Educators Share Hopes, Concerns About Virtual Reality at ISTE

By Sarah Schwartz — June 26, 2018 3 min read
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Virtual reality is hard to to escape at the nation’s largest ed-tech conference this year.

Several dozen sessions at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference in Chicago touch on VR or offer tips for integrating it into the classroom, Google is offering tutorials for its Google Expeditions virtual tours, and a handful of VR vendors dot the exhibition hall.

But only about 5 percent of U.S. teachers say they’re using VR in their classroom. The technology can be expensive for cash-strapped districts, and there’s a lack of research on how VR will affect children. And even at a conference that draws tech-minded educators from around the country, some expressed reservations about VR’s potential as a learning tool.

Education Week talked with educators about their hopes for—and concerns about—this new classroom technology.

“There’s lots of ways to do virtual field trips, but this is a little more engaging,” said Pamela Fontaine, a library media curriculum and instructional leader with Manchester Public Schools in Manchester, Conn., who uses Google Expeditions.

Teachers in her school’s medical careers academy use the virtual tours to introduce the human body in action—students can follow the digestive system in one of the expeditions.

It’s more engaging for the students than watching it on a screen at the front of the room, said Rachel Discko, the district’s technology integration specialist.

Some classes also use the expeditions to supplement language instruction, leading students on tours of different countries.

Discko and Fontaine hope to expand the use of virtual reality in their district, as they say the technology captures the interest of students who get frustrated or fidgety during “sit-and-get” instruction.

“It’s hard for kids to sit and listen and absorb a lot of information, but if they see it on their own, maybe they could remember it,” said Discko.

For now, though, there are only a few teachers in the district who are interested in using VR, she said. Google Expeditions are all developed by the company (though teachers can make recommendations for topics they’d like to see), and there isn’t as much content available for English courses as there is for STEM subjects.

When the Novelty Wears Off

But some teachers say simply touring a digital space doesn’t meaningfully change learning.

“We’re just substituting a picture book with technology,” said Simon Dudar, a 5th grade science and social studies teacher at Haldane Central School District in Cold Spring, N.Y., of Google expeditions.

Dudar sees more promise in Poly, a Google VR platform that allows users to create their own 3-D spaces. He and his colleagues are hoping to map an inter-grade virtual world where 4th through 6th graders can create their own “rooms” and view their peers’ work.

Integrating virtual reality is only worth the money and effort if it allows students to create and experience something they wouldn’t have been able to build before, said Michelle Hartford, a 4th grade teacher in the district who works with Dudar.

With Poly, “the headsets are the endgame,” said Dudar. Students do the work to create the virtual realities on Chromebooks—the VR headsets are just the venue for displaying the final product. They’re not “really a part of the creation process,” he said.

The biggest barrier to expanding virtual reality is cost, said Dudar. Purchasing headsets for Poly is a significant expense for his district. The school bought eight, he said, which students will share.

Regardless of the hardware, it’s important that VR platforms serve a greater function than just a personal movie screen. “They all have phones, so they [view] it at home. The novelty of just looking at it has worn off,” said Dudar.

“Without making the stuff inside of it, it’s just a bell and whistle. It’s not worth it.”

Photo: Tara Cahill, director of technology integration for Grand Prairie school district in Dallas, Texas, tries out an underwater virtual reality headset at the ISTE conference in Chicago, on June 25. —Michelle Kanaar for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.