February 7, 2018

Virtual Reality finds its way into the classroom – in a high poverty district

Susan Dunning and student

People have been talking about using Virtual Reality as a teaching aid in the classroom for a long time, but not it is finally being trialed in a high-poverty educational district in Pennsylvania.

An article by Eleanor Chute in the Hechinger Report, highlights the use of Virtual Reality to broaden the minds of junior highers in the Cornell School District of Coraopolis Pennsylvania. The article gives the example of Jada Jenkins, an eighth grader who was transported into the very different world of a forest by the VR headset.

In a scenario that might have come straight out of a James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, Jada and her classmates were given their own avatars and were able to wander around the virtual forest and find each other. Rather than actually walking around, they moved their avatars with hand-held controllers. This meant they could interact in the virtual forest without the risk of bumping into each other.

Voyage 2

People in a forest

But this was only the beginning. After a period of acclimatization, Jada and the other students were assigned to teams and sent off on a scavenger hunt. They had to solve clues to win. For example, Chute gives the example that they had to identify which omnivore might forage for nearby plants or animals after awakening from hibernation. In this case, the answer was a black bear and the winning team could plant their flag to claim victory.


Julian Korzeniowsky

The project, called Voyage, was developed by a team at Carnegie Mellon University. Julian Korzeniowsky, a graduate student who worked on the project, describes VR as:

 “another tool teachers can use to hopefully increase the learning gains of their students through engagement.”

In the Voyage “game” - if one can call it that - the students also hear realistic sounds like flowing water or animals in the distance.

The immersive realism was a high motivating factor. It turned learning into fun - always a good way to hold children’s attention.

This is one the strengths of Virtual Reality. It can bring situations to life in a way that books or even TV and movies can’t. But at the same time it is cheaper than field trips. And when the place is a forest with black bears, it is also a lot safer! Other students have witnessed 3D scenes in Syrian refugee camps, according to the Hechinger Report article. This has broadened their horizons without putting them in danger. Other VR scenarios can give students a glimpse into history, re-enacted in three dimensions.

Kristopher Hupp, director of technology and instructional innovation in the Cornell School District explained the reasoning behind the project: “Virtual reality allows students to explore places and structures in a way that is as close to real life as possible, without actually leaving our campus.”

Meanwhile, a company called Schell Games founded and headed by Jesse Schell, professor of the practice of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University is developing a virtual chemistry lab. The concept has been around for decades. The classic example was the experiment that “blows up the lab” and teaches the students about the dangers of explosives without actually killing them. But doing it on a computer screen was never quite the same as doing it in 3D as if you are actually there in the lab, mixing the chemicals and heating them up over the bunsen burner.

Schell believes that the main value of VR is in helping students to visualize, rather than leave it to the imagination alone. As to the fact that VR has not yet made major inroads into the classroom, Schell compares this to the initial resistance to computers, in the eyes of educators “between 1978 and 1990.”

Susan Dunning and others

Susan Dunning and others

These days, of course, computers are no longer as expensive as they were up till the mid-eighties. And their value as educational tools is beyond dispute.

Cornell School District has been described as a “high poverty” area. But they were helped out by a $20,000 grant from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a regional public school service agency. This grant enabled them to buy 15 Google Daydream headsets, a similar number of Mattel View Master VR viewers and also 15 Google Pixel phones. The Daydream headsets were for the older students, while the younger ones got the Mattel View Masters.

In order to keep an eye on the situation, the teachers don’t wear headsets, but use iPads to monitor what the students are seeing. But it doesn’t stop there. The district has bought two 360-degree still cameras to enable the teachers to develop their own content.



It was in fact only after the school district bought the VR hardware - without a specific project in mind - that Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center got involved. As the Voyage blog explains:

The idea started with a spark from Sharan [Shodhan]. He heard that the Cornell School, a high school in the Pittsburgh area, acquired a bunch of Google Daydreams and Pixels, but didn’t really have anything to do with them. Sharan wanted to combine the power of VR (great immersion, but somewhat isolating) with the power of the classroom (collaborating with your friends and working with the teachers). This turned into the idea to create a multiplayer VR experience for the classroom that we will integrate into the Cornell School at the end of the semester.

Thereafter the project was developed by the Carnegie-Mellon team, with feedback from the teachers and students at the school. The results were impressive. While the students found the app “cool” the teachers noticed that it was also a very effective learning tool. As history teacher Andrew Erwin said: “But with virtual reality, even with one try, I could tell that there is some educational value. The kids do remember facts better when they use virtual reality.”

So far, the team have merely been testing the waters. But as it’s now finding its way into the classroom, it’s only a matter of time before we see a whole lot more of it.

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