As technology changes and advances, it will oftentimes be incorporated into the classrooms. The advent of computers, and the access to them, has grown leaps and bounds in the past 40 years. Smartphones have revolutionized ways in which classroom materials can be delivered, or even how assignments can be submitted.
One other aspect of technology is starting to be seen used in a classroom setting on a more frequent basis, including here in the southeast: virtual reality. While the concept has many applications for entertainment, it is also being used to open up whole new worlds for teachers and students alike.
Michael Graham is the co-ordinator of curriculum development with the South East Cornerstone Public School Division. Last week, at the regular meeting of the SECPSD board, he made, along with two teachers from the region, a presentation about how virtual reality is being implemented to enhance the classroom experience.
“Currently, we have some ties to a lot of the different science classes, especially middle years, Science 10, and high school classes like Physical Science and Earth Science,” explained Graham. “There are direct ties with career education as well as some of our practical and applied arts.”
The introduction of the virtual reality headsets has created an environment that is interactive and engaging for the students taking those courses, Graham added. He noted it has also been seen to improve comprehension and retention and also gives access to some different, diverse resources that would have been inaccessible for students just years ago.
“If you think about it, consider this akin to a field trip,” Graham said. “We can’t be sending all of our kids to attend a mine site to see all the heavy equipment in action, but they can actually log into a virtual reality machine and realize the scope and size of that mining equipment, viewed virtually in a safe environment.”
While the technology has proven to be a huge benefit in the classroom, there are some drawbacks to it. One of the key ones is the space. Virtual reality can’t really be experienced while sitting at a desk, so space is needed. How this is rectified is by using the headsets in a gymnasium, or in an unused classroom that doesn’t have any desks set up.
Cost is another big issue, with the headsets often running into the hundreds of dollars apiece. This makes the introduction of them into every school not something that is attainable. However, there are some community partners that are working with SECPSD.
“The headsets that we are using are actually borrowed through a partnership with Energy Safety Canada,” Graham said. This is done through a shared-use model, with other school divisions using the equipment in their classrooms. He added there are some health factors when using the headsets, such as motion sickness, and health concerns such as visual fatigue that come up with screen time.
Despite those concerns, though, Graham sees a number of other academic applications for the use of virtual reality in the classroom, such as field trips.
“We can simulate going to a historical site, or doing a tour of a museum – you can see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre without a crowd of hundreds of people in front of it,” Graham enthused. “You can take a tour of some ecosystems and environments and see animals in their natural habitats.”
Graham pointed out that the headsets can also allow for what would be seen as otherwise unsafe or costly lessons in science, with various chemicals or expensive equipment being utilized in the virtual laboratory, instead of the chemistry classroom.
“I know that there’s been lots of talk about using some virtual reality for looking back at history, social studies, geography, because you can actually virtually tour places that are listed in textbooks,” Graham continued. “See a historical re-enactment in person, do a simulation of medieval jousting without having any danger to our students.” He also referenced how it can be used in art classes, allowing for the exploration of different forms of artistic expression, and how virtual reality can help with cultural awareness by allowing the students to immerse themselves in a different culture from around the world.
Last year, 1,224 students in 19 schools across SECPSD were able to participate in classes using virtual reality as an educational tool, with six teachers in the division formally trained in delivering virtual reality programming.
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