As virtual reality becomes more popular and more content is produced, many teachers are wondering how to and if VR is a useful tool to implement in the classroom. While VR affords many important learning skills and experiences, it also requires some effort to prepare when used in the classroom.
Depending on what you are trying to do (i.e. show 360 videos or do Google Expeditions), you will need different kinds of equipment. However, there are basics that every teacher needs when deciding to use VR with their students.
- VR headsets – One for each student in the class is preferred. This means you’ll be purchasing 15-35 (hopefully no higher than that!) headsets. The cheapest option is a Google Cardboard knock-off ($2)and the most classroom-friendly option would probably be the Merge VR headset ($60).
- Smartphones – Here’s where the cost of VR really hits you (and we’re not even talking about the Vive or Rift)! We’ll aim at the $100 or lower price point since that’s probably the most digestible amount school’s are willing to pay for. The Lenovo Golden Warrior S8 has some of the best specs for a $100 phone. If you are fine with buying used, $100 can get you a used Moto X or something comparable. There are lots of options to get used phones for under $100 each but you’ll have to do your homework.
- Wifi router – (optional) This is mainly for if you want to use Google Expeditions in your classroom. It is generally more reliable than trusting that your school’s Wifi allows devices to communicate with each other directly. I just used an old Wifi router I had lying around (Edimax EW-7228APn) and set it as an Access Point. Here is a link to Google’s instructions on how to do this specifically for Expeditions.
- Secure Lockbox or Container – Obviously, you don’t want to lose one of those smartphones so its best to have a secure, locked place to store all of this stuff. A cart like those used for laptops in schools would provide mobility as well as security but they can be costly.
Plan way ahead of the day you want to use VR in your classroom. As with all technology and students, something is bound to go wrong. If you’ve tested out your setup beforehand then you can troubleshoot clearly and calmly without the students yelling “I can’t see anything!” or “Miss (insert your name)!” over and over again. I recommend going through the whole setup and procedure as if you were actually leading the class. Procedures to pass out equipment, when you will give instructions, and procedures on returning the equipment. It will make the day you do it with the students much more smooth and enjoyable.
Unfortunately, there is no method I know of where a teacher can bulk load an app onto all 30 devices at the same time. So that means you will have to do it yourself (or find a TA). Or if you are having your students watch a 360 video on Youtube, you will need to bookmark or “star” it on each phone or give them very specific instructions about where to find it (“search these exact words…”).
This generally is not very difficult and you may just need to give specific directions for the particular headset model you are using. Sometimes students have difficulty getting the smartphones to line up with the lenses to give a clear picture.
If you are having students watch a video or use an app you may want to have each of them use a pair of headphones. This can be tricky since you won’t be able to easily tell they are watching the correct video and they won’t be able to hear your instructions. Additionally, headphones are an easy target for being stolen. I’ve thought about getting silly headphones like these so that if a student does steal them it would be very obvious if they tried to wear them at school.
Downloadable Applications or Web-based videos
These are the two main types of applications most teachers will be using. Watching 360 videos
can be done through either downloading an application like the New York Times VR, Within, or the Discovery Channel. (I have a listing of their respective videos here). Downloadable applications also include virtual worlds, re-creations of historical places, or even VR games. I have a short list of educational ones here but I recommend you do a quick Google search for specific topics you want and see what is out there.
When using web-based videos, probably through Youtube, you have to keep in mind internet and wifi bandwidth issues at your school. With 30 students streaming a video at the same time, my guess is your nearest school router can’t handle it all and playback slows to a jerky, stuttering, blurry crawl. If you can download a video before class that would be ideal. If not, see how slow things go at first. Potentially, you could have students pair up so there would be half as many devices trying to stream the video.
Strategies for when to use VR
This may require a longer post in the future, but for now, let’s discuss when is it worth all the aforementioned time, effort, and money to break out the virtual reality equipment. VR provides some excellent opportunities for students to engage with content, empathize with different peoples or perspectives, visualize abstract concepts, and experience agency in unique ways. If any of these opportunities would be useful for your particular lesson then consider integrating a VR experience into your curriculum. The sheer novelty of using VR will engage your students in the most mundane topics. While VR is not meant to replace all forms of teaching(or even normal videos), it does give the student certain affordances not found in other media. The use of VR in the classroom is still in the experimental phase and is by no means “mainstream” yet. However, this shouldn’t dissuade teachers from trying out a VR headset for themselves and contemplating “what could be”. For if VR is to be effectively used in the educational realm it must be guided by educators. Sure, awesome experiences and immersive games can be made but it is the educator who knows how to take that experience and maximize its learning potential for their students.
So educators, get a Cardboard and watch some 360 videos, or better yet, download an app and see what its like. Then take your ideas, share them with others, and try out those ideas on just a few students at first. If there’s a positive reaction and some learning occurs then keep it moving! After all, the future of VR and education lies with you.
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