Learning through a new lens: Virtual Reality in the classroom

Divya Choudary

In the field of education, we are constantly looking for ways to make the teaching-learning process more engaging for teachers and students. We use different media and a variety of resources in the classroom to try and make the sessions more interactive and captivating. However, each form of media has its own functions and limitations. For instance, a map can point out the location of Rome but a video will serve better to convey to students what the city itself is like. A field trip will probably be the best way to experience the city – walking the streets, having conversations in Italian – as it is today. But with time, expense, and other such restraints, it is understandable that there are limits on the trips a class can take. This is where Virtual Reality can make a difference.

oculus-head-model Virtual Reality (VR) refers to computer-simulations, accessed by looking through head-mounted devices that enable users to experience simulated worlds – of real or imaginary places. Through sight, sound, and when possible, touch, VR allows users to immerse themselves in a virtual context such that the virtual world is above, below and all around them. In providing users with simulated visuals and sound, the VR head-mounted devices serve to isolate the users’ minds from the real world. Being immersed in a virtual world and being able to look around and hear what is happening there, just as one would in the real world, stimulates imagination and suspends disbelief allowing the user to feel as though they are really in that simulated world.

The idea of VR was promising in the 90s, but costs and technology requirements kept it from becoming mainstream. Fortunately, this is no longer the case. The VR industry was jumpstarted in 2013 with the company Oculus making VR accessible. They designed the Oculus Rift, a consumer-friendly head-mounted device, and in supporting the development of VR technology and content paved the way for other companies to do so as well. Sony, Samsung, HTC, and Google are some of the companies working on developing VR technology experiences. In 2014, Google came out with the ‘Cardboard’ – a simple, child-friendly, inexpensive device that users had to attach their smartphone to in order to experience VR (shown in figure 2). The simplicity of the Cardboard made it a popular device to experiment with VR and to use in classrooms. Through Google Playstore and Youtube, apps and 360° videos can be accessed or saved on users’ phones and experienced in VR. Being phone-dependent, the Cardboard allows VR to be used in schools with limited access to computers or the Internet. Today, in addition to the many alternatives to the Cardboard, you can also find high-end phone-based VR devices like the Google Daydream View.

My first experience of VR was when a friend handed me the Cardboard. Looking through the lens, I found myself in a large, lush garden. There was a signboard with “Welcome to Tuscany” to my right, a villa in the distance, and beyond it the sea. I looked up and saw clouds sail by. Birds chirped while flying overhead and there was the sound of crashing waves too. I looked down and there was a set of red footprints that turned green. As I walked in the real world, I moved in the virtual. I explored the villa, climbed the stairs to the balcony, walked around the grounds and made my way towards the sea when I bumped into the wall – in the real world that is. I’ve since learned to stick a hand out when walking with the VR headset on! What I found remarkable was the immediate sense I had of being in another place – Tuscany as it turned out. The sounds and the visuals made the experience feel real even though I had one hand holding up the device. While I have lost myself in more than a few books and movies, the sense of “being” in a virtual place and the freedom to explore it that VR immersion provided me with is unique to the medium of VR. Thankfully, there are also VR app experiences that allow for safety even with usage in smaller places. For instance, Google Expeditions, Nearpod VR and ThingLink allow exploration in the virtual world without requiring walking in the real world. Google Expeditions allows for group VR experiences with the whole class being transported to a different place or time with the teacher acting as a tour guide and the students following along as explorers. As teachers themselves get to guide students through the virtual world, it provides the children with a supervised introduction to VR.

The author loves exploring virtual worlds just as much as she does the real. When not exploring, she can be found sitting in a corner with a storybook and a cup of tea. She can be reached at dchoudary@gmail.com.

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