Between Google Cardboard and Pokemon Go, access to virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have exploded within the last year. VR and AR are undoubtedly cool, but as with any new tech, it’s not the tech itself but how it’s used that will determine its success. Tools that go beyond just replacing paper and pencil to actually improve and transform learning are the ones teachers embrace in their classrooms.
Do VR and AR have the potential to transform education on the scale of laptops and Google Apps?
Certainly VR has the potential to take students everywhere from the bottom of the ocean to inside the human body, but is it more than a fad that will be left behind once the novelty wears off? The potential is huge to engage a variety of different learners, but if the technology leads the pedagogy instead of the other way around, it will be hard for it to evolve beyond its origins as a game.
Grant Lichtman, author of #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education and The Falconer: What We Wish We Had Learned in School, says it’s time to learn how to leverage VR to transform education.
“Technology enables education; it doesn’t drive education. Adopting VR is just another one of those changes that requires a growth mindset, a school culture that expects innovation,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s a real failure because the technology is going to be on us before the understanding of how to use the technology is there.”
vr has been around for a long time, primarily in the gaming world. The reason it’s taking off in homes and schools is because companies have developed affordable hardware, most notably, headsets like Google Cardboard.
Teachers and students can access 360-degree videos on any computer, although the experience is enhanced by using headsets. Google’s popular Cardboard headset is available for as little as $6, but more sophisticated devices, such as Oculus Rift, htc Vive, Open Source VR and Samsung, can cost between $300 to $1,000 each. Although 1:1 devices are ideal, BYOD or connecting to a electronic whiteboard can make the technology available to everyone in the classroom.
Many teachers are most familiar with ar, which allows students to interact with the images they see. Pokemon Go is a popular example of this, although Aurasma is one that many teachers use because it allows them to do many things, including use qr codes or bring students’ artwork to life. To access ar, teachers need a tablet or phone with a camera to allow students to see the image and trigger the interaction.
Contributing to the appeal of bringing VR into the classroom is the fact that more and better content is being developed all the time. Maureen Brown Yoder, professor of education technology at Lesley University, says, “There isn’t anything wrong with using VR games as a reward for students, but that’s not reaching the potential it has.
Now that the content is better, students can tell a story or view locations and places they couldn’t go to otherwise. If you get NASA or National Geographic and companies that are really good at producing this content, most of it free, paired with inexpensive viewers, you can have VR in your classroom for less than $20.”
The value of VR
Given vr’s ready availability, the question is, what can it contribute to the classroom? The most obvious benefit of VR is the ability to give students experiences they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Through nasa, kids can take a virtual trip to the moon, or using Google 360, they can walk the streets of Paris.
Janice Mak, an instructional coach and teacher from Phoenix, says VR can help level the playing field. She’s taken kids on virtual field trips under the ocean, to the rain forests of Borneo and to the cern in Switzerland.
“It’s that equity in access. I’ve taught in Title I places where kids have never traveled outside of Phoenix, even to the Grand Canyon,” she says. “vr has the ability to really bring the experiences to students everywhere at very little cost.”
Besides making learning fun, VR can be helpful for a variety of learners, particularly visual ones, says Elissa Malespina, ISTE member, president-elect for ISTE’s Librarians Network and librarian at Summerville Middle School in New Jersey. Subjects such as the plant process, human biology or geometry can be hard for students to visualize. VR allows students to go inside the human body, watch the process of a plant growing or visualize 3d concepts in geometry.
“ar has a great potential, especially for kids who are growing up in the age of the internet and becoming much more visual learners,” she says.
There is also potential to help students be more open-minded about experiences they’ve never had, such as scuba diving, or help kids empathize with the plight of children in other parts of the world, such as Syria.
Of course, with a game-like appeal, VR and AR are a natural way to gain and keep kids interested in a particular topic. Patricia Cloud, the technology associate at Grand Oak Elementary in North Carolina, uses VR with third, fourth and fifth graders through Minecraft. Cloud considers VR to be any time kids are working in another world.
While her fifth graders are studying American history from the Colonial settlers through the Civil War, Cloud has them build their own Jamestown, from the animals to the forts. She includes questions that require students to give thoughtful answers, such as a question about slave quarters. Once they’re done, teachers use those builds for a mathematic unit on area and perimeter, to learn about ecosystems in science or generate stories in language arts.
Cloud also capitalized on the popularity of Pokemon Go by having students write down locations of Pokestops and gyms in the game, then use Google Maps to create their own Pokemon Go map. Students used Google Maps’ satellite view to put their markers on the map, which uses AR to show the stops.
“The buy-in is there. They’re ready to go. I have to slow the kids down so they can get the background to work,” she says. “Put those little imaginations into that virtual world and you need to channel that into what you’re focusing on.”
Ideal versus reality
These examples are much closer to ideal than reality, says ISTE member Marialice bfx Curran, founder and CEO of the Digital Citizenship Institute and co-author, with William Jenkins, of the ISTE DigCit pln Pokemon Go Report.
The report includes curated articles about the Pokemon Go phenomenon, ideas for educators, safety advice and thoughts on digital citizenship. While working on the report, Curran and her 9-year-old son, Curran Dee, spent the summer playing Pokemon Go around their home in Connecticut. Through the game, they visited Fenway Park, historical sites across Boston, Niagara Falls and Cape Cod. Dee, in fourth grade this year, developed his own Pokemon homework assignment for their mother-and-son website, DigCitKids.com, that encourages students everywhere to learn about their communities through the game.
In contrast, at the end of the summer, Dee returned to a classroom that does not use computers at all. This is a situation he and his mother are working to change for students everywhere. Dee has given a TEDxYouth talk, and spoke this fall at Twitter headquarters in support of technology in education. “When you look at those opportunities for Dee it’s amazing, but when you see the disconnect at school, it’s heartbreaking. As a mother, I think it’s great he has these opportunities, but as an educator, my heart breaks that all children everywhere don’t have these opportunities.”
In fact, Mak argues that if educators are open to it, VR can be a great equalizer among students, allowing them to share experiences with each other that only a few could experience in real life.
The biggest obstacle to VR is not equipment or finances – it may be convincing stakeholders to see it as more than a game. Curran says at Dee’s school and many other schools, “blocked and banned” is the attitude toward technology.
“The teachable moment for educators is that we have an opportunity to take something that’s happening outside the classroom, focused on community, and bring it into our classrooms,” she says. “People will say Pokemon Go is a fad, the flavor of the week, but you’ve got to look beyond the tool and look at it from the sense of building community. It’s not just working with students, teachers – it’s working with an entire community.”
Convincing parents is a big part of the equation. As with any innovation, open communication and proceeding carefully is important. Cloud says she generally has good buy-in from the parents in her district, but once while working in Minecraft edu, she ran into another school where the kids were talking to each other inside the virtual world. The experience caused her to be more cautious, especially with young children in interactive worlds.
This is one of the many new challenges that will become the norm as VR goes from a novelty to commonplace. “The lines are becoming even more blurred for kids as the virtual world comes into the real world,” she says. “You may be a superhero and leap tall buildings in your virtual world, but it’s still you. You have to practice digital citizenship all the time.”
The great power of VR is allowing students, as a class, to transcend bricks and mortar. But, as with all technology, says Mak, the key is not the tool but how it is being used. While it’s easy for teachers to introduce VR in the classroom as a way to take virtual field trips, if that’s where it ends, there is a lot of wasted potential to transform learning.
“It’s always about pedagogy first and technology next. I try to emphasize creative thinking, writing and logical thinking, creating with technology rather than just consuming it.”
Of course, VR and AR are changing so quickly, resources and professional development for teachers are quickly left behind. Cloud suggests teachers start by playing around with VR themselves. If you don’t understand it at first, ask a student to help you. Malespina’s book, Augmented Reality in Education: Bringing Interactivity to Libraries and Classrooms, is a wealth of resources, and she has created a webinar for the ISTE Librarians Network.
While the technology and available content continues to grow at a quick pace, the 2016 ISTE Standards for Students can guide educators in using these new tools for meaningful learning. For example, students can use vr and AR to analyze data sets and represent data in various ways to facilitate problem-solving and decision-making, which is part of the Computational Thinker standard. Or they can create original works or responsibly repurpose or remix digital resources into new creations, which is part of the Creative Communicator standard. The possibilities within the new student standards are enormous.
Cloud says it’s about taking whatever you’re doing to the next level. “Are they going to have to think about what’s going on and how they can communicate it in a new and different way?” she asks herself. “It’s not just substitution. They’re transforming how they’re looking at the subject. When they’re building Jamestown, they’re not just reading about other people’s experiences. They’re having their own experience and having to solve problems. What if there aren’t a lot of trees around? What if the land isn’t flat?”
The power of VR is that it allows students to have interactive and shared experience with each other, their teachers and, potentially, people in other parts of the world. "VR allows us to transcend time and space that limits learning to the walls and school day,” says Lichtman.
And that’s VR’s long-term impact. He describes a world where a teacher can walk into the classroom in Indiana and say, “We’re going to study water resources.” Today, students get online and look for resources, but in the near future, those students will take a virtual tour with a water researcher in Mumbai or a hydrology engineer in Washington. “That’s a very different type of learning,” he says. “With a much richer potential.”
Jennifer Snelling is a freelance writer who writes for a variety of publications and institutions, including the university of Oregon. As a mother to elementary and middle school-aged children, she’s a frequent classroom volunteer and is active in Oregon schools.