AVRIS is an acronym that stands for Augments and Virtual Reality Information System. It is a fictional computer program that makes a brief appearance in the first book, and though it isn’t central to the storyline, I did think the idea was interesting enough to explore further.

I got the idea for AVRIS after thinking about the problems with our current approach to education. Case in point: on my grade 1 report card, it states that I have a tendency to ‘get distracted by new ideas of my own and therefore not get assigned work done on time’ and that this is something the teacher and I will ‘work on together’ to remedy.

There are several things wrong with that. Yes, the assigned work was probably important but so is having time to get ‘distracted’ by new ideas. Progress and innovation don’t happen if you only regurgitate what’s already been done. While I have the utmost respect for teachers, (they have a difficult job and I can list off several who have changed my life), the system they have to work within is designed to suppress creative thought and individuality. The best teachers are somewhat stifled when it comes to nurturing creativity, and it’s really not their fault.

And what’s worse is that there is no communication from one year to the next. Whatever communication does take place is minimal and more likely to happen if you’re particularly troublesome. The new teacher usually doesn’t know who has a particular aptitude for what, or how a student’s behavior reveals whether or not he/she is being challenged. On a side note, I do think that the model employed by The Khan Academy could solve some of these problems: http://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education.html

When I was 16 and doing my final high school English course, I was getting A’s without trying. I was late for class, I did all my assignments the night before they were due, and was bored out of my mind. If the system cared for more than just my grades, then someone would have noticed that I was able and willing to take on more challenging work. If the system was designed to help us reach our full potential, then I would have moved on to new material or be given a chance to explore my own ideas instead of being confined to the limits of the prescribed curriculum. But that wasn’t the case.

By all counts and measure, I was deemed a success. No one considered that my high marks and my behavior were indications that, even though I was succeeding within the system, the system itself was failing me. Maybe if it hadn’t been that way, I would have discovered I was meant to be a writer a lot sooner.

Now, before I go into what AVRIS is, here are a couple of useful definitions courtesy of Wikipedia:

  • Virtual reality- computer-simulated environments that can simulate physical presence in places in the real world, as well as in imaginary worlds
  • Augmented reality- live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.

In the book, AVRIS is a program created by the Dakarrian species to educate their children. At a very young age, children are placed in a holodeck-like room where every aspect of the place is a virtual projection that they can interact with. This includes things like building blocks, paint, books etc. It will look exactly like a normal classroom except that it will be a very elaborate hologram.

At that point, AVRIS:

  • Gathers information through every surface in the space
  • Provides a virtual teacher to direct the children to certain outcome/act as an authority figure
  • Records emotions, the time spent on each activity, how they interact with each other
  • Manipulates the environment to test for aptitude, creativity, intelligence, personal taste

Based on that information, it will tailor each child’s education to its specific needs and learning pace. Children with similar scores are placed in a classroom with each other regardless of factors such as age.

As they get older, Dakarrian children have more control over the environment projected by AVRIS. Instead of simply learning about something from afar, the children will be able to experience it. For example, a history lesson about a war wouldn’t be read about from a textbook; they would get to virtually visit the site, be in the room when a treaty is signed, and see the affects of war for themselves. Because the system works on augmented reality, they can decide to focus on an aspect of the lesson and delve deeper into that, while AVRIS takes note of that preference. This can be applied to any subject.

If they want to speak to an expert they can do so as well. Notable figures will be programmed into AVRIS so that they can teach and have a conversation with the students on their area of expertise. It’s much more interactive than a lecture could ever be. The information is always up-to-date and experts around the world can replace the AVRIS teacher avatar as a guest lecturer without ever leaving the comforts of their own home.

This approach to education individualized and not standardized. There is a basic level of knowledge that has each child has to obtain but beyond that, no one is forced to study something they don’t like or have a propensity for. And because it’s compiled on an ongoing basis, it’s very comprehensive.

The benefit of such a technology is that education is no longer an assembly line of people going through a ‘one size fits all’ system, the goal of which is to produce adults that can contribute to the workforce. AVRIS would be a vehicle for guiding people towards their full potential. And let’s keep in mind that by full potential, I don’t mean that everyone will want to become or will end up becoming a doctor, or an artist, or president of the world’s dominating superpower. People are so unique that we would diverge onto a million different paths instead of converging towards a small number of careers. Not everyone has the same passions; not everyone wants the same things.

If you want more insight into how our current education system might be failing us, I suggest you watch Ken Robinson’s TED Talks. Not only are they informative and enlightening, they’re entertaining too. Here’s one of my favorites: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms.html

Of course, there are many downfalls to consider as well, the most alarming of which is that AVRIS would know would know everything about you. Everything. It would know your personality, your habits, what matters to you, etc., from the years you spending interacting with it. And because aspects of us, like our personality, are a series of patterns we exhibit consistently, AVRIS could actually predict how you would behave in any hypothetical situation or what you might decide to do five years from now.

This sort of program would be the cornerstone of a dystopian society that exists under the rigid control of a totalitarian regime the likes of Big Brother. So while it’s interesting as a concept, it’s probably best suited to the realm of fiction rather than the realm of reality. Lucky for us, there are many brilliant minds working on solutions that can give us the benefits of an education system that encourages creativity and individuality without the downfalls of a controlling computer program.


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