How we use VR in the Classroom

When people hear about virtual reality (VR), their minds are generally flooded with images of headset-wearing gamers, scenes from futuristic movies or TV shows and certainly the phrase, ‘Bet it costs a fortune!’.

But VR can and in fact is, changing everything!

For the education sector in particular, using VR to finally connect both learners and teachers in a novel and meaningful way is now a very real possibility.

What is VR?

‘Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-generated scenario that simulates a realistic experience. The immersive environment can be similar to the real world in order to create a lifelike experience grounded in reality or sci-fi. Augmented reality systems may also be considered a form of VR that layers virtual information over a live camera feed into a headset, or through a smartphone or tablet device.’ (Wiki)

In other words, VR gives users the opportunity to go anywhere they want, see anything they want and in some cases, experience the impossible!

What uses does it currently have?

There are many uses of VR which range from academic research through to engineering, design, business, the arts and entertainment.

In the military for instance, VR is used extensively for training purposes. This is particularly useful for training soldiers for combat situations or other dangerous settings where they have to learn how to react in an appropriate manner.

In healthcare, VR is often used as a diagnostic tool in that it enables doctors to arrive at a diagnosis in conjunction with other methods such as MRI scans. This removes the need for invasive procedures or surgery.

Virtual reality simulations enable us to do pretty much whatever we like but without the risk of death or serious injury. We can re-enact a particular scenario or view things either at microscopic level or in places it would be fairly impossible to get to. VR is proving to be a safer and less costly option for many industries, compared to traditional training methods.

In many ways, the possibilities for the use of VR are endless.

What about education?

I’ll labour this point once more; the possibilities are endless!

For our school it was all about experience, imagination and that ‘WOW’ factor.

Consider teaching young children a concept as abstract as space. No field trips for this one!

But through the use of VR, pupils can learn about the solar system and how it works by physically engagement with the objects within. They can move planets, see around stars and track the progress of a comet.

What about dinosaurs? Imagine walking around a park side-by-side with a T-Rex, á la Jurassic Park, without having to leave the classroom or be exposed to any dangers or risks.

And what about history - the World Wars for instance? Imagine experiencing what life on the streets of London was really like during the Blitz or how claustrophobic it actually was when squeezed into an Anderson shelter with 6 or 7 other family members and friends.

For us, it was about bringing experiences to the children and opening up a whole new dimension of content with which they could use to develop their knowledge, understanding and imagination.

How was it used?

Initially, it was about the ‘WOW’ factor. And not just for the children!

A new year 1 child who was apprehensive about coming to school because of his attachment to mum. One morning, he was coaxed into going under the sea to watch a migration of bioluminescent jellyfish sweep across his head. The next day he drew pictures of jellyfish in his book and couldn’t stop smiling at the thought of getting the chance to experience it all again. His apprehension or defiance to come in to school was of very little or no problem at all thereafter.

A group year 3 children with behavioural concerns. Their achievement for having a ‘safe and happy’ week in school was to spend the last 45 minutes of the week on an environment or experience of their choice. Some of them wanted to be Spider-Man, some wanted a rollercoaster and others just enjoyed walking around a paradise island or trying to ‘walk the plank’ from the top of a skyscraper.

And the year 6 girl who just wanted to spend time looking around the bed of the sea, watching how creatures interact with their habitat and get a real feel for what life down there is really like. The biggest win of course was that temporary blockade of all the negative things currently whirling around her life, like the gut-wrenching worry of going into care.

Once familiar with how the device/software works, you quickly start see how impactful VR could be for all pupils in the classroom and for learning. Our first thought was creative writing.

In phase 3, the children were studying about Antarctica as part of a whole school focus on ‘habitats’. After the production of non-chronological reports, we decided to write a narrative thriller all about surviving the continent’s treacherous conditions.

We began by letting the children explore some of the wonderful VR content on YouTube using iPads and/or some VR headsets and iPods. One of the videos shows exactly what it is like to be atop a vessel approaching the Antarctic.

The sounds, the colours, the terrain. Again; not one for a field trip, this one. This was perfect for the opening of our story. Other 360 videos showed exactly what it was like on land, interacting with a sea lion and listening to the loud squawks of an albatross.

The children’s first thoughts of the research bases were that they reminded them of ‘colourful Lego caterpillars’, but again, this was perfect for their narrative ideas and the ‘build up’ of their plot.

For the ‘meat’ of their story, we used a full week to ensure every children spent time using the HTC Vive inside a puzzle-based environment named ‘Storm’. Their task, in groups of 6, was to work out the correct order of steps required to survive in the bitterness of an Antarctic-type storm.

Each pupil had 15 minutes and they needed to work as a team and write down each step or puzzle solved to aid their survival. They also noted down their ideas: their thoughts; their feelings; what they could see; what they could hear. All perfect for the atmosphere, tension and suspense we wanted them to use in their writing.

Only one group managed to complete the task successfully, so early the following week, we showed the correct sequence of events and they got the opportunity to tighten up their notes and ideas. Getting to safe shelter, with warmth, and calling for help was the ideal way to wrap the story up.

You can see some samples of the children’s work here.

This half term we’re studying the oceans and seas, in particular life in the abyssopelagic zone and deeper. To help write explanation texts, the children have been spending their break and lunchtimes on the sea bed, in the ‘Midnight Zone’.

Armed with just a torch, they can walk around and explore the habitat set inside the remains of a fallen blue whale and observe as an angler fish uses its bioluminescent lure to catch its prey. It makes it a lot easier to write about a process when you’ve experienced it in action for yourself.

So how can I get started?

Start small. A set of 6-10 iPods or similar and the same number of headsets like these ones, all dependent on budget, of course.

Search the App or Play store for content by adding ‘VR’ or ‘360’ to your searching text. You’ll have to pay for the better apps; personally, I think much of the free content on offer from the likes of YouTube is of greater quality and will suit you and the children better in the classroom. Again, use ‘VR’ or ‘360’ when searching and ensure your devices have VR capabilities (easy to Google this if you aren’t sure).

If you’re interested in the higher end tech, the HTC Vive is probably the best of its kind and the set-up we went for. However, it isn’t cheap. You’ll get the Vive for just over £500 now but it is useless without a PC that has the power and capability of running its high-end graphics. The cheapest you’ll pick one of these up for is around £800/£900. You’ll find some options here.

In terms of content for the Vive; ‘Viveport’ works exactly the same as the App or Play store, with plenty of freebies to get you going and even more that you can pay for.

‘The Blu’ is amazing! A couple of minutes stood on a ship wreck watching life at sea before standing face-to-face with a 60-foot Blue Whale! ‘The Lab’ is another free addition where the user can experience VR in many forms of its glory, from archery and slingshotting to taking a closer closer look at the anatomy of the human body.

If it’s experiences and environments you’re interested in, the paid version of ‘The Blu’ won’t let you down, whilst ‘Perfect’ and ‘Nature Treks’ are definitely worth looking at, as well as the aforementioned ‘Storm’.

Craig Nicholson - Principal