As a high school principal, I am always on the lookout for ways to increase student engagement in the classroom because of the unmistakable result that meaningful engagement brings: higher academic achievement. Teaching is much easier when the student is interested in and actively learning the curriculum.
Last spring I was presented with the opportunity for our school to pilot with AMD to use virtual reality in some of our classrooms. We began with several teachers who represented the curriculum areas of English, social studies and career-technical education and provided training and support for ways teachers could use virtual reality in their classrooms.
As one could imagine, student interest was high. Virtual reality provides teachers the chance to use already developed modules that grant students access to interact with the curriculum on a wide variety of topics and allow them to use virtual reality to have a wide variety of experiences that cannot be duplicated in the typical classroom environment. The students use virtual reality to create experiences as varied as exploring the corpuscles of the human body to reliving historic moments in world history in what feels much like time travel. In addition, using Google Earth, students were able to travel around the world to examine everything from the location of civil rights marches in Selma, Ala., to hovering 500 feet above the Great Wall of China.
Virtual reality has made the world smaller for our students because it provides them with an almost real-life encounter with places they may never see with their own eyes, thereby allowing them to own the experience as a memory as opposed to learning it as a lesson. The retention of the curriculum connected to that event and the meaning the student is able to construct on his or her own provides for a valuable anchor upon which the rest of curriculum can be built.
Because of our work with this pilot, we joined the creators of a television show about global philanthropy called Good All Over to create a connection between kids on two different continents. The show was headed to the Republic of Kenya in a few weeks and among their objectives was to showcase how the use of technology could be broadened to increase access to education to all economic levels in Kenya.
When I met Craig Martin, the co-host and producer of the show, we discussed the challenges my students face living in urban Nashville. Eighty-seven percent of the students I serve live in poverty and are forced to overcome the typical challenges for families in this situation including accessing health care, affordable housing, violence in the community, lack of transportation and more.
One of the things Craig Martin and I lamented was that there were many things my students could not access because of financial barriers and that those limitations result in them having less exposure to the world around them than students who enjoy a middle-class lifestyle. This is when we had the idea of using virtual reality to connect somewhat isolated kids living in urban poverty in the U.S. to isolated kids living in third-world poverty in Tanzania and Kenya.
Once their team arrived in Kenya, we were able to set up a connection to a school in Tanzania and through a translator our students were able to communicate. The school in Tanzania was a concrete slab with a cover but no walls; and their poverty is far different from what we are used to. However, the universality of the human experience, having kids share smiles and waves that both groups of children understood without interpretation resulted in much more meaningful lessons about geography, Kenyan history, and technology.
The students we communicated with had never seen a laptop, so when they saw moving people on the other end of the technology they were almost startled in their response. My students got a lesson in privilege since they live in a world where they use cellphone technology for everything from entertainment to shopping to checking grades.
By using virtual reality in the classroom we were able to actually travel to Tanzania to see the location and interact with young people in school and study their heritage, customs and challenges both before and after the experience in an authentic, meaningful way that gave students the opportunity to see the people in Tanzania as far more real than simply reading about them in a textbook.
We are in the infancy stage of using virtual reality as an avenue upon which the curriculum is delivered; however, it has tremendous potential for connecting students not only with one another, but with the world around them.
Susan Stone Kessler is the executive principal at Hunters Lane High School.