Let’s Boldly Go… to the Education Holodeck

Boettcher, J. V. (1998). Let’s Boldly Go… to the Education Holodeck. Syllabus. Vol. 11: 18 – 22.

Student-Centered Learning in Dewey’s Holodeck – It Doesn’t Get Any Better than This—Now!


Here I am at last… on an Educational Holodeck modeled after the famous Holodeck of the Starship Enterprise.  I have been thinking and dreaming about this ever since I watched Star Trek reruns with my children in the late 1980s.  And how is it possible I am so lucky as to have as my holographic tour guide — my favorite educator and philosopher Dr. John Dewey.


John Dewey (Let’s call him Dr. Dewey from now on.) is very animated as he leads me through a series of demonstrations in the newly dedicated educational holodeck called,  “Lasting Experiences, Ltd.”  Dr. Dewey begins by taking a deep breath and saying that now at last, we have a set of educational tools worthy of addressing his dreams of creating really effective and individualized student-centered learning experiences.


Dr. Dewey says that one of the key concepts he wrote about early in the 20th century was the importance of continuity in learning—providing a continuum of learning experiences for a student — so that a student could build his knowledge, brick by brick, layer by layer, synapse by synapse. Even back then, he continued, we knew that students needed for effective learning — an  “orderly and ordered set of activities that could result in the completion of a learning process.”  Learning experiences —almost throughout the 20th century— were more a series of random events, that may or may not fit the internal continuity of structure needed by students. We hoped that students would learn, and students did learn, but it was not very orderly, and many students missed a great deal. Most importantly, many students missed the orderly development of a rich and broad foundation of knowledge that would support them in becoming effective lifelong self-learners.


The challenge back then was dealing with even small groups of students made it difficult to provide that continuum of learning that truly could efficiently meet the needs of individual students.


Now, he says, look at what happens here in the Lasting Experiences Holodeck!  Dewey stops before—what looks like an old airport security check point system.  As students step through this arch, they pause, and are recognized by the system.  Then they hear their mentor’s voice welcoming them and accompanying them to the section of the holodeck that is being individually and dynamically prepared for them. Dr. Dewey explains that this is a security and identification point. As the students pause, the system recognizes them by their eyes, searches for their appropriate mentor, and recreates that mentor in holographic form. The student in front of us goes off with a holographic mentor of Gordon Moore, the famous CEO of Intel in the late 20th century.


Anticipating that I might object to such isolated and generated learning experiences, Dr. Dewey quickly explains.  He says that students must have a variety of learning experiences. The LE Holodeck is used for their conceptual development and problem solving experiences. The holodeck knows what aims or goals the students have and creates via artificial intelligence (AI) the types of experiences needed by the student to build the next layer of knowledge and experience. The AI scenarios are integrated learning experiences often combining two, three or more disciplines—leveraging the interdisciplinary nature of most problem solving and creativity.


At this point, Dr. Dewey digresses.  He says that it is important to know one other concept that really informs the AI scenarios here in the Lasting Experiences Holodeck.


In the mid-20th century, he said, another educational theorist by the name of Lev Vygotsky developed the learning concept of “The Zone of Proximal Development.” Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) was that the act of learning occurred at the intersection of four components: the Learner, the Teacher, Content, and a Problem that depended on the content. The ZPD was a zone that represented the difference (or the gap) between what a learner could do individually and what could be done —by a learner —with the help of a more experienced person, usually a teacher or another expert. This zone might be thought of as the next layer of bricks, or the next sprout of new growth in the brain, or the development of a whole new area of knowledge. This concept also clarified the importance of the role of a teacher—in that the teacher was essential to more rapid and more effective learning than a learner could do on his own.


This concept helped teachers understand the importance of Dewey’s own basic design principle of the “continuity of learning experiences.”

This concept of the ZPD also reinforces the concept of learning readiness with which it is closely associated. The readiness principle says that a learner needs to be at a point of readiness for learning certain material. Put another way, a learner cannot learn isolated facts or one might say, isolated “bricks” easily, or integrate them usefully for the long term and use them in any meaningful way. A learner can learn those “facts” or bricks or sprout new growth only if the knowledge can be related to knowledge or experience that students already know.  Vygotsky’s principle of the Zone of Proximal Development suggests, that, in fact, the zone of learning possibilities for an individual learner might be a fairly narrow zone.  On the other hand, it also suggests that the more we know, the more that we can know or come to know.


Dewey said, that, for example, as they had been experimenting with earlier versions of the mentoring and AI software that learners became frustrated in one of two situations—when the situation was too obvious or simple, or when the situation was too complex and the requirements too demanding.  In the first case, learners would lose interest and search for more complexity, sometimes getting significantly off track, and sometimes misbehaving and causing trouble.  In the second case, that of too much complexity, learners would make very basic mistakes due to not understanding the core concepts and principles.


So the appropriate band or zone for learning needs to be carefully assessed.  Over time, the artificial intelligence software has been improved and is still improving in its ability to assess just what zone of learning is possible for students, and to optimize the learning time on task.


At this point, I was becoming anxious to move on. (Maybe we were getting out of my zone!) I saw learners going with their holographic mentors into special rooms called CAVEs.  The students in these rooms were interacting with what appeared to be live action scenarios with their mentors. Dr. Dewey —sensing my impatience, said, and oh, yes, let’s take a closer look at these CAVEs.  This is where most of the students’ interaction between their mentors and the content and the problems actually occur.  The second core design principle underlying efficient learning is that of interactivity.   These CAVEs actualize that principle.


CAVEs were first developed in the late 20th century. They actually were early precursors of this more advanced holodeck. (I still remember some of my early experiences in such environments—riding a pterodactyl over some ancient castles in Germany, and tending a 3-D garden with some 3D friends.) Originally the word CAVE was derived from CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment. The first CAVEs were room-sized advanced visualization tools that created the illusion of complete ” immersion” in a virtual environment using high-resolution, stereoscopic projection and 3D computer graphics. Inside these CAVEs, a user can experience the effect of being in a totally generated environment.  We have kept the name CAVE to indicate a specific category of holodecks for educational purposes.  Here is one CAVE, for example, designed for the learning of core concepts at the intersection of physics, math and chemistry.  As you can see, we have tried to move beyond the concept of a single discipline of study requiring students to solve real-life complex problems. As most problems have many possible effective solutions, students can play with scenarios of various solutions. Over here is another CAVE focusing more on the humanities, with interviews with famous 20th century artists, such as Monet, and Degas. Students here also experience the process of recreating paintings similar to that artist style, using all the new digital tools.


We have another popular CAVE at the intersection of artificial intelligence, education, computer science, and media.  We need people in the 21st century that bring the perspective of multiple disciplines and create more CAVE experiences.  You are aware, of course, that some of the most rapid innovation occurs at the interaction of the study of disparate disciplines. We hope to encourage that type of innovation by these interdisciplinary CAVE experiences.


Dewey continued, I don’t want you to miss one of the most exciting CAVEs for our study of the learning process.  The software in this CAVE has the knowledge and experience of over 400 educational theorists, cognitive psychologists, and neurologists.  Yet we still do not know nearly enough about just how to design and create learning scenarios for optimal efficient learning of concepts, and for the learning of problem solving skills.  Some of the questions we are still researching include those suggested by a person by the name of Henry Kelly in the Office of Science and Technology of the US government back in April of 1998 at a Net98 Conference. Dr. Kelly suggested that it was time, indeed, past time, to elevate the importance of research on education and learning.  Dr. Kelly argued passionately that our society needs to be able to respond more flexibly to the explosion of learning demands that have been brought on by the information age.  Dr. Kelly encouraged people at that conference to join together to more effectively formulate, articulate and get funded advanced and innovative research on learning processes, and learning software and hardware, and networking technology.  We are now benefiting from some of the studies funded back in the late 1990s.


Let’s go back to my concepts that I really felt were important back in the early 20th century and that we can now do effectively. One of the most famous quotes from me was,  “The aim of education is the development of reflective, creative, responsible thought.” I am glad this particular quote was selected from the volumes of writing that I did. In this one sentence I tried to capture the ultimate goal of education—for every level of the educational experience. To achieve this aim means that students must learn a system of knowledge. I believe that educational experiences are best when they combine these two characteristics — continuity of learning and interaction with others in the learning experience. The “interaction” characteristic highlights the importance of the dialogue and communication underlying learning; the continuity characteristic emphasizes that the individual learner must be viewed as the key design element. In other words, we must design instruction so that each individual learner can effectively build on what they know, and have the resources and assistance to learn, or —in Vygotsky’s words — to navigate the Zone of Proximal Development.


In summary, this Educational Holodeck from Star Trek provides the most effective scenario for student-focused learning that we have had.  The environment accommodates itself to the readiness of the student. The environment “meets the student where he/ or she is and takes the student to the next step of learning in an integrated experience–guided by an individual mentor.


You might well ask,  “If that is the case, just where is the teacher in this environment? Is it possible that the role and function of the teacher is to “create the environment, the personality of the learning experience?  To create the joining of time, place, the goal of the student and the learning to be done?


During the course of the tour I did notice that many of the students were in fact quite young.  When I remarked on this to Dr. Dewey, he said that yes, they were young. That as the 21st century was beginning, that it was obvious that our young people were staying in school until they were in their mid 20s even into their 30’s for advanced degrees.  As the concept of lifelong learning became accepted, we re-instituted the practices of apprenticeships and sabbaticals—encouraging students to begin work as young as 15 in their chosen fields, and then taking sabbaticals of 4-6 months to upgrade their skills and advance to the next levels of their professions or to change /adapt their chosen professions.


As we were finishing up the tour of the Holodeck, I asked Dr. Dewey about the costs involved in the development and operation of the Holodeck.  That one of the important goals in the late 20th century was for effective, efficient and cost effective education.  Dr. Dewey shook his head a little sadly at that question.  He shared that the costs for effective and efficient education were still increasing.  He said that he hoped, however, with the next 2-3 three cycles of the hardware and software. over the next 5 years would at long last see some cost efficiencies. In the meantime, we have made learning more efficient and effective, even if not less costly.


Dewey, John.Democracy and Education. The Macmillan Co., 1916. Retrieved on September 18, 2008 from http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/publications/dewey.html

Vygotsky, Lev S. Language and Thought, MIT press, 1962