VR Isn’t a Novelty: Right here’s The right way to Combine it Into the Curriculum
In the past few years, students at Washington’s Leadership Academy have practiced their French while walking the streets of Paris, run for elected office, and visited the Hogwarts campus. The charter school’s students are about 99 percent non-white, 88 percent of whom are considered economically disadvantaged.
Although Washington’s Leadership Academy’s experiment with virtual reality technology is largely anomalous in K-12 education, it reflects the potential of virtual reality to provide students with the sort of learning opportunities once only available to their more affluent peers.
While the application of VR to core academics remains nascent, early returns are promising: research now suggests students retain more information and can better synthesize and apply what they have learned after participating in virtual reality exercises.
And the technology is moving within the reach of classroom teachers. While once considered high-end and cost-prohibitive, virtual reality is becoming more affordable. Discovery VR and Google Expeditions offer several virtual reality experiences for free. Simple VR viewers now come in relatively low-cost DIY cardboard view boxes, like Google Cardboard, that fit a range of VR-capable smartphones.
As the costs of VR headsets fall, the expense of frequent virtual field trips may soon be lower, in many cases, than the cost of even a single field trip or guest speaker.
Still, teachers may remain unsure of how they might implement such cutting-edge technology in their classrooms. Their concerns are well founded. Virtual reality takes careful planning and implementation for success. It’s not simply plug and play technology. It also takes a lot of work to develop.
Real Learning With VR
Two years ago, I worked with a team of educators to build a virtual learning simulation for a summer camp run by my company. The goal was to give students a chance to step into their dream profession—surgical medicine—years before they would have otherwise. Our journey to plan, build, test, and fully implement VR in our summer program was ultimately successful—and along the way, we learned some important lessons:
Content is king
The success of virtual reality-based learning depends on the depth and richness of content. And translating educational material into a VR simulation takes far more effort than you might expect. In our case, to create just 10 minutes of simulation, a team of six developers logged almost 1,000 hours of development time.
My team settled on creating a simulation in which a “patient” has a laceration on the abdomen from falling on a glass coffee table, and learners must work together to clean, staple and bandage the wound.
It was similar to an exercise that we had run in an analog setting for years, but required an entirely new level of depth to translate into a VR context. That’s why we consulted with both subject-matter and technology experts, to ensure that our simulation was engaging and immersive, while also centered on our learning goals.
New to you? New to them
We found that tried and true teaching approaches are just as effective with new technologies as they are with more traditional approaches: tell students what they are going to do, tell them what they are doing, and tell them what they did. Do not expect your digital-native students to arrive ready to simply pick up a VR headset and thrive in a simulation.
This begins with making students comfortable with the technology—throwing students into their first simulation without adequate preparation leads to a lot of headaches (sometimes literally—the goggles take some adjustment).
Our medical VR exercise begins with an introduction tutorial staged within an empty white room, with only a table in front of the virtual user. The initial objective is to get the learners comfortable in the virtual space and the buttons on their Oculus Touch controllers. Once students complete their tutorial, they have the option to press a button that transports them to the operating room.
In our case, every 10 minute virtual exercise was supported by more than an hour of instruction, preparing students for the activity and reinforcing what they’d learned.
The facilitator spent the first 15 minutes of the lesson discussing the educational merits of virtual reality, and helping students try out the equipment. Then, after the exercise, student groups convened for a debrief, which encouraged them to reflect on their experiences.
Integrate, not add
We took steps to consider how the VR experience complements and fits into the other teaching and learning activities in our program. Our thought was that if it’s seen as separate and additive, students will treat it as less valuable. So, we applied competencies we had built earlier in the program to VR lessons, and scaffolded the skills our students had learned in the operating room to make them more successful in subsequent activities.
We used our first VR exercise as an arrival-day activity to get students excited about medicine and familiar with basic surgical functions. The rest of the program referred back to the core learnings of the VR lesson.
After our first year of piloting the simulation, we added a second exercise halfway through our program, which complemented a trip to a local hospital’s trauma center and a series of lessons on physical fracture fixation. The exercise allowed students to apply the medical theories they had learned during those lessons to a virtual “patient’s” fractured long bone.
By drawing on the newest advances in technology, subject-matter expertise and care for each student’s experiences, educators can elevate VR from a fun classroom gimmick to a tool that can help all students experience learning that is active, experiential and personal.