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The Learning Matrix: lessons from the movie

This week marks the 20th anniversary of one of my favourite films ever, The Matrix. Directed by the (then) Wachowski Brothers and starring Keanu Reeves, Carrie Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving, the movie was a sensation grossing more than $460 million. It was a cyberpunk action movie with a philosophical soul (something that ended up strangling the subsequent sequels somewhat) and a killer premise – what if everything you thought was real was actually a virtual reality?

In between flurries of bullet-time choreography and punchy one-lines (“Dodge this”) the film sews some wonderful seeds of thought around the concepts of reality, VR, ethics and perception. So as a personal tribute to this magical moment in cinematic history (and wearing my Nebuchadnezzar t-short no less) I thought it’d be fun to highlight some of the lines from the film and draw parallels to the world of VR in Education in 2019.


“Unfortunately no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”

This is spoken by Morpheus shortly before offering Neo his infamous red pill/blue pill choice. This one resonates with me for the exact reason highlighted in the first section of my recent 5 Barriers to VR in Education article. When it comes to VR, you can’t tell someone what it’s like, you have to let them experience it for themselves. Of course, in this scene Morpheus is in fact referring to showing Neo the real world for the first time, not the virtual construct of The Matrix – but I do love the parallel.

“What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

One of the big ones here and Morpheus at his most existential. He’s right though – our senses define what is real and VR has the potential to hijack the senses like no other form of media that has come before it. This can be harnessed to create emotive and even empathetic responses from students but also to help them learn through multi-sensory engagement. VR can engulf them in learning content in such a way that the lines between what they understand as real and virtual start to blur. As such it can have negative connotations too, as highlighted by Jeremy Bailenson in the Common Sense Media report on VR. Younger students are more likely to generate false memories of events. As such, as educators, we must be mindful in the way we select and deploy virtual reality experiences with students as the duty of care to our kids can never be less than pivotal.

“I know kung fu”

Ok so the line on its own is meant as a punchy, semi-comical one-liner but what the line represents is definitely interesting. Neo is plugged into training simulations and learns just about every martial art in a matter of hours. Of course in the world of The Matrix, this learning is being digitally downloaded directly into the brain via a neural connection but the concept definitely has symmetry in the world of VR education. When used to learn new skills (or hone existing ones) virtual reality has proven to be incredibly effective and its combination of kinaesthetic learning and deeper retention of information is increasingly being observed and reported on by university studies. Will students ever be able to master a life-long artform in a matter of hours using VR? Of course not. But it could drastically reduce the learning time when compared to traditional media forms.

“These rules are no different to the rules of a computer system. Some of them can be bent. Others can be broken”

Something I love about VR and have covered before (most recently in this piece for VR Focus) is the fact that it allows you to break the laws of physics. VR can give students superpowers and not just when they are playing superhero games. Teleportation, telekinesis, flight, matter manipulation – the list is endless and all of these virtual powers can be used to enhance and even transform learning experiences for students.

“Are you listening to me Neo, or were you looking at the woman in the red dress?”

I’ve actually referenced this exact moment before – in my 2017 article vSafety about the transposition of eSafety issues into the virtual world. Neo is easily distracted by a pretty woman in a bright red dress who is revealed to be a simulated Agent in disguise. One of the biggest issues which will become more and more prevalent as VR hits the mainstream, is the exploitation of children (and adults for that matter) via virtual impersonation. It’s one thing if a teenage boy gets a “follow” from an account with a profile picture showing a beautiful girl but it’s a whole other level of deception once said girl is stood in front of him in a virtual space trying to coax his email address or other personal information out of him…

“You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”

The traitorous Cypher utters these lines to Agent Smith as he sells out his friends in order to be plugged back into the comfortable numb of The Matrix. He hates the real world and its hardships and would rather be blissfully ignorant again. This line is a prophetic comment on something that could well become a big issue in the next 10 years or so – addiction to virtual worlds. There is a very real chance that some children will find more solace in their digital worlds than in the harsher realities of the real one. It has happened to some degree in the past with things like Second Life but again the immersive nature of VR serves to magnify the issue. We must be wary of this now and ensure that from a very young age students are taught to understand the importance of maintaining a healthy balance when it comes to technology use. We also need to model it ourselves!

“There is no spoon”

Come on – I had to include this one, didn’t I? It’s a telling reminder that none of the content in VR is actually real. This is always worth reminding students, especially if you sense that they are concerned about using VR for any reason or seem unsettled by the apparent realism. One student I was working with recently using the Hold The World app was absolutely loving learning about a trilobite fossil with Sir David Attenborough… until it came to life and started walking across the virtual table towards her. A gentle reminder that it wasn’t real definitely helped her “snap out of it” and soon she was trying to stroke the virtual beastie!

Side-note: “There is no spoon” is also a great line to whisper to teachers whilst they are trying The Plank Experience for the first time.

“There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path”

This is another line that really resonates with me when considering the power of VR as a modern tool for learning. Whilst traditional media can give somebody the information they need, virtual reality can allow them to engage with the learning directly and let them “walk the path.” That may mean stepping back in time to witness the Raid on the Ruhr first hand or dissecting a virtual frog. Experiential learning is an incredibly potent approach to education and training.


Ok so this one may need a little more context. As he finally becomes The One, Neo faces down the three Agents who rain down a hail of bullets on him. He casually turns towards them and quietly says “No” before raising a hand to stop the attack. Thinking back to some of the digital safety perils of VR mentioned above, I think this makes a fitting place to end. As social VR platforms begin to become more widespread, students need to be taught that they are all “The One” inside virtual reality and should never feel helpless when faced with abuse or negativity. They must be empowered to not stand for it and to put a hand up and say No. In fact, in Rec Room you can do just that - hold your hand up towards an abusive user and block them on the spot. Neo would be proud.

#VR #theory

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