Virtual Reality In the Classroom, It’s Worth It If You Do It Right

Opportunities, barriers, and considerations for teachers and developers working with VR

Rolling office chairs prevent classroom zombie mosh-pits.

I’ve been a middle-school STEM teacher for seven years at an all-girls, independent school in Bellevue, WA. This year I made the transition to part-time classroom teaching and picked up technology integration responsibilities as our 5–12 Technology & Innovation Specialist. I inherited this position from a talented and creative technologist who had been the EdTech expert at our school for many years, but who hadn’t been a classroom teacher for quite some time. His approach to technology integration was to leverage his international networks to bring in the best emerging technologies for teachers to try. This approach brought 3D printing, Digital Media Arts, and robotics into our world, and our students have had some wonderful experiences because of it.

As a classroom teacher by nature and training, I knew immediately that my approach would be different. I wanted to take a curriculum-first approach to EdTech integration — starting with getting to know the teachers and students I serve and then reaching out for the best tech to meet their needs. It was through this process that I was thrown, quite abruptly, into the world of Virtual Reality.

Each year our middle school spends the two days before Thanksgiving break exploring a global theme. This year our theme was Home: Immigration, Homelessness, and Advocacy. The program coordinator approached me in the hopes that I could design a workshop around the UN VR film Clouds Over Sidra. In this 360 film you meet a 12-year-old Syrian girl named Sidra and follow along as she gives you a tour of her home, a refugee camp in Jordan. The workshop would start in less than a month and I had never worked with VR equipment before. We tried Google Cardboard and quickly determined that the logistical barriers of low-quality resolution, short battery life, and cell phone access would be too great. A quick email blast to my network returned recommendations that we check out Oculus Go as an alternative. We called around to some rental places and found that the cost of renting these headsets for the two day event would be comparable to purchasing them outright, and so we decided to invest in our own.

Just those two days, and a more recent attempt at integrating VR into my 8th grade physical science class, has helped me begin to understand the pedagogy around this new technology. I’m going to share with you the opportunities I see for VR in the secondary classroom, as well as the logistical, cognitive, and affective barriers that should be considered by teachers and developers alike.

Logistical Barriers

The most brilliantly developed content is worthless if it never makes it into the minds of our students. Overcoming logistical barriers is the first step in enhancing learning with VR.

Age

Oculus Go gives clear warnings that their headsets are not intended for use by anyone under the age of 13. This excludes most middle school students! My school’s solution was to undergo a mad scramble to draft, distribute, and collect over 100 permission slips in the days before our event. Teachers should partner with families in considering the physical and mental health impacts of using VR with children.

Group Size

Our school currently has six headsets and my workshop groups were 30 students, while my classes are generally 18. Moving students through the VR experience in groups requires forethought and strategic planning. Strategies, like placing students in office chairs to prevent ambulation (without restricting rotation) and group-teaching the basic use of the controller, can help streamline this process. Teachers should have a strategy for rotating through small groups efficiently.

Comparable Experiences

Today I included a VR experience in an 8th grade physical science inquiry lab. One student was uncomfortable having her eyes covered while she was in a room with her classmates and asked not to participate in the atoms and molecules virtual lab. My plan was to use the iPad version of the app as an alternative, but I vetted it poorly ahead of time and didn’t realize that it would only display the experience in Google Cardboard stereoscope. This student missed out on the learning involved with this part of the lab. Developers should consider releasing full-screen tablet companion apps alongside VR apps.

Control

The Oculus Go has a home screen that does not seem to allow customization. As a teacher, I’d love to have an option for Kiosk Mode so that I can control what my students do and do not have access to. This is not simply because my students will be tempted by non-educational apps. I really need to get them into the VR experience as quickly as possible to make the most of class time. Developers should consider adding features that allow facilitators to control the experience start-to-finish.

Supervision

When my students were struggling to navigate from the start screen, they were not reliably able to describe for me what they were seeing. Being able to supervise their experience through a paired tablet would be both a great classroom management tool and also a great way for me to coach their learning experience, without losing sight of the rest of my class. I would not be comfortable joining them in the VR experience because I need to prevent the inevitable social chaos that would result from me effectively leaving the room. Teachers should preview the VR experience so they can talk their students through it. Developers should consider developing companion apps that allow facilitators to monitor the experience.

Opportunities

I see many benefits of VR in the classroom, as long as we all can adopt a curriculum-first approach to content development and tech integration. These benefits seem to fit into two broad categories: empathy building and spatial awareness.

Empathy Building

Cultural Empathy

The UN used the Clouds Over Sidra film to study the effects of 360 video as a tool for fundraising and found that one in six participants pledged to donate after watching, twice the normal rate. They believe that VR is a powerful tool for building empathy. Teachers should consider ways of using VR to help students understand and relate to global communities.

Digital Storytelling

If VR is a great tool for understanding the lives of others, then it’s equally as powerful for telling our own stories. 360 cameras are becoming increasingly affordable and there are a growing number of user-friendly 3D design engines for students to play with. Developers should consider ways of making VR production tools that are kid-friendly and affordable. Teachers should explore ways for students to create their own content.

Developing Sense-of-Place

Place-based learning has long been a tool of educators who understand the value of experiential opportunities for connecting the classroom with communities. Though VR can never replace the experience of visiting a place, it does offer the opportunity to visit places that are too large, small, far, dangerous, or extreme to venture to without a Magic School Bus. Teachers should consider looking for VR experiences that help their students ‘travel’ to the places they are studying.

Spatial Awareness

Sense of Scale

Sense of scale was something else that the Magic School Bus got right. Students often struggle with understanding the expanses of the universe or the incredibly small molecular world. VR offers them the opportunity to place themselves into the equation and learn through experience the very large and very small in a visual and kinesthetic way. Developers should consider including visual cues that help the viewer understand relative scale.

3D Nature of Phenomena

A colleague of mine mentioned a few days ago that she often struggles to convince her 6th grade life science class that cells are not, in fact, flat. She explained that they so often see cells drawn in cross-section and squished under microscope slides, that they rarely grasp that cells are actually 3D. She formally requests that someone develop a VR microscope!

Barriers

Finally, I see a number of cognitive (thinking) and affective (emotions/feelings) barriers that should be considered by teachers and developers alike.

Cognitive Barriers

Designing Content for Kids

I’ve had a very difficult time finding appropriate content for my curricular needs. When I was searching for an introduction to atomic and molecular structure, I was underwhelmed by the number of options and overwhelmed by the complexity of the content. Developers should consider both the age of the students, the curricular needs of schools, and the ways in which teachers can find and evaluate the quality of content.

Designing Content for Learning

A lot of the content that I’ve encountered so far has been overwhelmingly complex in it’s content and quick in it’s delivery. The human brain can’t process more than a couple minutes worth of information at a time, and a multiple choice question is rarely enough processing to make it stick. Developers should consider partnering with teachers to develop VR content that is instructionally sound.

VR as an Enhancer, Not a Replacement

All emerging educational technologies have the potential to either enhance or replace the teacher in the room. Likewise, VR experiences can be designed to replicate existing educational experiences or to create new experiences out of the previously impossible. Though I see the value of providing experiences like chemistry labs to those who can’t access a lab, I guarantee you there are more people who can’t visit a molecule than who can’t access a laboratory. Developers should consider creating new experiences, rather than replicating what already exists.

Affective Barriers

Hiding Faces

I was surprised during the Clouds Over Sidra workshop by the number of students who were brought to tears by the experience. I was also very concerned to realize that those students had gone a full eight minutes without me knowing what their were experiencing emotionally. So much of teaching is about building strong relationships with our students, anything that gets in the way of reading and responding to each other is a loss. Teachers should consider how they will read and respond to their students when they can’t see their faces.

Covering Eyes

Another consequence of hiding faces is covering the eyes. When my students can’t see me, particularly when they are English Language Learners or students with Learning Differences, they are missing out on what may be their primary means of receiving instructional information. Many of my ELLs and students with LDs rely heavily on my gestures and written directions for clues; covering their eyes can be exceptionally hard for them. Teachers should consider how they will pre-teach to the VR experience and should establish a system for communicating with students who rely on sight as their primary tool for communication. Developers should consider ways of letting the facilitator pass information into the viewer.

Hindering Processing

The final consequence of covering the face is that it also increases the demands on working memory. When students use VR they must remember the procedural directions, academic objectives, and their responses and take-aways from the experience, all without the aid of written directions or note-taking. Teachers should use pre-teaching, chunking, and collaborative strategies to support student working memory during VR experiences. Developers should consider ways of eliciting and recording student responses during VR experiences.

I am still very new to the world of VR, but I am cautiously optimistic about the educational promise of this new tool. I encourage teachers to be thoughtful and intentional about how they use VR in their classrooms and I encourage developers to partner with teachers when developing hardware and content for educational use. I am sure that with more VR experiences, I’ll develop more effective strategies for implementing VR. I’m also sure that there are teachers and companies already working to solve the problems I named. In the meantime, tell me what you do with VR!