Virtual Reality in the Classroom

Brady (11) and Cameron (9) Stack
I made the mistake of bringing Brady and Cameron, my eleven and nine year old boys, with me last month to the store when it was time to upgrade my phone. Much to the dismay of my wife Erica, in addition to getting a new phone the salesperson also sweet talked me into buying a virtual reality (VR) headset like one of these. If you haven’t yet tried one, they are quite the experience. Within minutes, my boys were sailing through the air on hand gliders and riding roller coasters through mystical caves and magical forests. These headsets generally work with a cell phone, amplifying the visual and audio experience of a game or video, stimulating multiple senses, and making the user feel like they are truly a part of the experience that they are in.

As with any new technology, innovators are looking for ways to make VR an effective classroom tool. Edtech companies like foundry10 are exploring this topic further by asking questions like this:

  1. How might VR be valuable and/or enhance the learning environment?
  2. What roles do perspective and empathy play in a student’s VR experience?
  3. What types of VR content prove useful in an educational setting?
  4. In a classroom setting, what might break the immersive experience for students?
This video by foundry10 talks about the power that VR technology can hold to put students into immersive learning experiences. In a recent Slate article, science writer Chris Berdik explores how VR can help educators teach a complex topic such as empathy. In a Westchester County, NY middle school, students are exploring modern-day issues such as the situation with refugees in Sudan. Berdik writes, “In November 2015, middle school students from Westchester County, New York, found themselves on a windswept field in South Sudan mingling with a crowd of refugees fleeing civil war. Suddenly, they heard the deafening roar of low-flying military cargo planes overhead, followed by large bags of grain thudding to the ground all around them.” The students were engaged in a 360 degree video series from Time Magazine about refugees. According to Westchester teacher Cayne Letizia, “So much of the technology our kids use removes empathy. [Virtual reality] breaks that distance down.” Sound expensive? It isn’t, especially when companies like Google have developed a virtual reality viewer made from cardboard.
Today, non-profit organizations such as the Global Nomads Group are leading the way by developing VR-based curriculum for educators around the globe. According to their website, “Global Nomads Group fosters dialogue and understanding among the world's youth. By leveraging technology, we enable conversations between middle school and high school students who otherwise would not meet. These exchanges promote empathy, peace, and build 21st century workforce skills.” Their rationale for doing this is simple. “Today less than 3% of young people travel during their academic career, but technology allows us to connect cultures and communities we may otherwise never encounter. Virtual exchanges are technology-based education programs that foster people-to-people interactions, despite physical location.”
Global awareness isn’t the only content area that can benefit from virtual reality technology. The Harvard Graduate School of Education has developed ecoMUVE, a virtual reality experience that uses games and simulations to immerse middle school students in environments that teach them about ecosystems and casual patterns. This Hechinger Report article highlights students at Diamond Middle School in Lexington, MA who use this model to study the ecosystem at nearby Parker Meadow Pond. “So much can be done virtually for learning, but the relevance of it tends to stay in the virtual space,” said Amy Marie Kamarainen, a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard’s School of Education and co-leader of the EcoMobile project, now in its fifth year of National Science Foundation funding.
What does the future of virtual reality hold for teachers? In this blog article, Ankur Aggarwal, CEO at VR tech company Veative, had this to say. As equipment and technology becomes more cost effective to produce and manufacture, virtual reality demand will explode. In 2017, “we’ll see VR taking a firmer hold in industries such as education, engineering and healthcare.” Virtual reality promises to be a great way to bring the world into the classroom for students of all ages.

This article was written originally for MultiBrief Education.

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