A growing number of K–12 schools integrate virtual reality content into the curriculum, holistically.

Mar 27 2019

Virtual Reality Matures in the K–12 Classroom

With more content available and great knowledge of how to use the increasingly affordable tools, VR-based instruction takes hold.

So far this school year, students in Schaumburg School District 54 have visited the Great Hall at Ellis Island, walked on the moon and experienced trench warfare during World War I.

The Illinois district brought those best-ever field trips to life by deploying virtual reality kits in each of its 28 schools. The return realized in the form of student engagement through VR-enhanced education has been overwhelming, Associate Superintendent Nick Myers says.

“I don’t think I could give you another example where we’ve seen more enthusiasm and excitement on the part of students than with the lessons that have been developed and implemented this fall using virtual reality,” Myers says.

Although VR remains in the early adopter phase in many instances, it’s no longer just a shiny new object that schools want to experiment with in piecemeal fashion. A growing number of K–12 schools are taking a holistic approach to buying and implementing VR and integrating the technology in their curriculum.

Nick Myers
We’ve seen truly emotional reactions to it because the students can see it, they can navigate through and be part of the experience they’re learning about.”

Nick Myers Associate Superintendent, Schaumburg (Ill.) School District 54

“The ability to truly transport people to different places and different periods of time is a way to connect learning in a really powerful way for kids,” Myers says. “We’ve seen truly emotional reactions to it because the students can see it, they can navigate through and be part of the experience they’re learning about.”

In its 2018 report “Virtual Reality 101: What You Need to Know About Kids and VR,” Common Sense Media highlights four technological capabilities that can be applied successfully to learning environments in VR: creating 3D spatial representations; multisensory channels for user interaction; immersing users in virtual environments; and intuitive interactions through the use of tools such as joysticks, wands or gloves.

“The main argument for highly immersive VR environments for educational endeavors is that they have the potential to make learning feel more real by promoting a sense of presence,” the report states.

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how teachers use virtual and augmented reality to teach computer science.

Schools Use VR Holistically For Greatest Returns

School District 54, which has more than 15,000 K–8 students and 1,467 teachers, made the decision to incorporate Lenovo Virtual Reality Classroom kits districtwide after a great deal of deliberation, first putting the technology up for study within Innovate 54, an instructional innovation task force made up of representatives from each school, including the principal, assistant principal, teachers and instructional technology specialists.

Based on the group’s positive and enthusiastic findings, Executive Director of IT John Wilms worked to embed a virtual and augmented reality lab in the learning centers of each school. In looking for a specific solution, price was a consideration, but the most important requirement was ease of use for students and teachers.

Each school has a set of 30 VR ­headsets, enough for one class to use at a time. Teachers can use them in the lab or check them out and wheel them to the classroom.

“They have a nice cart setup for the devices, so the headsets are always secured and charging, and it’s easy to get them in and out of the lab,” Wilms says.

Most teachers in the district access VR content through Google Expeditions, part of the Google for Education suite of apps and solutions. IT teams planning to incorporate VR have several considerations to work through when it comes to network bandwidth and support. 

The technology’s 360-degree, high-definition immersive views are bandwidth-intensive, and the headsets use different networking protocols than other technology assets. 

To make the devices simpler to ­support and manage, Wilms augmented the ­district network, which includes components from Cisco, Juniper and Aerohive Networks, by carving out a separate virtual LAN that would be exclusive to the headsets. Other districts may take their own approach to security and implementation requirements, depending on specific needs, he says.

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how mixed reality tools offer unique classroom opportunities.

K–12 Schools Create Immersive Experiences Without Headsets

At the Methacton School District in Eagleville, Pa., a planetarium housed in the middle school has long acted as a virtual reality space for the district’s 5,000 students.

“The whole dome ceiling is one big screen, and students don’t even need goggles to be part of the immersion,” says Layla Lyons, a technology integration specialist for Methacton’s middle school grades.

More recently, using 3D models and virtual reality content from NASA, astronomy students experienced landing on Mars and exploring its surface. When the district sought to extend VR to all of its classrooms, to provide opportunities across all subjects, it settled on a wide variety of VR and supporting technology.

The district’s one-to-one Chromebook program for grades 7–12 also provides tablets and Chromebooks inside the classroom for the lower grades. While teachers make use of the inherent VR capabilities in those devices, they also use Google Cardboard goggles with Google Expeditions content. Teachers may also check out one of several sets of higher-end Google VR goggles available for loan.

In many cases, Methacton uses Nearpod and other web-based VR applications and content that allow ­students to experience 360-degree views on a tablet or Chromebook screen without using a headset. For example, Methacton students recently explored the ­geography and topography of the Mariana Trench using their Chromebooks.

“They can navigate by turning the screen, and it’s just as immersive and engaging as the headsets,” says Christopher Lloyd, technology integration specialist for Methacton High School. “It’s also a little safer because the kids don’t bump into each other.”


Percentage of U.S. middle school students who say they have experienced ­virtual or augmented reality in the classroom

Source: Project Tomorrow, “Speak Up Research Project for Digital Learning, 2016 Findings,” June 2017

To ensure that teachers can effectively incorporate VR at any time in their school day, Methacton strengthened its Cisco Meraki wireless network by adding more access points.

You don’t want to give out new technology and then have it not work. The teachers won’t ever try it again,” Lloyd says. Now, when a teacher sets up a VR lesson, “all students will be able to participate without any lags or glitches.”

‘Iolani School, a private K–12 college preparatory school in Hawaii, has used VR in the classroom for the past two years, taking a creative approach to deployment. 

The school relies on content from Google Expeditions as well as the Discovery Channel and The New York Times, both of which offer free and unique VR applications. Older students use headsets to explore places like Jerusalem’s Western Wall

Younger students typically use their tablets for 2D experiences. Students also create their own expeditions, says Michael Fricano II, a technology integration specialist for the school. 

Several students recently visited a local organic farm and worked to turn the trip into a VR experience that ­students at other schools could enjoy. In the future, students will work to virtualize other local sites, including Pearl Harbor and Hawaiian cultural sites.

“When students are the creators of their own learning, they internalize the content and get more passionate about it,” Fricano says. “VR just has that wow factor that really gets students excited and engaged. We’ve seen nothing but benefits.”

Bob Stefko

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