Sunday, 29 January 2017

How Virtual Reality is changing how children learn in the classroom

Virtual Reality is the latest in a long line of new technologies which can be harnessed by teachers to help them make their classrooms come alive; to improve further the learning experience of their pupils. Over the past twenty years’, teachers have used videos, DVDs, classroom projectors, interactive whiteboards, and 3D projectors and now they can call upon Virtual Reality. So, what is Virtual Reality (VR) and how it so different? 

What is Virtual Reality? 

In order to experience Virtual Reality, the user needs to put on a headset in which a 360° panoramic image is projected. The technology is simple, it works very much in the same way that enabled a previous generation of children to enjoy 3D images through a Viewmaster. The headset projects a slightly different image to each eye, which gives a 3D effect. As the viewer moves his head to the left and right, the image moves giving a strong feeling of being in situ. By turning around, the viewer can see what is behind him; by looking up he can see what’s above him-it’s ‘real’! 
Surprisingly, it is possible to create a VR experience for less than US$5 by purchasing a simple cardboard kit into which a smartphone can be inserted. The 360° panoramic images used for the ‘virtual experiences’ are produced in two ways. They can be filmed by a 360° camera, in just the same way that Google Street View is mapping cities of the world. Or, they can be computer-generated as in console action games, such as Call of Duty. There are thousands of 360° videos available free on YouTube (just search for ‘360° videos’) and this number will increase exponentially as 360° cameras become commonplace. 

What makes Virtual Reality different? 

The greatest difference between VR and, say, watching a DVD is that VR is an active rather than a passive process. It feels like the real experience. Because the viewer is controlling where he looks and what he focuses on, this inevitably leads to greater engagement. Indeed, Virtual Reality allows the user to experience what is going on in a way that feels authentic. The first time that I put on a VR headset, I went on a roller coaster ride – the experience was so immersive that I had motion sickness! This was not a passive activity it felt real – I experienced every dip and turn. It is this characteristic of creating an experience that makes VR such a versatile and powerful tool for the classroom. 

Virtual Tours 

I am sure we can all recall the experience of trips out of the classroom during our own school days. To be able to see what had been discussed in the classroom gave a clarity and strong memory association that no text book can ever hope to achieve. A huge strength of Virtual Reality in schools is that it gives almost limitless scope for teachers to take pupils on trips anywhere in the world without leaving the grounds. A class can visit China and experience what it is like to walk up and down the crumbling steps of the Great Wall, they can take a stroll along Wall Street gasp at the view from the top of the Burj Khalifa, or even to dive the Great Barrier Reef. All these ‘visits’ are available in the classroom within a matter of minutes – a further bonus for the teacher is that there’s no risk assessment, no budget and no buses! 
But Virtual Reality allows teachers to go further, for VR makes it possible for a pupils to experience the impossible. 

Time Travel 

Virtual Reality allows pupils to go back in time to experience key events in history. It is possible to be there as Martin Luther King makes a great speech; they can wade through World War I trenches, they can be in a dog-fight in the Battle of Britain, build a pyramid in Cairo witness the Execution of Mary Queen of Scots. 

Space Travel 

VR has also made Space Travel available for all. The publication by NASA on YouTube of 360° panoramas of Mars and Pluto makes it possible for teachers to take their classes to outer space. Pupils can explore the Martian landscape from atop the Mars Rover - no space suit required. 

Personalised Learning 

In the past few weeks at JESS, Dubai, Year 5 have met some ancient Egyptians, Year 4 have been to London, Foundation 2 travelled into Space and Year 6 went to Ancient Greece. The children ‘felt’ what it was like to be there and the experience helped them to develop mature responses at a significantly deeper level than would ever be possible from watching a video. Possibly the greatest strength of VR is that the experience is personalised – the child is in control of the experience, he can go at his own pace, choosing to look at what he wants, taking time to look for detail, moving on only when ready. 
Teachers should always be on the look-out for new ways to enable young people to learn, to help them understand more about the world around us and Virtual Reality can now be the latest addition to their toolbox of ways to inspire – and what an exciting addition it is!

This article was published in Emirates Airlines' Absolutely Education Issue One (Feb 2017)

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