Virtual reality in the classroom may sound complicated to master, expensive to implement, and generally more trouble than it is worth. But those are misconceptions, said two teachers who regularly use the technology in their classrooms.
Here’s how the duo—who used to work in the same Texas school district and now present together, along with another colleague, as the “Edumillenials”—use VR to teach social studies, science, and more at different grade levels. Most of the resources they highlighted are free for educators, and don’t require pricey goggles.
Students can travel to a park across the country or trek through South Asia
Megan Puckett’s high school social studies students use Google Earth Voyager to create their own travel itineraries for Southeast Asia. They must create a packing list, write an overview of their trip, and pick some historical and cultural sites to visit.
When teaching about the Chicano movement—a civil rights movement by people of Mexican descent that took place in the 1960’s and 70’s—Puckett will “bring” her students to San Diego’s Chicano Park through Google Arts and Culture, and ask students to identify three big themes they see in the graffiti artwork there. The park is in California and Puckett teaches at Bridgeland High School in Cypress, Texas, near Houston. The technology allows her students to witness the lasting impact of a historical campaign and understand that “art is an expressive movement that can be found anywhere,” Puckett said.
During a unit on the early British settlement at Jamestown, Va., Puckett will use Google Street View to take her students to the modern-day city. They’ll have to figure out what the weather is like and what the colonists might have worn. When Puckett did this activity during October, the students were surprised to see that the leaves had changed to fall colors. “I thought that only happened in the movies,” one said, Puckett recalled.
These tools aren’t just for social studies, Puckett explained. For instance, a math teacher could use 360 Cities—which features street views and other panoramic images—to pinpoint, for instance, how many people on a New York City block are wearing short sleeves versus long. An elementary school teacher could have kids identify what they would see from the vantage point of a particular lamppost in the city and then write a story about what’s happening on the street from the lamppost’s perspective.
Connect with a scientist or play a guessing game with a class in another time zone
Kendre Perry’s students have visited national parks without leaving their desk chairs through the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration, which offers students the chance to tour the Great Barrier Reef, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Gateway National Park in St. Louis, and much more, for free.
Perry, who will start in the Winchendon school district in Baldwinville, Mass. this fall, is also a fan of “Skype a Scientist,” which allows classrooms to connect virtually with an expert specializing in climate change, genetics, vaccines, and topics. Teachers can specify what they are looking for or browse a list of scientists. Educators can even search for scientists with particular demographic characteristics—including race and sexual orientation—or find scientists who are first-generation college graduates. That way, if many students in a class are from a particular background, they can “see themselves in a scientist,” Perry said.
Another good, free tool: Mystery Skype. Students connect on Zoom with another class in a far-off geographic area and each class must ask yes or no questions to figure out where the other kids are. For instance, when Perry was teaching in Texas, her students connected with a class in North Dakota and noticed they were pretty bundled up, even in early spring. That was a clue that they weren’t in a warm climate. Teachers can find other educators to Mystery Skype with on Twitter. Other tools where students can connect with kids elsewhere: Whereby, Zoom, and Skype.
If these tools are so inexpensive and easy to use, then why aren’t more teachers taking advantage of them?
They’re overwhelmed, Puckett said.
“I feel like a lot of teachers will look at something, and they’ll be like, I don’t need another tool.. This is stressful,” Puckett said. Teachers are more receptive when they’re given “a quick, tangible thing that can be an element of a lesson” or a prompt, rather than, “having to build a whole, 45-minute lesson around it.”