Realities of Bringing Virtual Reality (VR) to the Classroom

By Dawn DuPriest, middle school computer science and electronics teacher at Preston Middle School and 2016 Allen Distinguished Educator
September 6, 2016

My first experience with Virtual Reality (VR) as an educator came about as a stroke of good fortune. One of my friends, an engineer at Google, won an Oculus Rift DK2 for placing second in a Google hackathon and offered to donate it to my class last spring. What do you say when someone offers you a bleeding-edge piece of technology? Of course I said yes, even though I couldn't imagine what I would do with it and didn't really understand what a VR headset was. With help from my colleagues and students, we worked together to explore VR educational opportunities at our school.

VR-Student-in-Classroom Allen Distinguished Educators.JPGI teach computer science and electronics at Preston Middle School in Fort Collins, CO, and I am an Allen Distinguished Educator. I was excited to share this new technology with my students. I brought the DK2 headset into school and installed the software on one of our clunky student desktops. For the last 15 minutes of class I allowed students to explore the built-in demo, a tour of a seaside house in Tuscany, and it was an instant hit. Check out this time-lapse capturing the first time excitement of my students.

News spread fast. Students I'd never met before approached me at lunch or before school exclaiming, "I heard you have an OCULUS! Can I see it? That's so cool! I want to check it out! I'm jealous of the kids in your classes!" I have seriously NEVER seen a piece of technology generate that much excitement. Not the 3D printers, iPad cart, 3D movie projector, video conferencing room, the flight simulator room, Arduino kits, or the robotics lab. (Yes we have a lot of technology!) 

My first thought was how can I channel this much excitement into meaningful learning experiences for my students? My colleague Matt Way, who does computer support at the school, and I decided to team-up and write some grants for more VR stations so we could explore the possibilities. We discovered that the cheapest beefy gaming computers with powerful enough graphics cards to support VR run $1600 and the headsets are about $600 each. Our first grant did not get approved, but the next two did.

Titans-of-Space-2-0-screenshot-from-YouTube.JPGNext we had to justify the cost. We knew that the VR headset was very engaging and that curiosity and engagement really drive learning.  Additionally, with VR technology you can visit places you could never go in real life and totally immerse yourself in these worlds. After students experienced the Tuscany house demo, we envisioned virtually traveling to the deepest parts of the ocean, through the human body, into outer space, and more. One of my favorite demos was Titans of Space, a tour through the solar system and beyond. I know the solar system, but I really felt like I “got it” when I could see the size, scale and texture of the planets and moons in full immersive VR. 

That said, the real value of technology in education is to instill the maker mindset and teach them to be creators with it. So my students and colleagues brainstormed learning opportunities enabled by this new technology:
  • Can students solve real-world problems in VR and what will that look like?
  • Where can students take people through VR that they've never been before?
  • Can students come up with a creative VR vision and make it happen?
  • Can teachers and students learn this new technology together?
  • Can we share lessons-learned with others and work together?

We then explored development tools and resources needed for VR creation.
  • Unity 3D: This software has solid VR support and is generally taught in our high school game development curriculum. It's easy enough to create a project on a student desktop, then migrate the project to the VR machine to view it on the Oculus headset.
  • Sams Teach Yourself Unity Game Development in 24 hours: One of my high-school teaching friends introduced me to this great resource and I was able to modify a few of the one-hour lessons to demonstrate how to create a virtual landscape and add a first-person controller to explore it. Building a project for VR is as easy as checking a box. These are brief video tutorials on creating a virtual landscape with collectible objects that move. There's a tiny bit of coding / scripting involved as well.
  • YouTube Playlist - Unity and VR in the classroom: I used the video tutorials in my Computer Science Explorations class and challenged students to create a virtual world - someplace you couldn't go in real life - and explore it on the VR headset. The kids made awesome creations. Students created a castle tour, a Pokemon Pokecenter, a medieval village, an Indiana Jones-style temple with traps, Parkour challenges, and space scenes with robots and aliens. We exhibited some of their VR work at the ISTE 2016 conference in Denver. The Oculus Rift is just as exciting to conference-goers as it was to students the first time I brought it into the classroom. The students were very articulate about how they create virtual worlds in Unity and the promise of VR to take you places you couldn't imagine going to in real life.

Where do we go with VR in the classroom from here? Now we have our new computers and an assortment of headsets. Our district Ed Tech department also acquired a few sets of 360-degree video hardware, so we can explore that angle of immersive content. Currently, the headsets, games, demos, Unity software and video equipment are all toys. We play and explore and let it push our curiosity without doing real engineering with it. But we will.

We will start by exploring pre-existing content and will begin following tutorials and modifying others' ideas, or creating our own content that isn't very practical yet. Then in a few years, it will be a creation tool that's used across content areas to solve real problems or create simulations that enhance learning. A broad cross-section of students will use the VR machines for projects, play, and tinkering. It'll be part of the fabric of innovative culture at our school. It's exciting to be a part of it as it starts!

VR-Testing-Dawn.jpgThank you to my collaborative partners! I’d like to extend a huge thanks to Matt Way, my co-conspirator and fellow visionary, and to Tracey Winey and our media center staff for helping to create the space and excitement for VR in the school. It's going to be awesome.

Learn more about Allen Distinguished Educator, Dawn DuPriest.

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