Classroom Technology

5 Ways Teachers Can Use Virtual and Augmented Reality in the Classroom

By Kate Stoltzfus — May 17, 2018 5 min read
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Jaime Donally wants students to experience what it’s like to hold a beating heart in their hands and walk among the planets in the solar system—without leaving the classroom. As a former pre-K-8 math teacher turned technology-integration specialist, Donally spends her time thinking about how educators can practically use augmented, virtual, and mixed reality.

Immersive-reality technology is slowly creeping into the education world, whether as a tool for training new teachers or adding excitement to student learning. Virtual reality is an interactive digital environment, while augmented reality projects digital images or text against a viewer’s real surroundings. Mixed reality is a combination of the two. The tools continue to get more life-like and more affordable.

Yet for all the hype, many educators and parents are wary of crossing realities, especially because there is little research so far about the technology’s effects. In 2017, only about 5 percent of teachers reported using VR or AR with students, according to a survey of 38,000 teachers by the nonprofit Project Tomorrow. Parents are particularly worried about potential negative effects on their children’s development, especially for young students who have a harder time separating what’s real from what’s imagined. Others wonder how to make such technologies meaningful for student learning.

Donally, who is based in White Oak, Texas, left her district-level technology coordinator position in 2016 and will move into independent education consulting in June. She runs a weekly Twitter chat about AR/VR education. Her book Learning Transported, released last month, tackles the fears and hurdles of immersive-reality integration and aims to get teachers on board with implementing these new technologies.

Using AR/VR is not just about entertainment, Donally argues—it’s about enhancing lessons (that virtual beating heart could go into a science discussion, for example), broadening students’ experiences through immersive virtual field trips, and helping them glean practical computer-science skills. The technology, she says, isn’t going away, so students should learn how to leverage it responsibly.

In a phone interview with Education Week Teacher, Donally shared her advice for harnessing the technology that teachers already have at their fingertips.

Work with what you’ve got.

“Many of our classrooms already have the resources and devices that they need to get started. We have Chromebooks in the classroom, PCs, laptops, mobile devices, and there’s so much we can do with those devices. It’s just a matter of being informed. I don’t think we start with big purchases and these crazy developer tools. While those tools may be cool, they’re not classroom appropriate. Should there be classrooms that are developing and coding, then that makes sense to go for developer tools, but they’re not made for all of our classrooms.”

Collaborate with school leaders to figure out learning goals.

“We need to scale back and look at our objectives in using this technology. Oftentimes, we start with the tools first and then backtrack to, ‘Oh, wait, what’s our goal here?’ We [should be] looking at standards, students’ expectations of their future, the future skills they’ll need to have, and then how to set this up in a way that we’ll have progress and success. Until we have teachers and principals and administrators sit down to have a collaboration, it’s always going to be a one-time thing. You also need to have a buy-in from [the school’s technology team] in making sure you have the bandwidth to handle what you want to accomplish.”

Pick multi-platform tools that adapt for all ages.

“Look at tools that cover all subjects, all grade levels, and all skill levels. Something that’s multi-platform, so if you have iPads or Chromebooks, you can hit all of those things. CoSpaces Edu is a very good starting point for classrooms. A kindergartner can do it up through a high schooler who’s coding and using [coding language such as] Blockly or JavaScript. Students can go in at all levels and create virtual reality, animation, characters, and you can invite people to join in your world. NearPod does a fantastic job making VR accessible for teachers.

On the AR side, there’s a mobile-based Merge Cube—it’s like holding a hologram in your hand. It can become many different things based on the apps that you download. Students can also be the developers of the content, make apps, and see their products come to life in augmented reality. Getting our students to see the practicality of what they create digitally come to life is very relevant to their future.”

Give students ownership.

“We need to look beyond experiences toward our creation tools for our students. Students are beginning to see a necessary skill of how they’re going to handle their digital world, and creating digital content is what we’re looking at. So digital content is no longer just a PowerPoint—we’re looking at things in 360. Creating 360 images can be done through Google Street View with any mobile device or tablet.

As students progress and learn these skills, they’re able to develop an understanding of how this can be applicable for their life and their world. Being the authors of their content—that’s relevant and important because they created it. A lot of this seems scary because it seems complex, but there are simplified versions to get started. It’s really getting buy-in from your students and allowing them to take that learning and customize it for what fits to them.”

Find the right balance.

“If I’m going to put a student on a VR for hours, yes, that’s not good, just like watching TV for hours is not good. I think once teachers are able to first identify where our students struggle and how this technology can be a bridge for their learning, that’s when parents and teachers are going to start seeing the practical usage. In my classroom, I don’t have the option to bring you to the moon, but I can bring you to the moon in this experience. When you think about how mind-blowing that is, it is scary because we don’t understand what that means for our future.

But I’m also practical. I have three children of my own. I just went out and bought an Oculus Go [virtual reality headset], and it is addicting. I have very open-ended and honest conversations about how long we should be on it. What’s healthy for our brains? When you come out of this VR world, how do you feel? We have these conversations as opposed to saying, ‘Technology is bad.’ It’s going to be in their face for the rest of their lives. It’s more powerful for us to be going on this journey together in a common-sense, practical way.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo credit: A student uses a virtual-reality viewer at Chapelwood elementary in Indianapolis last year. —AJ Mast for Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.