Has virtual reality reached a moment of deeper engagement in K-12 learning?

A deeply immersive VR experience stimulates all of a student's senses and can engage them more deeply

Virtual reality represents the cutting edge of education, and not just because of the rapidly advancing—and incredibly cool—technology.

Because the deeply immersive experience of VR stimulates all of a student’s senses, the blend of hardware and software can engage students more deeply in their lessons, says Brian Moynihan, global education solutions manager at Lenovo, maker of VR Classroom. “People are more emotionally engaged in VR, they’re more focused and they’re also using more of their brains,” he explains. “When you’re looking around right and left and it’s responding to your actions, it’s making you pay attention and giving you that sense of efficacy.”

And that’s only one of the reasons virtual reality in K-12 instruction seems to be coming of age. Constantly improving, multidisciplinary content and the wider acceptance of digital learning post-COVID means students donning headsets to dive into virtual worlds will be a more and more common sight in our classrooms.

‘An image is not instruction’

VR and augmented reality lessons are more memorable because they reach students on a visceral level, says Chris Klein, a U.S. representative for Avantis Education, which makes ClassVR. Like Lenovo’s VR Classroom, ClassVR is an all-in-one platform that includes headsets, software, content, management tools and other elements.

In the past, teachers had little to no control over the activities of a classroom full of students wearing individual headsets. These next-gen platforms give teachers that control and eliminate the need to download apps or games, though both VR Classroom and ClassVR allow users to add outside content. ClassVR’s management portal also allows teachers to, among other things, make sure students are staying on task during a VR session, Klein says.

Rather than apps, ClassVR’s content is built from a library of 1,700 images, video and 3-D models but teachers remain the key. In that way, ClassVR is an on-again, off-again tool, meaning the learning experiences students have in headsets must be augmented with teachers’ instruction and class discussions. “An image is not instruction, it’s a resource to support instruction,” Klein says. “Having a 3-D model of a beating human heart doesn’t teach you anything if it’s not rolled into an anatomy lesson when students take their headsets off.”

ClassVR offers Avanti’s World, which Klein called the first educational VR “theme park,” where students can visit the moon, float through a blood vessel or time travel to meet dinosaurs. Teachers and students can also add their own content. For example, a school in Louisiana bought 360-degree cameras to take their own VR videos of trips abroad and other experiences. And a fire department in Georgia uses the headsets to conduct outreach to local schools and show students when happens inside a fire.

‘An element of joy and surprise’

In another leap forward, more of the content is now aligned with state and local standards, rather than providing just a one-off lesson. Providers are offering extensive training to teachers, but they also want VR platforms to be user-friendly to reduce the barriers to usage, Moynihan says. VR headsets also eliminate distractions, such as texts and email pings, that can disrupt students and teachers using laptops, tablets and other devices.

The emotional connections student can make, with giraffes in Africa, for instance, are among the biggest breakthroughs of VR. In one VR Classroom video, students can feel a giraffe nudge the camera. “It really drives home the point when the teachers says that 90% of giraffes have disappeared from Africa,” Moynihan says. “A giraffe nudging the camera also gives an element of joy and surprise.”

In another example, teachers can use a video animation of the Roman Colosseum to teach math, by examining measurements, as well as social studies, by pointing out how similar the structure is to a modern football stadium.

But VR can be used for more than just these types of visual lessons. It can also help students develop soft skills by simulating job interviews or, in health science, how to deliver a difficult diagnosis to a patient. And while some in education believe the concept of learning styles is more myth than reality, VR can bridge the gap between students with different strengths and weaknesses, Moynihan says.

“All of us have all of those capabilities,” he says. “When instruction is presented in multi-modal form, it hits multiple aspects. You’re not learning about a fulcrum in a book; you’re pulling up and down on a rope.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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