As a full-time math teacher, I can now read novels for the pure fun of it. Long gone are the days when I would pour over the readings required by my professors in college & university, carefully scrutinizing and over-analyzing every word and phrase. Reading for content  sucks the fun out of reading, and when that happens, you no longer allow yourself to be immersed in the exciting trials & tribulations of the author’s characters. When I received an iPad Mini for Christmas a couple of years ago, my love affair for reading was rekindled, a digital library of titles at my fingertips, Science Fiction & Fantasy novels my guilty pleasures….

Ready Player One…but right after I turn off my PS4.

I’ve always been a gamer. For my 5th birthday, my parents got me an Atari 2600. I spent countless hours playing Pac-Man, Defender, and Asteroids (I easily bested 100,000 points). My first computer was Commodore’s Vic-20, where games were on cassette tapes, programming a piano was a major achievement, and hooking up the self-contained computer/keyboard to our television was an event. I still own my original NES, complete with classic titles as Super Mario Bros., Ghosts N’ Goblins, and The Legend of Zelda. I am a quintessential child from the 80s.

So when I recently stumbled upon a book that combined my two favorite pastimes, I knew I couldn’t go wrong. Ready Player One by by Ernest Cline is a story about a post-modern version of Earth that stands crumbling due to society’s over-indulgence of its natural resources. Large metropolitan areas are ghost towns, the majority of people living in RV skyscrapers called The Stacks, so named for the way the mobile homes are piled one on top of the other. The human race on the brink of extinction – hmmm – where have we seen this one before?

What makes this book unique is how the author decides to incorporate technology into the story. Ready Player One tells the tale of Wade Watt, a high school senior who, like everyone else, is trying to get by in a world devoid of opportunity. Forced to live with an alcoholic aunt because his birth parents have fallen victim to other vices, Wade does well in school and just wants to be left alone (like any other typical teeneager). To escape his dreary reality, Wade spends the majority of his time in the OASIS….

The OASIS is a virtual reality world where (much like World of Warcraft) people can live out their lives however they see fit. Through their avatars (Wade’s is Parzival), people can shop, fall in love, and have a career all within the confines of this completely digital world. People can choose the appearance, age, race, sex, and look of their avatar, making it look as much (or as little) like themselves as they want. Of course, most choose to forego their real identities and strive to create their own distorted vision of themselves (complete with backstories), choosing to live their lives virtually rather than in a real world bereft of life.

Besides the awesome 80s references and centrality of gaming to the  primary plot line, I was instantly drawn to Wade’s academic experience in Ready Player One. In the book, children all around the world go to “virtual school” through the OASIS. At birth, parents are given the choice, regardless of their financial situation, to send their child to “real” or “virtual” school – the former being a sentence to depravity, while the latter at least affords students the illusion of being a regular kid. From the comfort of their own home (or wherever they may be at that moment), students sign-in to the OASIS and “attend” school at one of thousands of identical campuses located through the virtual “school-world” of Ludos. Using haptic sensory suits, students are able to engage in almost all facets of students life – attend classes, hang out with friends during recess & lunch, or even go “outside” onto the grounds outside of their virtual school to sit under a perfectly rendered version of a tree to read or study.

Classes are taught by virtual “teachers”, who must also “log in” to the OASIS and appear as their own avatar to their students. While in class, students have restricted access to videos, music, and other forms of distraction, as teachers have safeguards only permitting students in their classes to view & share resources uploaded and linked to their lesson. All interactions are done electronically – from emails and meetings to assignment distribution and collection – everything is done from within the OASIS. Even inappropriate commentary from rowdy pupils is muted, and multiple offences for lack of concentration and academic negligence is logged with OASIS and forwarded to school administration.

Technology in education. A hot button topic these days. Recently, my class went digital – all of my class notes are only available online, my students encouraged to bring their devices with them to class to use as tools. So far, so good. I’m curious to see whether the retention levels of my students will be helped or hindered by the strict online availability of their coursework. Practice questions & assignments are still done the old-fashioned way with pencil & paper (their end of year evaluations are done this way) and I’m still not completely convinced that e-assessment in mathematics has developed to the point where the students can be as effective at providing their solutions using a device as they can on paper.

Educators, schools, & school boards face an uphill battle when it comes to digital citizenship and the present generation of children who walk into classrooms often years ahead of their instructors. An overhaul encompassing training, pedagogical support, and academic leadership on the issue are sorely needed. Moreover, a sustainable infrastructure is required to help power the e-revolution in education – not easily done when rested upon the shoulders of taxpayers – but one which is sorely needed if students wish to remain relevant to a global economy in a constant state of evolution & flux. Recently, Montreal’s mayor, Denis Coderre, announced that the entire city begin its journey towards becoming a “smart city” by introducing a “wifi zone” for the entire island by the summer of 2015. A step in the right direction, if you’re ok with many students who live in disadvantaged areas going to school hungry, with soiled uniforms, or without basic school supplies.

Hopefully, by the time I retire, we’ll be well on our way towards the academic environment described in Ready Player One, where all students will be able to be more productive and effective students within a digital context, bringing together children from around the world to sit in virtual classrooms to learn about universal, global contexts. Until then, I guess that the e-pioneers of today will continue to help change outlooks, persuade policymakers, and convince society that it’s time for a collective “societal upgrade”.

‘Til the next post.