Genders of virtual teachers can change to suit cultural norms of the classroom
Deep within a building shaped like the Starship Enterprise, a little-known Chinese company is working on the future of education. Vast banks of servers record children at work and play, tracking touchscreen swipes, shrugs and head swivels – amassing a database that will be used to build intimate profiles of millions of kids.
This is the Fuzhou hive of NetDragon Websoft Holdings Ltd. a hack-and-slash videogame maker and unlikely candidate to transform learning via headset-mounted virtual reality teachers. It’s one of a growing number of companies from International Business Machines Corp. to Lenovo Group Ltd. studying how to use technology like VR to arrest a fickle child’s attention. (And perhaps someday to make a mint from that data by showing them ads.)
China – where parents have been known to try anything to give their kids an edge and tend to be less obsessive about privacy – may be an ideal testing ground for the VR classroom of the future. As it’s envisioned, there’ll be no napping in the back row. Lessons change when software predicts a student’s mind is wandering by spotting an upward tilt of the head. Dull lectures can be immediately livened up with pop quizzes. Even the instructor’s gender can change to suit the audience, such as making the virtual educator male in cultures where teachers are typically men.
“It is the next big thing and it’s been brewing for quite some time,” said Jan-Martin Lowendahl, a research vice president with Gartner Inc. “If there’s any place it would work, it’s China, Korea, those kinds of places.”