Virtual Reality in Schools Becomes Something Real

As long as the virtual reality is accompanied by thoughtful lessons and adult guidance, it is just the kind of hands-on, interactive learning we know is valuable.

In one local district, students can travel to Ancient Egypt and back, sans time machine or permission slip.

Montour High School in Robinson, Penn., is home to a “virtual immersion lab” where computers come equipped with simulation software and styluses. Students need only throw on some 3D glasses—the kind that make animated characters jump at you in movie theaters—to plunge into a world where they can dissect dinosaurs, examine a human eye, or explore the pyramids up close.

The lab uses education software from zSpace, a California company that has outfitted about 100 such spaces in schools around the country. The cost is steep at $70,000, which Montour covered with a combination of district funds and support from the Grable Foundation and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

Kids go nuts over the technology, Justin Aglio, Montour’s director of innovation, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. No surprise there: the lab immerses students in the ancient worlds, infectious diseases, and extinct species that used to be the stuff of textbooks.[pullquote]Virtual reality is a “powerful empathy tool”[/pullquote]

Virtual reality “is a really powerful empathy tool,” Jen Holland, a former product manager at Google, recently told the Smithsonian. She was explaining why more schools should embrace the technology, but many who make media for grown-ups think so too. Since last year, The New York Times has occasionally shipped its subscribers Google’s Cardboard headsets so they can watch original VR films. The first introduced viewers to child refugees; another placed them next to Iraqi soldiers fighting ISIS.

As long as the virtual reality is accompanied by thoughtful lessons and adult guidance, it is just the kind of hands-on, interactive learning we know is valuable. Teachers at Montour can choose to play an active role in students’ exploration, editing the preprogrammed activities or designing their own. They are able to watch what the students are doing from their own screens, providing live feedback when appropriate.

[pullquote]VR could make existing disparities grow wider[/pullquote]As the technology becomes more common, however, there are risks to watch out for. Any time a new device or program comes out and only ends up in certain classrooms, it has the potential to make existing disparities grow even wider. Low-income, black, and Latino families are less likely to have broadband internet access at home, for example, so it is all the more important that their children’s schools aren’t left behind as well. The proliferation of smartphones and the educational technology equipped for them have improved access. But the cost of a virtual immersion lab puts it in the category of programs unlikely to land in most American districts anytime soon.

Montour has vowed to share its lab with other schools in and out of the district. Other educational VR endeavors have placed an emphasis on access.

Earlier this month, visitors to a Pittsburgh recreation center got a week to experiment with a new VR tool in development at Carnegie Mellon University. The students uploaded 360-degree images of their own neighborhoods, editing them to design their ideal community. The program gave them a chance to create, critique, and help determine their own surroundings (if only for the moment).

Google last fall launched its Expeditions Pioneer Program, allowing schools to apply for free kits that included VR viewers, smartphones with educational VR software, and an internet router. The company sent employees to participating schools to train teachers, who also received a free tablet. Within a year, however, Google turned Expeditions into an expensive commercial product.

Tech moves rapidly. Ten years ago, hardly anyone had a smartphone. Ten days ago, some of the Montour students had probably never been outside of the state, let alone “to” Egypt. When it comes to educational technology, it’s important to make sure access plays catch-up with invention.

Published September 21, 2016