Encountering Phenomena with Virtual Reality

What is on your bucket list? Summiting Mount Everest? Diving the Great Barrier Reef? For most people, these are unlikely adventures. This is no longer the case with virtual reality (VR) technology. VR lets you travel to destinations all over the world and beyond without ever boarding an airplane. Most teachers cannot take their students on an African safari, but VR can. VR enables experiential learning by simulating real-world environments. 3D immersion has the ability to change students’ outlook on the world and their place in it. The possibilities of where students go and what they do are endless.

VR does much more than put students in a new environment. Students who use VR gain much more than content-specific knowledge and geographic awareness. VR provides countless opportunities for students to develop transversal competencies that address 21st-century challenges such as technological advances and intercultural communication. With virtual reality technology being so new and rapidly advancing, it is difficult to know all the implications for using it in the classroom. Yet, one thing is certain; the benefits are profound.

Here are four reasons why VR deserves a permanent place in today’s classrooms.

VR increases students’ levels of motivation. When students are transported from their current reality to one completely new, they will naturally be interested in the topic. VR gives concepts a real-life context, demonstrating a need to learn the content.

VR is a way for students to develop digital literacy skills by seeking new information. Students can use VR to learn about geography, science, history, and more. Programs like ThingLink let teachers and students annotate 360° images with YouTube videos, text, and links to webpages. Students will improve literacy and technology skills as they read for meaning and write reflections about their VR experiences.

VR gives students the opportunity to meet people and observe situations they might never would have otherwise. Seeing and experiencing the lives of individuals different from themselves, gives students an understanding of diversity. VR lets students “walk a mile” in someone else’s shoes.

VR is a powerful storytelling tool. It is being used to change people’s perspectives. Learners can use VR to advocate for social justice issues. VR reveals to users hard truths—from refugee crises to climate change. Students are able to use this technology to immerse their audience in new realities that could influence people’s thoughts and emotions.

There are very real applications for VR in project-based learning. During one of my school visits in Finland, I witnessed VR in action. At Jalavapuiston School in Espoo, students were using high-tech VR equipment to explore Google Earth. Students were using a HTC Vive headset to move in 3D space and use motion-tracked handheld controllers to interact with the environment. VR was obviously an essential component of students’ phenomenon-based learning unit.

Students had selected a European city they most wanted to visit. Students planned their entire trip. They used Google Sheets to itemize their expenditures and stay within a budget presented by the teacher. Students booked hotel rooms, purchased transportation passes, and planned an itinerary consisting of visits to zoos, museums, and landmarks. Students were learning math, history, geography, while reading and writing the entire time!

I learned from teachers at the school that funding for their HTC Vive and high-power PC was provided by the Finnish National Agency for Education since the project is linked to research and development. However, you do no necessarily need expensive equipment to experience VR. You can use online programs and apps from your computer, tablet, or mobile device.

Some Resources Worth Exploring
Many of my top “go-to” VR resources come from Google. The following products are accessible from either a computer browser, a mobile device, or both. For optimal experience, download each of the program’s apps to a handheld device and view with a Google Cardboard VR headset. You can purchase a Google Cardboard for just $15. If you do not have the money for a classroom set of Google Cardboard, students can still experience the 360-degree content from tablets and computers.

  • Google Earth is a computer program that renders a 3D representation of Earth based on satellite imagery. Select the Pegman icon to view 360-degree photos.
  • Google Street View provides panoramic views from positions along many streets in the world. Step inside locations such as museums, arenas, and parks.
  • YouTube (yes, Google owns YouTube) has an official VR channel that features the newest and best VR-ready videos on the platform. You also search #VR and #360 for videos.
  • Google Expeditions allows teachers to lead classroom-sized groups of “explorers” through collections of 360° and 3D images while pointing out interesting sights along the way.
  • Tour Creator makes it easy for Google users to build immersive, 360° tours right from their computer. Students can upload their own 360° image or use one from Google Street View. Tours can include image overlays, points of interest, and textual information.
Integrating VR into the curriculum will boost students’ confidence. Students will benefit both socially and emotionally from using VR. Additionally, students will have new opportunities for accessing multimedia content, thinking critically about unique situations, and solving problems with their peers.

I am excited about the potential VR has on students’ learning. In the future, students will tour museums with their curators, create works of art in digital environments, and develop a VR portfolio revealing their product plans for major classroom projects. Students will do more than consume VR. They will begin to regularly produce their own virtually reality experiences via 360°-images and 3D visualization tools. With virtual reality, your students will explore and create more.

Further Reading
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