As technology improves and makes its way into classrooms, there are usually wistful sighs from those who wished they could have had access to that tech when they were growing up. And it looks like VR is following suit in inspiring those envious sighs. Lisa Castaneda, Co-Founder, and CEO of Foundry10, Marie Graham and Steve Isaacs, grades 6-12 teachers, and Jessica Ochoa Hendrix, CEO and Co-Founder of Killer Snails discussed VR in the classroom at “VR is Complicated: The Potential for VR in Education From Student and Teacher Perspectives.”

This panel wasted no time in biting the bullet to discuss the technical hurdles of VR. The biggest hurdle was simply obtaining the hardware needed to run anything at all. Foundry10 happened to have helped both Isaacs and Graham at their schools. Eventually, Graham was able to partner with Alienware to obtain items as well. Graham also suggested setting up VR stations in classrooms where VR was limited to just one or two units.

Another technical hurdle that Graham felt pressure from was her initial lack of knowledge about advanced tech. When her husband said that she wouldn’t be able to learn to code, she began pushing for it and studying. Initially, many of Graham’s students didn’t have a coding background for their own VR projects either, so she and her students were able to work and learn together, and from each other.

VR is Complicated: The Potential for VR in Education From Student and Teacher Perspectives panel at Games for Change

Another solution to both of these hurdles came in the form of educational grants. In some cases, kids that have grants may be asked to build computers for other schools in their districts. This can cut down the costs of buying new PCs to some extent, and this allows the opportunity for VR to expand beyond just one classroom to a whole school, to several schools. Potentially it could reach even further than this.

The question of “digital citizenship” also came up. This is, essentially, being a good citizen, but online. It started with how to treat classmates when they’re in the VR experience. It is tempting for a student to mess with classmates, so kids are appointed as “chaperones” to watch over classmates undergoing the experience and making sure they don’t hurt themselves and classmates leave them be. This also helps empower students by giving them an important job in the room, which is always great.

Graham added that it’s incredibly important to know, as an educator, what’s out there in order to respond to it properly. She noted that VR porn is easily accessible, as is misinformation. She coaches her students to be critical when approaching VR, asking themselves questions of whether the developer behind what they’re experiencing is trustworthy, what the devs’ angles may be, if the information is accurate, and so on, the same way students are taught to approach more traditional sources of information in a classroom.

BBC Earth: Life in VR: California Coast Screenshot
A simulation like ‘BBC Earth: Life in VR: California Coast’ seems like it would be a perfect fit for a classroom environment. Students might be asked why the BBC would create this simulation.

Castaneda also noted that it’s important for teachers to give students an idea of what they will experience in VR. Going into experiences, you don’t know a student’s past experiences or what might set them off. It would horrible to throw a kid with a fear of the ocean into a simulation that’s set underwater, for example. So briefing a student before they get set up with a rig allows a child to decide if they can handle an experience. Everyone agreed that reflections on the experiences afterward were equally as important, so students are able to unpack their experiences and teachers can make sure that their students really understand what is taking place, and contextualize if they don’t. It helps students articulate their knowledge and assimilate it into the rest of their knowledge. There were conflicting views on if official assessments (I.E., tests) were important or appropriate at this time.

A big part of Isaacs’ and Graham’s curriculum is having kids manipulate and create their own VR. Isaacs pointed out that creating in VR–using an app like Tiltbrush–and for VR are two very different things. His students are encouraged to play with already existent apps and then start creating within those, like in Climby. Climby has create-your-own stages but is also very buggy, so kids get to experience troubleshooting and problem-solving, skills that transition to Modbox, which can lead to using Unity or Unreal Engine. Graham added that she has noticed that kids with a coding background seem to take to Unity more easily and kids without seemed to do better with Unreal.

One amazing project Graham and her students were involved with was a VR experience that would allow children who are paralyzed to use and feel as if they could move their bodies. Her kids got stuck–so she reached out to a VR development team which allowed her and her students to come in. They guided the kids but allowed them to take the reins and experiment. Graham added that it’s very important to take on any VR project with a clear objective in mind for success. Isaacs added that VR is just one resource of many that exists for kids to use.

Tilt Brush Screenshot showing VR users creating an active volcano.
Tilt Brush allows users to paint in 3D and interact with their creations from all angles. It was cited several times during “VR is Complicated,” especially as a good introduction to the VR platform.

Leading off of this, it was mentioned that “just because something is accessible doesn’t mean it’s available.” VR is still new and exciting–kids want to get their hands on it! Isaacs noticed that kids often came in after school or during lunch when they had a great chance to work one-on-one with the VR systems and their teachers. He also opened his door to students from all over the school, not just Game Design students.

There’s also the big question of what kind of learning VR can provide. It can help clarify knowledge that’s already been learned in a different setting, such as studying from a book or hearing during a lecture. A certain amount of movement is involved with VR as well, from simple hand and head movements to walking around and using a space. Movement has long since been tied to learning, and not just for those kinetic learners out there. The interactive environment is a big plus too, of course. It allows kids to develop a greater relationship with what they were learning about. As with anything else, VR does have the potential to overwhelm when it starts incorporating too many moving parts, and get in the way of its own benefits.

VR is Complicated: The Potential for VR in Education From Student and Teacher Perspectives panel at Games for Change

Isaacs and Graham were eager to share both software and how to find software for kids when asked. The VR community on Twitter, foundry10, and looking for professionals in the community have proven invaluable for students, as well as students looking to and learning from each other. Some VR creation software that has already been mentioned above was repeated, along with Sculpt GL. Asking students what isn’t there for them to use appears to be an effective way to get them to create in a direction that they want to see.

There are still some questions up in the air right now, though. Place-based data is easier to measure than people-based data, for one thing, so it’s difficult to measure effectiveness. The length of time needed to prime a student for VR that involves a pithy, complex topic doesn’t seem to have been tested in completely controlled environments. There is also the question of AR involvement in the classroom. Graham enthusiastically announced, “I’m gonna figure it out!” in response to that one. AR in the classroom is a tool that needs even more research than VR in the classroom right now.

For more information on other events offered at Games For Change, check out its programming schedule and our other related articles below. We were there for all three days, so please continue checking n3rdabl3 for more on Games For Change Festival 2018!

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