own technologies. In my case, they make their own virtual reality applications and we also prototype the future of the book, so what will the book look like in 20, 30, 40 years?
One of the main aims of looking at this through humanity's perspective is we always start with the question, what makes us human? When we're reading science fiction, we're thinking about what is the humanity in the science fiction? What separates us from robots or what makes? A lot of times, that leads to really fruitful discussions about quality and differences between gender, sexuality, and of course, race, in these different texts.
Why do you teach from Cline's book specifically? What can educators and innovators take from his description of education?
Licastro: I actually came to this from the angle of being fascinated with virtual reality and experimenting with virtual reality, which led me to Cline's book. In looking for texts that integrate virtual reality, I wanted one that would really speak to my student population, which as Stevenson University is a lot of first-generation students, a lot of students who may not have a lot of exposure to technology, either from inner-city Baltimore or from the rural suburbs of Maryland. I find that Ready Player One really does have a voice that speaks to them specifically. They come from these dilapidated schools that Wade Watts is in. They understand bullying very intimately and do fear bullying both in physical and cyberspaces. They also see the climate change that Ernest Cline is talking about and they see school is maybe not necessarily meeting their needs. While they may come in as technophobes, not really embracing technology fully, they can see the potential in Ernest Cline's future. They see the OASIS as something interesting— safe, for some of them to be in.
In Cline’s book, the protagonist describes his experiences in the real world on what's happening in the OASIS classes and then kind of ask you to comment on it. From the audiobook:
“During our world history lesson that morning, Mr. Avenovich loaded up a standalone simulation so that our class could witness the discovery of King Tut's tomb by archaeologists in Egypt in AD 1922. The day before, we visited the same spot in 1334 BC and had seen Tutankhamen's empire in all its glory. In my next class, biology, we traveled through a human heart and watched it pumping from the inside just like in that old movie Fantastic Voyage. In art class, we toured the Louvre while all of our avatars wore silly berets. In my astronomy class, we visited each of Jupiter's moons. We stood on the volcanic surface of Io while our teacher explained how the moon has originally formed. As our teacher spoke to us, Jupiter loomed behind her, filling half the sky. It's Great Red Spot, turning slowly just over her left shoulder.”
In this part, Wade is describing all the amazing trips he's going on with his class and how it's changed the teaching experience. Now I know there is Google Expeditions and Facebook is working on some interactive avatar experiences in VR. Sophia, how close are we to actually having a virtual school like the one Cline describes in this novel?
Brueckner: Actually, I think pretty close. We have a CAVE environment at U of M and I actually already take the students to experience it as part of class. I've seen all the different virtual environments that different departments have made. There's a simulation to actually fly through a human body, to explore different molecules zoomed up. The technology is there. I think it just needs to become cheaper and more accessible.
Licastro: I really couldn't agree more with Sophia. I have been implementing virtual reality across the curriculum for the last year, and my students fly through the human brain. We go to the Louvre. We do almost everything that Wade describes in that clip. It's all already available. Really nothing he describes isn't possible at this current time, but as Sophia says, it is much more expensive right now than is tenable to give every student a headset. There are still limits on the technology. It still gives a lot of people motion sickness. There is a learning curve to using it. The accessibility barrier does need to come down before we have every student in virtual reality.
Amanda, you’ve said there’s a learning curve that you see with your students when they first interact in VR, particularly given the demographics of students that you work with. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Licastro: My students who are video game players can easily put on an HTC Vive, pick up the controllers and run wild in a virtual simulation. However, a lot of my students do not meet that description. Both professors and students who I introduce virtual reality to for the first time, they have trouble orienting themselves in the virtual space, learning how to move in the virtual space, learning how to use the controllers as their hands in the virtual space. These things are easy to teach when you have the time and space, but when you're looking at asking a professor to take time out of their class to make this possible, you do have to think about that.
Whenever I'm doing a virtual-reality demonstration, I ask for 40 minutes to an hour to get all of the students set up with their headsets, oriented in the virtual space, and then the learning can actually begin. It is not just something where you can throw headsets in a classroom and expect everyone to immediately start the learning objectives that you're aiming for. You do need to do a little of that work explaining how the technology functions and making sure that everyone has the vision requirements, the hearing requirements, the physical requirements.
Sophia, as an engineer, do you see flaws in Cline's design or things that are just almost impossible to create from his description of schooling in the future?
Brueckner: I think one of the things that Cline didn't focus on is the level of harassment that exists on the internet. It's there a little bit, but I think considering the current status of harassment on the internet and online bullying, I think he didn't really get into that enough and what mechanisms would be there to protect students especially if they were in these environments.
Licastro: I think Cline says that you can just mute bullies, you just press the mute button when someone's harassing you. Of course, that doesn't teach a student to properly deal with that interaction. If we all just turn off our Twitter accounts, sure, we'd be safe but then we're not doing the work of engaging with these trolls and trying to make the change that's necessary. While the mute's kind of an easy out for Cline to continue the storyline, but that's not really a long-term solution.
Brueckner: Yeah. I agree. I think he avoided a very difficult topic for the sake of the story.
Sophia, in your classes when students are prototyping from science fiction, have you seen any patterns with the way students pull from that? Does it expand their thinking?
Brueckner: Well, one of the things I've been most struck by in my class is sometimes we read these books like Cline's, for example, or other stories that are more dystopian, and the students very often will say, "I just don't see how this is going to happen. I just can't see anything else possibly happening." A lot of them believe these dystopian futures are actually inevitable. If someone believes this dystopian future is inevitable, I mean it's unlikely that we will be able to work towards a different future. For me, part of the reason I teach the course is because I'm trying to get these students more used to envisioning alternative futures that are more positive perhaps. Students really have to be able to at least envision them if we're even going to have any hope of preventing some of these dystopian futures.