Building virtual realities in the classroom

Leaving the classroom without leaving the classroom. That’s the promise of virtual reality for many teachers. Google Expeditions enables educators to take their students on missions to Antarctica or below the ocean’s surface. Other apps take kids on a journey through the human body or the galaxy, let them visit famous landmarks or go on a guided tour to Ancient Egypt. More and more schools are experimenting with virtual reality — especially using smartphones and cardboards — in order to take kids on very special school trips.

Creating virtual realities in the classroom: Why?

It’s pretty self-explanatory to most people why kids benefit from virtual field trips: They present learning matter in a very vivid and entertaining way. And this is great.
But still, once the hardware has found its way into the classroom, it makes sense to explore possibilities beyond the mere consumption of readymade content. Namely: let students create virtual realities themselves. There are some reasons why teachers should consider experimenting with this possibility:

Active engagement with the new medium: For many students, the virtual field trips with their class will be their very first experience with virtual reality. Therefore, no matter if teachers use VR for history, geography or biology — they are also doing some technology education along the way. In this context, it makes sense to show students that virtual reality is something they cannot only consume passively but also actively shape; like pretty much any other technology. This will give them a deeper understanding of the function, possibilities and limitations of the medium — and thereby improve their digital literacy.

Creativity in a whole new medium: I probably don’t have to argue here that creativity is an important skill in an increasingly flexible world. There are many ways to express and explore it at school: painting, writing stories, building science models… Students vary greatly with respects to which form of expression they feel comfortable with.
Creating virtual realities is an exciting playground for students’ creativity since this medium plays by different rules than most established media. Actually, some of these rules are yet to be defined. Therefore, students need to reflect much more actively on how to present stories and information in VR. For example, they need to mentally change perspective in order to imagine how something they are building will look for someone who’s immersed in their creation.

Special sense of achievement: Creating something in itself is valuable in most cases. However, especially with virtual reality you also have to consider the immersive experience: Entering something you have built brings about a special sense of achievement. The same goes for giving others the chance to dive into an environment you’ve created.
You can be sure that the topic your students engaged with in that way will be very memorable to them.

And what for?

For educators who find these arguments convincing the next question is: How exactly can I include VR creation in my curriculum in a meaningful way?
This question is somewhat harder than when it comes to consuming virtual reality experiences in class: Here browsing educational VR apps already tells which subjects and learning matters can be spiced up with virtual reality.
With creating virtual realities in class, teachers will have to invest some more consideration and creativity. However, they also have more freedom to individually define a project that fits their intentions and curriculum than when they just choose an app from the stores.
Here are some ideas for bringing small VR creation projects to the classroom:

Computer science education: The most obvious use case is computer science. Here, it’s mainly the technical aspects that are interesting to explore: How does virtual reality work? What does it take to create experiences for the medium?
Also, in classes that have some basic knowledge of coding, programming for VR will definitely spark excitement among the students.

How do virtual realities work? The best way to understand this, is to create one yourself.

Presentations, models and infographics: Gathering, evaluating and concentrating information — students do this with essays, presentations and group work in most school subjects. And with a good reason.
Virtual reality is worth exploring as a medium for displaying information. Students can easily curate their own virtual exhibition, let’s say on cave paintings. Build a 3D model of a chemical substance. Or create an immersive infographic about the latest elections.
For kids it’s not only exciting to present information in a very new medium, but it’s also a challenge they can learn a lot from.

A virtual exhibition is quickly created, doesn’t cost anything and feels pretty real when you explore it with a VR headset.

Storytelling: Stories are much more than entertainment. And therefore, being able to grasp, interpret and (re-)tell storylines is being trained in language classes throughout a student’s school career.
Virtual reality can add an interesting twist to the good old disciplines of reading and writing stories: Students can develop fictional settings for their stories in virtual reality before writing them. Or they can recreate scenes or plot lines from books they are reading in class — and let Shakespeare meet 21st century technology.

Can you condense the plot of Romeo and Juliet in a few 3D spaces?

Memorizing: Learning things by heart is boring. However, it’s still a necessary evil for many subjects. Virtual reality can make memorization at least a little more exciting —funnily enough using a technique that’s over 2000 years old.
Since ancient Greek times, people have pictured places in their mind and put imaginary objects into them in order to remember things better. The effectiveness of this memorization technique was much later confirmed by modern psychology.
Virtual reality offers the possibility to not only use spaces in the mind, but also virtual spaces for these memorization techniques. That makes it easier to introduce students to them and create the first mnemonics together. Students will probably find it more interesting to walk through virtual instead of imagined memory spaces.