Mixed reality has remarkable potential for the K–12 classroom. Here is a tool that lets students explore the molten core of our planet or get deep in the anatomy of a frog without ever picking up a scalpel — all with the click of a button.
Mixed reality is still relatively new, however, and while more research is coming out on its benefits, teachers want to make sure investing in virtual reality headsets will open new doors for their students and not just be another shiny toy collecting dust in the classroom.
“I like to describe the space as embryonic. One of the interesting things I’ve seen in the K–12 space in particular as it relates to the technology is there is a lot of interest but also a lot of questions,” says Dan Ayoub, general manager of mixed reality education at Microsoft, in an interview. “The first questions have been around the research — ‘prove to me that this is going to improve the academic performance of our students’ — and that speaks to K–12 educators having a lot of experience and certainly not wanting to have just another flavor of the week.”
Mixed Reality Offers More Than a Field Trip
One of the beacons of virtual reality use is placing students in situations they would never experience otherwise. This immersion can have a powerful effect on engagement, Ayoub says.
“If you can actually put the students in an experience where they can do or see or interact with what they’ve just heard about [in class], that engagement understanding and retention goes way, way up,” Ayoub explains. “You can have them do things you could never have them do, like have them blowing up chemistry sets, [or] you can put them on the surface of the moon.”
At Hunters Lane High School in Tennessee, some teachers have done just that.
When Hunters Lane equipped a “virtual reality lab” with HTC Vive gear, creative writing teacher Caitlin Weaver used the tech to let students place themselves on the Titanic as it sank to the bottom of the ocean and feel the power of the Apollo 11 space mission as it launched into the atmosphere, all to inspire their writing.
“With the Titanic, the kids did a lot of research on the boats first,” Weaver said in an AMD case study. “They then used the VR to place themselves in the shoes of different historical figures. They had to pretend to be passengers on the ship or to be the person that eventually found the wreckage, etc.”
Students studying information technology took advantage of the VR headsets to create computer programs and troubleshoot technology issues.
Research shows VR is not just a gimmick, but instead it can change the way students’ brains function in the classroom, Jaime Donally, founder of ARVRinEDU and a mixed reality professional development consultant, tells EdTech.
Donally’s personal experience speaks to the power of the device: After her 9-year-old began using AR to help with dyslexia, Donally found her daughter made significant improvements.
“It took her a while, but it only took her once, and it was retained for the long term,” Donally says. “Her brain had to work extra hard to understand those letters, and she was physically getting up and moving, and I think there is something really powerful about that.”
Put Content Creation in the Hands of Students
One shortcoming of virtual reality right now is the limited content available for classrooms, Ayoub says.
“We still hear content get called out quite a bit,” Ayoub says. “We need to make sure there’s a lot of content, and I would say good-quality content.”
While Ayoub says Microsoft is working with education giant Pearson and other collaborators to create more VR content for the classroom, there is another source: students.
With tools like Tinkercad and AutoCAD, students can create 3D objects and construct virtual worlds, offering experience in computer science skills and using the VR technology to immerse themselves in their education.
Encouraging students to be the masters of their own virtual experience allows them to explore VR’s limitless possibilities — and not doing so could be counterproductive, according to Donally.
“If we’re teaching students about the skills and the knowledge we think they need to have, then we’re doing them an injustice,” Donally explains. “They need to be directing those steps as well, and they need to be guiding us and directing us on what is powerful and what is needed in education.”
At Moore High School in Oklahoma, AP computer science students used their creativity and computer science skills to create virtual reality worlds for special needs students.
The idea was born after watching a video of an engineer create waterproof wheelchairs for disabled children to go to water parks, Victor Rook, computer science teacher at Moore High School, tells The Oklahoman.
“A bell kind of rang with us that we’re already taking all these journeys in the virtual reality space, and we can take our special needs kids on these journeys without getting wet,” Rook says. “It’s a great chance for the AP computer science kids to do some service learning.”
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Have a Plan Before Going Virtual
While schools are finding success with VR implementation, attaining the outcomes teachers want means planning how to properly use the technology.
“I see [VR] being used wrong so often,” Donally says. “Implementation for this is critical for success.”
Similar to taking kids to a museum, if teachers do not explain the context of what you saw, then students will not take away the critical classroom goals teachers had in mind when setting up the trip, Donally explains.
“We do that with virtual reality, or augmented reality, too often,” Donally says. “We make these assumptions that because they went somewhere or because they did something, that they are going to pick up all the skills we expected them to.”
When working with teachers to construct an implementation plan, Donally encourages them to explore the specific needs of the school and the curriculum they have first, and then see how VR might improve their lessons.
However, VR alone is not enough to make these changes, according to Donally, and teachers should remember to use the tool as a supplement, not a main feature of the classroom.