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Learning Library Blog Reality revisited: Getting started with virtual reality in your classroom
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Reality revisited: Getting started with virtual reality in your classroom

By Maureen Yoder
April 6, 2016
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The world of virtual reality (VR) was once dominated by interactive games. The special effects enhanced the experience by providing realistic action and lifelike creatures that were, literally “in your face.” Creative producers, supported by funding from established organizations, are now creating experiences that can invigorate classroom activities and enhance learning.

Last fall, I wrote about the educational possibilities of Google Cardboard, the affordable viewer that allows you to use your smartphone to view three dimensional worlds. Since then, the number of VR experiences available has increased dramatically. I’d like to share some VR apps that you can use for different subject areas, grade levels and learning goals.

Cultural and political issues
I call these “message movies.” They address a global problem by showing a real-life example. Topics include natural disasters, political conflicts and environmental concerns. Some are public service announcements that define a problem and suggest a solution. Teachers can use these to motivate students to write about the problem, relate it to their own lives and propose solutions.

NYT VR. The New York Times uses skilled journalists and producers to create virtual reality immersive storytelling. One episode, “Nature Is Inspiring Our Industrial Future,” explores the connection between humans, nature and our “brilliant industrial future.” Another, “10 Shots Across the Border,” about the killing of a 16-year-old boy at the Mexican border, will prompt dialog about the U.S. Border Patrol. Other examples include “Vigils in Paris” about the vigil after the November 2015 terrorist attacks and “Waves of Grace” about how an Ebola survivor in Liberia takes care of orphaned children.

VRSE. This company produces many of the New York Times VR videos. VSRE also collaborated with the Untied Nations to create “Clouds Over Sidra,” a documentary about a 12-year-old Syrian refugee. It shows her going to school, her makeshift tent and living in conditions of “great vulnerability.” It is designed to inspire empathy and produce discussion.

Content-rich explorations
Not everyone can visit the great museums, national parks, zoos or monuments around the world. While there are many websites with extensive collections of artwork and artifacts, the newest virtual reality museum experiences go beyond the slideshows of objects.

The Guggenheim Museum VR. This experience includes commentary on the building itself and replicates a walk through the galleries.

Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum. This is an immersive education initiative with bilingual mixed-media experiences created to promote “knowledge, understanding and appreciation of Latino cultural heritage.” The Michigan State University Journalism Department will partner with the museum to develop VR experiences. Students will produce journalistic works, such as animated stories and interactive comics, reflecting the Latino experience.

Wild Eyes. This project, funded by an Indiegogo campaign, is working with designers and teachers to film 360-degree views of natural habitats. They will produce interactive earth science, biology and physics lessons.

Virtual tourism
You can now visit major cities of the world, walk around the streets, view famous monuments and enjoy the ambiance of daily life. Creative teachers can use these experiences in geography, history, social studies and language classes.

VR Cities. This app provides tours of major cities of the world, like Paris and Venice. New cities are being added all the time.

ABC News VR. Take a tour, led by an ABC News correspondent, of newsworthy places in the headlines. You can visit Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, get a rare glimpse inside of North Korea or take in New York City during the holidays.  

Timelooper. This time travel app can take you back to historical events in London, like the Blitz at Trafalgar Square in 1940, or the Great Fire of London 350 years ago. New York City scenes will be available soon.

YouVisit. These videos will take you to cities, college campuses, and factories as well as restaurants, hotels and real estate properties. This is a great place to start for high school students who are looking into colleges.

Google offerings
The release of Google Cardboard, an inexpensive VR headset, opened the door for a VR mashup with a number of Google tools. Among them:

Google Street View. You can now get a VR view of any location on Google Street View because the app now works with Google Cardboard. And, because people can make 360-photospheres of their own and post them to the site, you can see more places than ever. In fact, have your students make their own photospheres.

Google Earth. Journey to remote places on the globe with a level of realism not previously possible, like a look at the San Jacinto nature preserve in California, which is closed to the public and all vehicles. This “off the grid” research field station was studied with the aid of robots on high-tension cables.

YouTube 360 video. YouTube has a dedicated channel for 3D videos. On your computer, you can scroll around using your mouse, but to enjoy the full virtual reality experience, place your phone in your VR viewer and choose the Cardboard mode. Some of the best videos have informative narrations. From BBC News comes a 360-degree tour inside the Large Hadron Collider, "the world’s greatest physics experiment,” with a fascinating explanation.  

Google Expeditions Pioneer Program. This program allows you to take immersive virtual journeys to faraway place like Mars, the Great Pyramids or even the bottom of the sea. Expeditions may be one of the first comprehensive classroom-based programs, but participation is limited to those who register their school and get accepted into the program. Currently, the Expeditions team only visits accepted schools, but hopefully in the future, all teachers will have the opportunity to explore the more than 100 Expeditions.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

Educators are beginning to develop lessons, curriculum units and teacher’s guides. Search for blogs and websites with helpful suggestions and teacher-tested activities. These are the most obvious choices if you are new to virtual reality.

A VR experience can involve both sights and sounds. Some apps consist of a series of still images, while others have live motion video or animation. The audio might be an informative narration, dramatic music or realistic sound effects. The most immersive experiences involve 360-degree views allowing the user to look up, down and turn completely around as if they were actually present in the environment. Sitting on a stool or chair that rotates is recommended.

I urge you to buy or borrow a Google Cardboard viewer, download an app and experience virtual reality for yourself. Then imagine how it could enliven your classroom.

Maureen Brown Yoder, Ed.D., is a professor of educational technology at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A former classroom teacher, she currently works with inservice educators and teaches an online course on emerging technologies. She coined the term electronic constructivism and has written extensively on how to thoughtfully and creatively integrate emerging technologies into existing curricula.

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