Classroom Technology

How This Teacher Tapped Virtual Reality to Pump Up Student Engagement

By Alyson Klein — June 27, 2023 2 min read
A young person reaches out from behind a virtual reality headset
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Justin Kosek’s 6th graders usually find the water cycle a somewhat dry topic. (Pun intended). Could adding dragons to the mix help?

That’s what Kosek, a teacher in the West Allis-West Milwaukee school district in Wisconsin set out to answer when he turned the science unit into a virtual reality, project-based learning experience. The assignment: Use VR tools, including a headset and coding program, to create an educational game about the water cycle.

Over about three weeks, students worked in teams and dreamed up all sorts of imaginative scenarios, Kosek said. For instance, one group, whose work Kosek shared during a session at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference here this week, created a game in which a fire-breathing dragon disrupts the water cycle. Players must complete a series of tasks and answer questions about the inner workings of the water cycle to stop the dragon and save the day.

To create that game, students not only had to master the ins and outs of the water cycle, they had to “do such an immense amount of problem solving, collaboration,” Kosek said.

They seemed to enjoy it. In fact, Kosek got calls from parents curious about what had gotten their kids coming home so excited about school, a rarity in the high-poverty community where he teaches.

“I saw higher attendance, I saw students just more actively engaged and wanting to know more,” he said in an interview after the panel.

To be sure, “there are some tech issues,” including connectivity problems, Kosek said. But they weren’t as disruptive as he feared they might be.

The students “wanted so desperately to try [the VR technology] that they were so patient,” Kosek said.

Students at his middle school are also among the most likely in the district to break or lose technological devices, but in this case they took “great care” of the VR headsets because they were eager to use the tech again.

A couple of students got headaches after using the VR headsets, a problem that sometimes happens for people using virtual reality. Kosek urged them to take a break when that happened. And the school generally urged students not to spend too much time navigating in virtual reality environments, since it can cause sensory overload.

Those challenges are common when schools try VR.

Though some ed-tech experts predict VR will be used more widely in schools in the near future, the technology can be glitchy and difficult to manage. Kosek spent up to an hour getting each of his 15 VR headsets ready for classroom use.

Virtual reality devices can also be pricey. (Meta’s Quest VR 3 headset retails for about $500.)

But West Allis-West Milwaukee received a roughly $100,000 grant to help kickstart some of its VR work. And it snagged refurbished VR headsets from Meta, the company that owns the social media platforms Facebook and Instagram.

Kosek and others also got professional help from Kwaku Aning, the director of innovation at San Diego Jewish Academy, a private school in southern California, who has significant experience with education technology, including VR.

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