Dec 22 2022

What Role Does Networking Play in Bringing Virtual Reality to Schools?

As more K–12 schools invest in immersive technologies, experts discuss the implications for bandwidth.
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In California’s Compton Unified School District, students can swim with sharks, visit outer space and train for careers, all without leaving their classrooms.

With virtual reality, students get an immersive sensory experience that creates new ways of encountering educational material.

“When we think about how we can engage our students, this is one of the great ways that we can do that,” says Michele Dawson, senior director of the district’s educational technology department. Such innovation, however, sometimes requires robust connectivity. To take full advantage of the possibilities, Compton USD is upgrading its network capacity.

While most districts can run limited VR experiences on their existing network infrastructure, a boost to capacity and speed can ensure a smooth and seamless virtual experience.

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Boosting Network Speed and Capacity Supports Immersive Learning

Compton USD recognized the need for network upgrades to support augmented and virtual reality, as well as esports and other emerging high-bandwidth pedagogies.

To get there, district leaders turned to Verizon and educational nonprofit Heart of America to build two 5G towers in support of the district’s networking needs. When it comes to immersive technologies, 5G’s low latency and upgraded speeds will deliver “a better VR experience overall,” says Alvaro Brito, one of the district’s 21st century learning specialists.

With 5G, “you’ll able to push things out, especially 360-degree VR videos,” Brito says. “It’s important to have those high speeds, not only to load things faster but also to ensure a great VR experience for the students.”

VR adoption doesn’t automatically mean that districts need to boost their bandwidth. Many VR apps are downloaded directly onto headsets, which creates “little additional network traffic,” says author and IT consultant Joel Snyder.

But when the application lives on a desktop or in a data center, “then you may need enough bandwidth for a high-quality video feed for each simultaneous user,” Snyder says. “That can add up, and the additional stress of trying to run all those video feeds in a small area, such as a classroom, could quickly overwhelm all but the latest Wi-Fi access points.”

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Districts likely won’t upgrade their networks just for VR, but for those that are upgrading, the need to support future immersive experiences may factor into decisions about capacity.

In districts that are already using VR apps, IT leaders say they can foresee the bandwidth demand becoming a constraint as immersive tech is more widely deployed in schools.

In Michigan’s Muskegon Area Intermediate School District, “70 to 80 percent of the VR apps that we’re using do not require internet,” says Instructional Technology Consultant Andy Mann. “But there are apps that let students work collaboratively with other students, and there could be some impact there, depending on how many students are using them at the same time.”

In fact, Muskegon Area ISD is already feeling that impact in schools where multiple students are using VR at once. “One of our schools put in its own service set identifier, or Wi-Fi network, specifically for the 15 headsets that were being used,” thus creating a dedicated network to support VR needs, Mann says.

DIG DEEPER: Here are 5 reasons to take advantage of Wi-Fi 6.

K–12 Students Use VR to Expand a Variety of Skills

For all that VR has to offer, advocates of immersive education say it is worth the effort to get bandwidth right. “It’s a more visceral approach to learning,” Brito says. “You’re able to immerse the students in that type of learning — seeing it, hearing it. It’s just the evolution of how and what education might be in the future.”

According to results from SAP and JFFLabs, which launched a skill immersion lab with VR headsets and immersive learning modules in 2021, 88 percent of students felt engaged during VR lessons.

This is why Muskegon Area ISD is using Meta Quest headsets and the Prisms VR app to bring experiential learning to math concepts. By delivering math in a tactile 3D environment, Prisms “helps kids understand key algebra and geometry concepts in ways that they can’t get just by doing it with a pencil and paper,” Mann says.

Oklahoma CareerTech is tapping into the power of VR statewide to help students prepare for their future careers.

STEM Coordinator Tonja Norwood says the program’s Choose Aerospace curriculum saves money with VR. “Instead of having to set up a lab where you have all the aircraft maintenance equipment, which is very costly, they can use virtual reality simulations without our having to spend an incredible amount of money on equipment,” she says.

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They can use virtual reality simulations without our having to spend an incredible amount of money on equipment.”

Tonja Norwood STEM Coordinator, Oklahoma CareerTech

At Compton USD, too, there’s a career-oriented focus to the use of immersive technologies. There, students don’t just consume VR experiences, they help to create them.

“They could create something in 3D, and once they scan it with the phone or a tablet, they’re able to bring that item to life,” Brito says.

As students learn the skills of 3D modeling, “they are actually setting themselves up for careers,” Dawson shares. “What we’re really focused on is how to prepare our kids for the job market of the future. We have set out a systematic approach to make sure that that we’re giving them the skills they need.”

RELATED: How teaching emerging technologies empowers K–12 students.

VR Headsets Offer K–12 Students Easy Access to Immersive Learning

In addition to networking equipment, from 5G towers to Wi-Fi access points, a range of technologies come into play when districts look to bring immersive experiences to life in the classroom. For most, it starts with a VR headset.

Compton USD uses a combination of HTC ViveLenovo Mirage VR S3 and Avantis ClassVR headsets to support immersive experiences. For content creation, students use tablets and Chromebooks, as well as Dell Alienware desktop computers. “You can do a lot more with those higher-end computers,” Brito says.

At Muskegon Area ISD, “we are using Meta Quest headsets, in part because they are stand-alone devices. You don’t need a 15-foot cable running back to a computer,” Mann says.

“What happens when you’re trying to help students and you can’t see what’s on their VR headset?” he says. “We solve the challenge by casting what students are viewing to the Meta app on a tablet or a Google Chromecast connected to a projector or flat-panel display.”

With casting, other students can monitor what’s going on and learn what to do. Then, when they put on the headset, they can be up and running quickly.

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Dave Jarboe, director of instructional technology and STEAM at Harrison School District Two in Colorado, uses Avantis ClassVR with elementary students and Oculus Quest headsets for middle and high school students.

Done right, this is more than just fun and games; it’s a new and powerful way of learning, says Jarboe, who also directs science, technology, engineering, art and math learning at Harrison and chairs CoSN’s Emerging Technology Committee.

“This definitely engages the brain more than just watching a video or reading. We know it’s going to stick with them if they experience it, if they touch it, hear it, move around in it,” Jarboe says.

While schools should be intentional when bringing immersive technologies on board, he says, Jarboe is less concerned about the infrastructure and more focused on professional development.

With medical schoolsthe U.S. military and numerous corporate groups turning to VR to train employees, K–12 schools “are just catching up,” he says.

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