Classroom Technology

Q and A: Imagining a Virtual Education Oasis

February 08, 2012 5 min read
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The thing to know about author Ernest Cline is that he owns a DeLorean. Well, that, and he conceived a future where everyone who can will learn online.

That vision might seem exaggerated, but as virtual education continues to break into the mainstream of K-12 and higher education, and expands rapidly in job-training programs, his imaginary view of the future of education might have a stronger connection to reality than one might think at first glance.

In Cline’s novel Ready Player One, schools are built like palaces on the violence-free planet Ludus, and students take daytrips through both the Louvre and the human heart. These are but some of the benefits offered by the OASIS, a massive, multiplayer online game where most people in 2044 choose to spend their existence, away from the troubles of the real world. The OASIS combines the scope of a galaxy with the immersion of the Matrix; it is a near-perfect virtual reality.

Ernest Cline is a writer and techie with a particular passion about education and how it might look in the not-too-distant future.

A product of 1980’s Ohio, Cline grew up digesting comic books, science fiction, and the rock band Rush. His passion for “Star Wars” drove him to write a screenplay about a group of friends attempting to break in to George Lucas’ house to watch “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” before it gets released in theaters. (The story was picked up and released as the 2008 film “Fanboys.”)

Cline recently took time to answer questions in a phone interview with Digital Directions contributor Ross Brenneman, who read Ready Player One last fall.

In an interview for Boingboing, you cite the idea that “they say when you write a novel, whether or not you mean to, you reveal everything about yourself.” What does Ready Player One reveal about your high school education?

Cline: That I spent most of it playing Dungeons & Dragons, instead of doing my homework? I actually had kind of an idyllic small-town America high school experience. My hometown was rural and isolated, and there were only a few hundred kids in my graduating class. It was a lot like the movie “Footloose,” except there was no law against dancing. Which probably would have been a good idea in my case.

What I remember most about high school now is that everyone seemed to spend a lot more time trying to fit in with their peers and avoid ridicule than they did on their education. The brightest kids who were the most eager to learn often ended up hating school, because its brutal social arena overshadowed everything else. That’s something I wanted to explore in my book.

Are the schools on Ludus your ideal institutions? If not, what is?

Cline: The virtual schools on Ludus were definitely my attempt to imagine the sort of school every nerdy kid would love to attend. A bully-free learning environment where only your brain goes to class, while your body stays at home. A school where every classroom is a holodeck, and no one ever nails you with a spitball in the back of the head.

But the downside for a kid who attended a school like that would be the total lack of true human interaction and socialization. Navigating the high school maze of cliques, clubs, burnouts, and bullies helps prepare you for life after high school. In my experience, you end up using those skills a lot more than calculus or Latin.

You write that “unlike their real-world counterparts, most of the OASIS public school teachers seemed to genuinely enjoy their jobs, probably because they didn’t have to spend half their time acting as baby sitters and disciplinarians.” That idea might resonate with several educators. What made you decide to write this, and what would you say to teachers who feel that way?

Cline: I put that in the book because it’s something I distinctly remember about my favorite high school teachers. The best teachers, the ones who obviously loved to teach, always seemed to be fighting an uphill battle in their classrooms, because of constant interruptions by a few dim-witted, hormonally imbalanced Neanderthals who had no interest in learning. I could see how much it frustrated the teachers and wore them down. It was also frustrating for the kids who were there to learn.

Like a lot of people, I’m pretty horrified at the way teachers are treated in this country, and by how little they’re paid. I saw Davis Guggenheim’s documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” after I’d already finished my book, and it made me realize our education system was even worse off than I’d imagined. All across the land, overcrowded, underfunded schools are turning into “failure factories.” How did this happen?

A handful of states have or are considering laws that would require at least one online course for graduation, and online learning in general is growing in popularity. What do you think of the trend? Are you a proponent of online learning? (Even if it’s not at the level of the OASIS just yet?)

This interview with fiction writer Ernest Cline begins a Digital Directions Q&A feature. The aim is to present writers, thinkers, and educators who bring fresh perspectives about what education, and educational technology, should or might look like in five, 20, or 50 years. You are invited to suggest names of people for interviews.

Send suggestions to kbushweller@epe.org.

Cline: Both my wife and mother-in-law are university professors, and they’ve both taught students who “Skype in” to their classrooms, with great results. And I have several friends who have taken courses in online universities and loved the experience. I think there are certain subjects that can be taught “remotely” like that. But there’s also nothing quite as powerful as having a teacher lean over your shoulder and show you how to do something. That sort of teaching will never go out of style.

Which of the OASIS field trips (traveling to the Louvre, et cetera), would you most like to do?

Cline: I love the idea of a high school astronomy class where you actually get to visit all of the different planets you’re studying. I would also have loved to learn biology by traveling around inside the human body like they do in “Fantastic Voyage.”

The late Steve Jobs is clearly one of the inspirations for the OASIS creator, James Halliday. Mr. Jobs has had a steady influence on education. How did he influence yours?

Cline: Steve Jobs has been a huge inspiration to me my entire life, starting when my elementary school got its first Apple II computer, and I stayed late every day to learn how to program it. From the start, he was one of the titans of the new computer age, and his partnership with Steve Wozniak has always fascinated me. In my book, the characters of James Halliday and [his business partner] Ogden Morrow were directly inspired by Jobs and Wozniak, along with some of the details of their collaboration. I’ll never have the chance to hand Mr. Jobs a signed copy of Ready Player One someday and thank him personally.

Would you ever imagine your book being taught in high school?

Cline: No, I’ve never imagined that. At least, not until this moment. It would be pretty incredible. And I wonder if it could also somehow retroactively raise my high school grade point average, which was pretty abysmal.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as Imagining a Virtual Education Oasis

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