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Kansas City District Turns to VR to Keep Students Engaged

Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools has partnered with OmniLife VR to bring educational virtual reality technology into its classrooms, with the goal of creating new learning experiences and keeping kids engaged.

After the COVID-19 pandemic forced students into distance learning, schools looked for solutions to help those challenged by the shift. With students having unequal access to the technology necessary to succeed in a virtual environment, the achievement gap has increased. Now districts are looking for ways to adapt so that students do not fall behind, and Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools (KCKPS) is doing it with virtual reality.

KCKPS has partnered with the virtual-reality company OmniLife VR for a new pilot program, purchasing two video cameras and 130 virtual reality headsets. The program is co-sponsored by the UG CARES Act Grant and the Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Charitable Trust, a regional charitable foundation.

“Without those funds, we would not have been able to conduct the pilot,” said Christal Watson, executive director of Kansas City, Kansas School Foundation for Excellence. “This has been a true collaborative effort, combining public, private and nonprofit.”

According to Principal Canise Salinas-Willich of New Chelsea Elementary, the sudden shift to distance learning presented a challenge for keeping students interested and meeting their educational needs. This led Salinas-Willich to attend some technology conferences, where she was connected to OmniLife VR. Being aware of students’ interest in virtual reality as it pertains to gaming, she was eager to see how the technology would work in a classroom.

OmniLife VR has partnered with other school districts in the past, but Sales Manager Tim Truesdale said this partnership is different. For one thing, he said the Kansas City, Kansas Foundation for Excellence was “instrumental” in anchoring the group and getting the equipment deployed. Truesdale said the project is also unique because it represents progress during COVID-19-related setbacks, and it's creating advantages for KCKPS over some other districts that have previously had greater access to resources.

“If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere,” he said.

Truesdale was optimistic about the potential of this tool to become more common in classrooms as the company generates data about its effect on engagement. He added that it's one more piece of technology to enhance school curriculums, as Chromebooks and iPads have done in the past.

For example, students could be transported to the dinosaur age or allowed to mix chemicals without risk, in interactive lessons that improve engagement and retention. KCKPS is even offering a "career center" in the form of a trailer with a miniature VR-lab, allowing students to explore careers that they might not interact with in their day-to-day life.

“Now, they can actually see these things and picture themselves as a scientist, or architect, or geologist, or something of that nature,” Salinas-Willich said.

According to Truesdale, engagement is the No. 1 issue that K-12 educators are reporting, and it has only become worse through the COVID-19 pandemic. It's hard to keep students paying attention, and KCKPS administrators see virtual reality as a potential game changer in that regard.

“Based on the research ... we can increase student engagement by up to 100 percent and increase academic score up to 30 percent,” Watson said.

The pilot program will be available in KCKPS elementary, middle and high schools, and the district is open to purchasing more equipment in the future. Salinas-Willich said it will be up to the administration within each school to determine where exactly to apply it.

Rather than having the teachers dive into this new technology blindly, technology teachers within the school will work with it first, ideally to eliminate bugs or confusion before handing it off to others.

Another feature of OmniLife's VR technology is that it doesn't have to exacerbate the digital divide. According to Truesdale, one can load experiences into the headset itself, so students can participate without Internet connectivity.

There are other ways this technology could help level the playing field and create equal opportunities, according to Salinas-Willich. For example, kinesthetic or visual learners may excel with virtual reality more than with traditional reading materials.

KCKPS and OmniLife VR hope the data accumulated from this pilot program will reflect a significant increase in student engagement and provide a framework that other districts can replicate.

Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.