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VR Education: JESS Dubai

Virtually Learning: Practical Ways To Integrate High-end VR Into The Classroom

Steve Bambury of VirtualiTeach and JESS Dubai returns to discuss more about VR’s use as an educational tool.

In the first article in this series (which you can read here) I focused on why I think schools should look at investing in a high-end virtual reality (VR) setup like a Rift or a Vive. This time I’m going to focus on the more practical side of things and look at how a school can integrate a single setup or limited number of them.

The analogy I drew last time was to the days gone by when schools only had one TV or a single PC and it would be moved from class to class on a cart of some kind. If you can only afford a single Rift or Vive, the first thing to consider is whether you want to follow a similar approach to this. In other words, the school could invest in a VR Ready laptop rather than a desktop and mount base stations on tripods rather than fix them to the walls in a dedicated space. This approach would give you the flexibility to set up in multiple locations but the trade-off would be that there is more prep time required to begin using the equipment. Obviously for some schools this wouldn’t be viable due to space limitations and in fact the number of power points that are accessible in a room can also be a factor. Nonetheless, this would be the logistical approach I would recommend to those in a position to work like this as it means that a Vive/Rift can be used in parallel to other tech (which I will come on to shortly.)

A Sixth Form student at JESS Dubai using an HTC Vive for an Art project.

One last consideration would be staff. We are lucky at JESS Dubai inn that my role as Head of Digital Learning and Innovation allows me to work with various departments across our three schools as and when they need me. As such when a team want to embed the use of one of our Vives our Acer Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) headset into a unit of study, we can usually coordinate schedules so that I can be with them to help facilitate. Some schools will have a technology coordinator or similar role who may be able to do the same. If not, perhaps a member of an IT support staff team could help. Of course option three is that the teacher themselves is trained to use the technology and coordinates its use independently. This can be viable of course but as it is likely that other activities will be going on in the room, it may be best to ensure that at least one additional adult is present. The last thing you want it an over-excited student, using VR for the first time, hurting themselves or damaging the equipment. It’s worth noting that if you work with older students, you may be able to sidestep a staffing issue by using them as your VR support staff (perhaps you have student digital leaders that could fulfil this role?) but ultimately that decision would need to be made by the individual educator.

JESS Dubai
A Year 5 student at JESS uses Tilt Brush on the Acer WMR headset in a designated space.

The other thing to consider is the pedagogy of VR integration on this scale. Naturally teachers would never want to have students spend their learning time queuing to have their go on a headset so different approaches need to be considered. I’m going to share five different examples of how I have used a single HTC Vive at JESS Dubai with students.

1. Using high-end VR in parallel with mobile VR

This is the model I use quite frequently. Essentially I will find complementary experiences to use on the Vive and on mobile VR (which we can a lot more headsets for) and students will be able to access one or the other during the session. This may well mean that not every student gets to access the higher-end VR experience every time but names can be logged and if enough VR sessions are hosted throughout the year, they will all get some exposure to more immersive VR. By using the mobile VR in parallel, I tend to find that students are less bothered if they don’t get to use the Vive since they still got to use VR nonetheless. Here’s an example from a project with Year 6 who were learning about World War Two:

Another simple way to integrate VR when equipment is limited is to embed it as a part of a free-flow or carousel. For any non-educators that may be reading, free flow is when a range of activities are set up and students can move between them as they wish during a set amount of time whereas a carousel is when they move between a set number of activities in rotation. Either can work but depending on the ratio of students to HMDs, you may find that use within free flow is better. Avoid letting students queue for their turn and encourage them to complete other activities instead. The VR access could even become a reward for those that complete more activities or work responsibly.

A student using the Acer WMR headset as a part of an Egyptian themed free flow afternoon.

3. Using VR for enrichment with a small group

A class doesn’t always need to be 25+ students. A small number of students could use a VR experience as an enrichment activity to deepen their understanding of a topic or provide them with a unique learning opportunity. This could be mean extending more-able students or providing support for those with additional learning needs. It could even be an optional lunchtime drop-in session for those that are passionate about a topic. Finding ways to limit the group size will mean that more experiences can be delivered and the impact can still be huge. Here’s a clip from a session hosted with a small group of Psychology students from our Sixth Form:


4. Using VR as a design tool

In some cases at JESS Dubai we have been able to use VR as a tool for students to use as-and-when needed. This is mostly the case in departments like Art and DT where students can access VR to either prototype or asses  a design as the situation arises. A great example I can offer here was how we used VR within our DT department to augment a 3D design unit. Students used Google SketchUp to create their designs and were then able to drop these into the excellent Kubity app and actually step inside them for evaluation. We even had instances where the teacher went into the design as the student stood by and listened to their verbal feedback. Integrating VR in this way is very organic; it becomes another tool available to students when needed.

5. Using VR collaboratively, in a pair or small group

One approach I have trialled over the last year or so, is to have students work collaboratively using a VR headset. In a pair or small group, students take turns using the headset but when they are not inside the virtual world, they engage with the person who is. For example, a student could be exploring a virtual museum and describe  what they are seeing to their peer who records their observations in note form. This not only ensures that more students are involved but it circumvents the inability to record notes whilst using VR (for now at least!) It also encourages the person within the VR space to be more observant and engage with the details more carefully which can deepen their learning experience. This approach may not help you facilitate a large group quickly but it is definitely worth exploring.

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