Virtual Reality is a Reality!

by Jeannie Timken, NHCS Instructional Technology Specialist

At the end of last school year, I was introduced to the possibilities of virtual reality in education through an experience at NCDLCN led by Jeff Crews and Dean Phillips of Beyond the Chalk. I need to add here, that these were the two who introduced me to the Sphero. (You can read all about what THAT did for our district inthis blog post.) I immediately knew that this would be another avenue to make the abstract more concrete for learners in our district, but I needed to learn more. And I needed investors.

I’m not talking about financial backers, here.  Fortunately, after the campaign to get Spheros in the district proved to be a worthwhile investment, I was given a small budget – a terrifying and truly amazing thing. I just needed a few visionary educators who saw the potential impact this technology could have to transform learning experiences for their students – those are the investors I’m talking about.

In the fall of 2016, The William & Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation offered a Digital Learning Series.  Dozens of teachers from schools across our district, with the encouragement of their building administrators, applied for the handful of seats we reserved for two of the two-day workshops: Google Tools for Today’s Schools andDigital+Physical Learning = ENGAGEMENT. If selected, we would cover the cost of the workshop and their sub on the days that they would miss school.  In exchange, they would offer PD for teachers to share what they learned.

I clearly underestimated the return on this investment.

Three teachers went to the Digital+Physical Learning = ENGAGEMENTworkshop. After day one, I know I had found my investors.  They were on fire to bring what they had learned back to their classrooms – a pretty normal side effect of professional development at the Friday Institute. Teachers know that when you bring movement into a lesson, the concepts “stick” with students. This is nothing new. But this workshop made them feel like they could really do what they learned – we already had the Spheros that were part of the workshop, but how could they take students on virtual field trips? And how could they share this with others in the district?  This workshop started the conversation.

​We immediately began collaborating in a shared Google Doc – we added resources we found about devices, viewers, and apps.  Google Expeditions was a high priority.  We knew that Google Expeditions could not be facilitated on our BYOD network, so we searched for viable alternatives.  We have iPads in the district and a management system in place for those devices so we opted for iPod touch devices – twelve of them.  We also knew that the traditional Cardboard viewers had a few downfalls.  Then there was the process for checkout and use – so many pieces of the Virtual Reality (VR) puzzle to fit together. Let me break it all down…

Devices: We selected the 6th generation, 32 GB iPod touch. In conversation, we discussed the possibility of creating content with these, not just consuming it.  Content creation is phase two of this virtual reality vision, but we needed to plan for it from the outset.  Also, some of the apps require tours to be downloaded. We needed space for the content. We ordered a simple and relatively inexpensive high impact armor case for each to help protect the devices and keep them securely in the viewers. Foreach device, that put us around $260.00.

Viewers: We tried a few on for size.  We had STUDENTS try them out. That is how we landed on the ones we did.  Too often we forget that students are our ultimate investors – we can’t overlook their input on theirlearning experiences.  The Cardboard viewers we are used to seeing are made of paper or plastic coated paper.  They are usually an adventure in origami. But to us, the down side we were most concerned with was clean-ability.  As these would be shared, we needed to disinfect between uses to try and cut down on the spread of germs – especially since this was rolled out at the height of cold and flu season!  We found a relatively inexpensive viewer on Amazon for $16.00.  It also had a head strap – we removed those. Why?  Let’s be honest here: lice can be a problem.  While the head strap can be a fun addition, I have yet to encounter a single teacher to complain about their removal as it was intended to prevent the spread of lice.  We do have the head straps stored and available upon request when hands-free is a necessity due to special needs.  Also in that vein, we also have a couple of open viewers and even one with adjustable lenses that could accommodate needs should they arise.

Process: We have had requests for “PD on VR” – well, that PD turns into a conversation and time spent plearning (playing+learning).  Our emphasis is on the process.  How will you use this to enhance the content of your lesson?  We ask questions.  We weigh the pros and cons of different apps. We share what has worked for other classrooms.  Each VR set is in its own box (from the Dollar Tree) – headset, iPod and charger.  The only guideline sheet we have now is a set of suggestions like

  • have students wash hands or use hand sanitizer before picking up the devices
  • wipe the headsets down after use – especially the face ring
  • work with the school tech to charge the devices in a secure location at the end of the day
  • have a plan for movement as it can be disorienting for some
  • think about having students bring earbuds
  • know which student has which VR set
  • have a plan for misuse

Our guidelines are about the equipment – the teachers are the content experts!

The first professional development to include our Virtual Reality sets was at the end of January.  There were two on the same day.  The facilitators shared the checkout information with participants and the requests have come almost non stop since then! We have a Google form on our websitenext to the equipment availability calendar.  Teachers simply fill it out and tell us about how they hope to use virtual reality as part of their instruction and we do our best to accommodate their requests. Most days, we pick up the devices and take them straight to another school.

This is a new adventure for us. These VR pioneers are leading the way for others.  At the moment, most that are using VR with students are doing so in small groups using a rotation model to make sure all students get the experience.  I’m eager to see how this evolves  Will teachers step back and have directions and expectations posted at the station to guide students? Will students be creating their own 360° videos to demonstrate their learning and to teach others?

​NC Governor Roy Cooper recently visited one of our schools and spent some time with these students who were exploring a volcano that day.  Looks like they were all engaged!  Who knows what the third graders in the image below will be doing with VR (or more advanced technology for that matter) in a few years.  I look forward to finding out what the real return on this investment will be.

NC Governor Roy Cooper exploring a volcano through Google Expeditions with third grade students.

NC Governor Roy Cooper exploring a volcano through Google Expeditions with third grade students.

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