Something I’ve been interested in since I was a very small child is virtual reality. Could be that it stems from escapism, could be I read too many science fiction books over the course of my years (Tad William’s Otherland and the soon to be Spielberg produced adaptation Ready Player One are good examples of this) but whatever it is, I remain fascinated with the idea of experiencing other realities. In 2016 this finally became commercially possible with the release of the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and announcement of  Google Daydream, Magic Leap, and other techs in development.

htc-vive-whats-in-the-box-0The HTC Vive will set you back $800 USD, not including the actual computer you’ll need to run it.

“But Teach,” I hear you say,”Those products cost like $800 USD and that’s without even the computer to run it. How am I going to get funding to use that in a classroom?” And to you I say that there has been tech in place to solve this exact issue for a few years now. Samsung’s Gear VR (in partnership with Oculus) and Google’s Cardboard (Yes, Cardboard) are here to help.samsung-gearvr-2015-1

Reach out and touch the future… or something like that.

Both of these products use smartphones as the main device. Those things that most students use as snapchat and instagram machines? They can introduce your students to literal magic. (I know it’s not.. Actually magic. But the childlike wonder in my heart that flares everytime I get into a virtual space tells me it might as well be.) The Gear has a higher initial investment (About $99 per headset, and you must have a Samsung phone to use it) whereas Cardboard runs on either an Android or an iOs device and is.. Free. Personally I prefer the Gear, as Samsung’s partnership with Oculus has allowed for that system to be better at tracking your head movement and they have a better base of software to actually use with it. But for classroom purposes, Google Cardboard is more than capable of handling what you’re going to throw at it.

More info can be found here at the official sites:
http://www.samsung.com/global/galaxy/gear-vr/
https://vr.google.com/intl/en_ca/cardboard/

(Sidenote, if any of your students already have a Gear headset and they want to bring that in, but you’d like them to work in the same environment as the rest of the students, a workaround guide can be found here: http://endspacevr.com/google-cardboard-for-gear-vr/)

“But what IS Google Cardboard? And why should I care?”
You’re right to ask these things my friend. Come with me.

These headsets allow for a person to experience a different or alternate reality than the one they are currently experiencing. Not in the ‘psychedelic drug’ sense, more in the ‘one second you’re in a classroom in Eastern Canada and the next you’re standing next to a Buddhist Temple in Thailand’ sense. I am not a computer engineer and would barely be able to explain the rudiments of the actual code powering these things. But what I can tell you is that if you play around with one of the headsets for about an hour, you’ll have a decent handle on what you’re doing and will be able to troubleshoot with students.

Obviously one of the major benefits is immediate immersion into a subject material. One of my first interactions with the tech was watching a 5 minute video put out by the Mythbusters Adam Savage diving to a shipwreck, with many sharks swimming around me. This is where you and I diverge by the way, VR is something that you just have to experience. I can describe it with all the flowing prose at my disposal but it had to be experienced to truly be understood (And to find out if it’s for you, some people just don’t like it). Teach a lesson about the battlefields of Europe during the 20th century, then watch as your students are transported there. They can look around, get a proper sense of place, and really come to understand what it took for Allied soldiers to storm the beaches of Normady (for instance). Or, you can have them watch a Cirque du Soleil performance from the perspective of the stage (If this isn’t one of the coolest ideas to you we probably have differing pedagogy re: experiential learning) while doing a lesson on circus in drama, or the nature of performance/art in english, or human kinetics in a gym class… and so on.kurios_4Look at the costumes! Just imagine having these clowns performing in front of your eyeballs!

While I didn’t have access to a full suite of Cardboard for a class, I do possess a personal Gear VR, and I have run smaller lessons with students in the university residence where I worked during my undergrad to teach the lesson about WWII that I mentioned earlier (friends are a great resource to have when you want to practice teaching and have no high school students readily available). It went… ok.

  1. Having only a single headset was less than ideal, as even with my small group of five when the others weren’t using the tech they complained of being a little bored. This could obviously be combatted by having other work for your students to do (don’t repeat my extremely rookie mistake!), and two students didn’t really ‘get’ the point of what I was trying to show them.
  2. Unfortunately, we don’t really have 360 photos from the time period, only modern day, so you really have to have a good handle on your students’ grasp of historical thinking if you’re going to use it like I did.
  3. Less so with motionless apps, but another thing to be wary of is disorientation or nausea in VR. Just be ready for this, each person reacts differently.
  4. Some students will not grasp the lesson if it is the first time they have ever done anything in VR, rather they will more than likely wonder at the novel nature of the tech and ignore the lesson completely. A good way to combat this is to have them get their ‘play’ out of the way early on.

That wraps up what I have on this specific EdTech at the moment. Obviously it isn’t perfect, but VR is still a growing field and there are new applications and ways to use the extant ones every week. The barrier to entry is a little more difficult than others we have available to us teachers, but I think the benefits far outweigh the hurdles to learn how to use it effectively. My advice is to tool around, see how other teachers have used it, and go from there. There’s already a Minecraft Gear VR edition, and given how that software is being explored (or mined… I’ll show myself out) for use in education I’m sure you could rub some ideas together and see what sparks you make.

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