As an early adopter and enthusiast for immersive technology in schools, I’ve had the opportunity to share ways to use augmented and virtual reality to transform learning with educators around the world. I provide staff development and training, and many of the teachers I work with are enthusiastic about trying new tools. For some, it’s the wow factor of using something novel or exciting; for others, it’s the allure of seeing their students highly engaged with new technologies.
But I’ve seen a lot of teachers dive in too quickly, selecting and using a tool without carving out time to think through how to implement it with fidelity. Before jumping into using a particular tool, I’d recommend taking a step back to develop a plan with a defined purpose that aligns with what your students need. Without intentionality, it’s difficult to get the full benefit of immersive technology for your students.
Here are some steps you can take to develop a plan for using virtual reality in the classroom:
1. Identify Your Goals
Starting with your goals is the best way to begin. There are many ways we can get sidetracked and lose focus on a very important question: Why use AR or VR? Are you using the technology to spark new learning interest, teach a new concept or reinforce a difficult one? Understanding what you hope to accomplish will guide your search for the right resources. Unfortunately, this critical step is often an afterthought.
When I ask teachers why they’re using AR or VR, they often tell me they saw an exciting new tool at a conference and found a way to make it work with their lesson plan or that a colleague tried out a tool and mentioned that their students loved it. It’s less common to hear teachers say they’ve selected a tool because they’re teaching content that’s impossible to bring into the classroom without augmented or virtual reality — but that’s when immersive technology makes the most impact.
Sometimes, our students need to learn about a concept that is hard to understand or too dangerous to explore. For example, it would be difficult to observe a coral reef ecosystem in person and it would be challenging to explore the moon’s three main landforms without technological assistance. In these instances, immersive technology can help teachers bypass restrictions and limitations to learning. These lesson illustrations have a clear purpose and goal for using augmented or virtual reality in the classroom.
2. Consider How Your Students’ Needs and Interests Align With Particular Tools
Once you have identified a meaningful goal or set of goals, it’s important to select a tool, but when it comes to using immersive technology, one of the biggest barriers is figuring out where to begin. With new tools being released every day, it’s hard to know where to start and what resources will support your students most. Rarely is there one tool that meets the needs of every student in the classroom. It often takes an assortment of choices or the use of multiple resources throughout the lesson. The key to finding the resource that meets your student’s needs is understanding how they learn best, what interests them and what factors impact their AR/VR experience.
If a student struggles with VR because they get nauseous, for example, selecting a resource with minimal motion is wise. If a student tends to get off track quickly, you might select tools that can be used inside the classroom, rather than tools that require students to leave the room and explore. If a student is a huge gamer, you could consider using immersive challenges or competitive games to bring excitement to their learning experience. As with any curricular tool or resource, the selection process should include aligning student learning styles, needs and interests to ensure that what you choose makes the most impact.
3. Understand the Benefits and Limitations of Your Classroom Devices
The majority of classrooms in the U.S. now have access to student devices. Most immersive experiences require a tablet or mobile device, however, web-based experiences are beginning to ramp up. The best place to begin is to understand what resources work with the classroom devices you already have.
Factors including device type and age impact the kinds of immersive experiences you can experiment with in the classroom, so it’s important to know what devices you have access to and how old they are. Some devices might limit access or functionality to particular AR or VR experiences. Chromebooks, for example, are dominant in the classroom but are also the most restrictive when adopting immersive technology. A rear-facing camera, which most Chromebooks lack, is essential for augmented reality to place digital items in the real world. Additionally, only a few immersive apps have access to Google Play.
A common misunderstanding is that you must purchase expensive devices before using immersive technology in the classroom, but that’s rarely true. While the devices you currently have access to may be somewhat limiting, using them requires little to no additional budget, so that could be a great starting point.
As you develop your immersive tech savviness, you’ll notice other devices that may support your students to flourish. After demonstrating the effort to use your current devices, you may be well-positioned to request new technology.
4. Consider the Learning Curve
One of the best ways to prepare a great immersive lesson is by implementing a resource with little to no learning curve. Some immersive resources require a lot of preparation to help students understand how to interact within the app. As an alternative, using a tool that doesn’t take too much prior knowledge or technical understanding allows you to jump right into the learning. Since the hope is to leverage immersive tools to deepen learning and bridge new connections for our students, you don’t want to spend an entire class learning how to use the technology, rather than using the technology to support students in learning the content.
In fact, most of the popular tools gained traction because they’re easy to use in classrooms. Beginners can immediately begin exploring, creating, and sharing their knowledge using immersive technology.
For many teachers, it’s not just the learning curve of using new technology, it’s also the process of lesson planning. Questions arise like whether to modify existing lesson plans or create new ones. When it comes to lesson planning, it might be helpful to adapt something that already exists.
Here are a few examples of existing lessons. I created these two lesson plans around Merge Cubes, which let you hold digital 3D objects — or holograms. The first was designed to explore terraforming Earth and the second was developed to learn about Egyptian history by exploring a virtual museum. And here’s a math lesson plan I developed to support students in using CoSpaces — another popular classroom tool, which lets students build 3D creations, animate them with code and explore them in AR or VR settings — to build virtual shapes.
5. Prepare for Trial and Error
Using these technologies is still relatively new to education, so it is important to remember that we are beta testers in the process. This increases the chance that not all tools will work as planned, so flexibility is key. Taking on the challenge of building immersive technology into your lesson requires you to be comfortable with trial and error.
One of the benefits of being a beta tester is that we have an opportunity to share our insights and recommendations with the companies developing the tools we’re using, so I’d encourage you to share your feedback.
It can be quite exciting to experiment with new tools, but there’s also value in stepping back to plan ahead. Immersive technology can be a powerful tool for engaging students, and when we plan carefully, we’re better able to deliver deeper, more memorable learning experiences for all learners — even the most reluctant ones.