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How to Soft Launch Virtual Reality in Schools

Virtual reality has potential as a learning tool in classrooms, but don’t rush its use until the technology has been well-tested by teachers and students.

I’m typically not an early adopter nor one to trumpet the “next big thing” in educational technology. During my years as a district ed tech director, I often encouraged schools — and especially principals fresh from a conference where they were wowed by some promising but expensive new ed tech tool — to hold off and let the product mature. Let others be the company’s beta testers.

So, no surprise, even though virtual reality (VR) is being touted as one of the “next big things” in ed tech, I haven’t yet purchased a high-end virtual reality headset. But I do have one of the cheap cardboard varieties. Using a couple of free VR applications on my iPhone, I recently spent some time exploring the classroom possibilities for VR. Aside from getting dizzy (note to self: move your head slowly while navigating virtual environments) I saw some of the potential that VR holds for classrooms.

Though generally skeptical of “virtual fieldtrips” (I’m an advocate for getting kids out into the real world as much as possible, believing any virtual options are poor substitutes), I was intrigued by some of the VR excursions I took. But aside from the educational tourism aspects of VR, and some interesting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) possibilities, one of VR’s touted benefits is the possibility for building students’ empathy. If used thoughtfully by teachers, I believe VR opportunities can provide a new way to help students better appreciate the lives of others around the world.

While there are lots of compelling “this changes everything” testimonials from some enthusiastic early adopter teachers, is VR ready for prime time? If it’s not ready today, but probably will be within the next few years, how should school leaders help their teachers prepare for this eventuality? Here’s what I suggest:

  • Get some of the cheap cardboard VR viewers and have a few teachers and students download a couple of free VR apps onto smartphones, like Google Expeditions or Lifeliqe VR Museum. Then have these users give a demo to their class or teacher colleagues and discuss the pros and cons of VR as it currently exists.
  • After going through the cheap cardboard viewer phase, as a school, buy one or two of the higher-end VR headsets — like an Oculus Rift or a Samsung Gear VR — and do the same exploration process with some interested students and teachers.
  • Based on the school’s findings from its VR demo reviews, begin to incorporate VR into some classroom lessons and projects. And even if there are a few teachers interested in adopting VR, I also suggest anointing some students as the school’s VR experts and have a higher-end VR viewer available for their use. Task these students with coordinating with interested teachers on exploring how their classes can benefit from VR applications. Even better, help some students learn how to code and create their own VR applications; it’s not that hard to do using programs such as CoSpaces Edu.
  • But unless the school has an extraordinary teacher who’s already well-versed in VR classroom use, and is prepared to lead a larger-scale VR implementation, don’t buy a classroom set of high-end viewers. In the not-too-distant future this may become a reasonable solution, but it’s probably not today.
There are a number of good articles to get one exposed to VR’s educational possibilities. Common Sense Media’s, 4 Ways to Use Augmented and Virtual Reality Apps in the Classroom and Getting Smart’s, 7 Top Educational Virtual Reality Apps are helpful places to start. And Edutopia’s piece, Will Virtual Reality Drive Deeper Learning? takes a discerning look into the educational possibilities and potential shortcomings of VR. 

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.