Which way is up? Trying VR and AR in the classroom.

Could your classroom use a dose of reality? Try these recommended resources for Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are becoming more popular and more visible—witness the Pokemon Go craze of summer 2016 or the sudden abundance of affordable VR headsets. As “mixed reality” technologies become more accessible, educators are increasingly harnessing the power of these emerging technologies to provide students with unique and meaningful learning experiences.

But with the proliferation of VR and AR content, it can be hard for educators to know where to begin. We talked to educators and developers immersed in the world of mixed reality to identify starting points for educators interested in using these technologies in the classroom.

Virtual Reality

VR creates a simulated experience without drawing upon the real world. Picture someone with an Oculus Rift headset strapped over their eyes and ears and you’ll see that a key feature of VR is its total immersion.

Exploring with SocialVR at Warrington Rec Center / Photo: Ben Filio

Exploring with SocialVR at Warrington Rec Center / Photo: Ben Filio

What Is VR Good for?

VR’s immersive qualities make it a powerful way to give students deep, meaningful learning experiences. Tyler Samstag, Director of Instructional Innovation at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, cited Google Expeditions, which allows students to go on virtual field trips using mobile devices and cardboard viewers (such as Google Cardboard) as a resource for teachers.

He also makes sure to introduce teachers to 360-degree video, pointing out their incredible level of complexity, which allow learners to see movement and analyze the settings and situations in the video at a deeper level.

“Virtual reality in education is particularly exciting because educators are actively creating 360-degree VR content and curricula that actively supports thoughtful integration of this technology,” said Samstag.

What does VR look like in practice?

Ali Momeni, co-founder of IRL Labs and associate professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Art, cites a project that he and IRL Labs partner Aparna Wilder are working on to help autistic students manage transitions during the school day. By allowing teachers to annotate “synthetic transitions” between classes, VR technology gives students a way to practice what can be a chaotic and stressful part of their daily life.

The project is an extension of IRL Labs’ mission of creating digital authoring tools with an emphasis on youth. Momeni likened the current climate around AR and VR to the “Web 2.0” period of the internet’s development, when user-friendly platforms like WordPress made website authoring more accessible and inviting to the average person. When people first saw internet sites, they didn’t initially think, “How can I make that?” But with the rise of content-management systems like WordPress and what you see is what you get (WYSIWG) editors, authoring websites became far more accessible. Momeni views IRL Labs as providing the VR and AR equivalent of WordPress. The company partners with schools on special projects, granting access to platforms   (a mobile platform for creating augmented reality). IRL Labs also provides professional development sessions with teachers.

VR Resources to Get Started

  • Tyler Samstag keeps a frequently updated VR Resource Sheet with apps, articles, and comparisons of VR hardware.
  • For 360-degree photos and videos, Samstag recommends Jaunt and in as good starting points.
  • Educator Heather Mallak recommends this video of London’s Glass Room as a starting point.
  • IRL Labs’ SocialVR authoring tool
  • Play Schell’s I Expect You to Die VR game at the Looking for Group coworking and game space

Augmented Reality

In contrast to VR, AR takes in the world around a learner, adding layers—typically digital images, audio, and video—to enhance the experience.

Leveraging mobile phone cameras to see more / Photo: Ben Filio

Leveraging mobile phone cameras to see more / Photo: Ben Filio

What Is AR Good For?

Central to AR’s appeal are its accessibility—it typically requires just a mobile device rather than a cardboard viewer, much less a headset—and its integration of the real world. Momeni pointed out that teachers can’t talk to a student with a VR helmet strapped on, or see what the child is looking at.

“We view learning as a social activity,” said Momeni. “We use tools and technology to create opportunities.”

Heather Mallak, independent educator and technology integration specialist, has used AR in projects with clients such as the Heinz History Center (HHC) and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, West Liberty University and Game for Change among other local organizations. She utilizes apps like Aurasma, Quiver, and Layar to design experiences for students, pre-service and experienced educators.

“I try to integrate as much interesting technology as I can, often connecting to other concepts and sometimes to traditional approaches, all when crafting a ‘current’ learning experience,” she said.

Mallak used NYPLabs’ stereogranimator to create .gifs of HHC’s archival stereoscopic collection. This work led to exploring Viewmasters take on AR/VR.

What does AR look like in practice?

This fall, through the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s transformED professional development program, Samstag organized an AR tour of the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. A team of teachers from Keystone Oaks, Plum Borough, and Fox Chapel Area School Districts researched those interred in the cemetery, locating interesting quotes and archival materials. By aiming their phones at headstones, students unlocked that additional content, which populated their cell-phone screens.

AR Resources


Published December 12, 2017

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