Virtual Reality is Here and We’re Not Ready

***This article is a summary of the incredible presentation by EdTech teacher, Greg Kuloweic who has done extensive research on VR in education. Here is a link to the presentation and his resources. I highly recommend looking at the current research from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

The EdTech Teacher Summit 2017 created a more realistic picture of where the world is going in technology and how quickly education must change to keep up. From virtual and augmented reality to wearables that measure emotion, modern technology brings exciting and moral implications to our world. These tools open major opportunities for bringing learning to life but they also pose serious threats to our understanding of truth and intellectual property.

The Answer for Teaching Empathy

Current research is quickly discovering that the immersion of people in a virtual world is an unbelievable tool to teach empathy. Imagine giving a middle schooler a headset that brings them to a Syrian refugee camp. They can see and hear things as if they were there. As they turn, so does the camera: up, down and side-to-side. Now imagine that while they are wearing the headset, they also are wearing a suit that hits more senses like feel, or smell to make the experience more realistic. You actually don’t have to imagine because these tools are already available.

Moral Implications

But with this great tool comes a lot of ethical questions. Imagine how scary or haunting an experience like this could be for someone because of how real it feels. The research has shown that people who have VR experiences actually remember the moments as if they were really there. And, the memories trigger from the emotional response. Think about the biases of the creators and how this might impact reality. Should textbook companies be creating these? News companies? Religious institutions?

Why should we care? In the age of ‘fake news’ our obligation to teach students to critically analyze the bias and intent of a media source is about to get a lot harder. Think about it. If consumers of VR actually remember experiences as if they were actually there, VR creators have the power to shape memories and therefore perceived truth.

Next Steps for Teachers

What should we do about it? Well, waiting for VR headsets to be as ubiquitous as iPhones to address this issue is definitely not the responsible response. We did that with social media and look where it has gotten us. Instead, expose your students to VR and while doing so, have open discussions about the pros and cons. Give them opportunities to critically examine these technologies by asking the right questions and taking the novelty away early. This could have an important impact on its growth and regulation in the future.

Let Students Consume VR

VR can be consumed or produced. The easiest way to immerse the students in your subject area and experience VR in a meaningful way is through the Google Expeditions app. The virtual tours allow students to travel around the world, outer space and even inside the human body. You guide the tour by giving them directions for where to turn. When they hit certain places, you can read information provided or guide them with your own information. This is basically PowerPoint on steroids. They can use iPads or they can use Google Cardboard headsets with their phones. Best of all, it’s free!

Give Opportunities to Produce VR

There are a ton of amazing ways you or your kids can produce VR. You don’t even need to take a 360 degree photo. Use one that already exists to create VR tours of famous places and museums. Open source 360 degree photos are available on 360cities.net and Flickr. In Flickr, you can search ‘The Commons’ for open source pictures and then ‘equirectangular’ to get a curation of 360 degree photos that are available for personal use. For 360 videos, go to YouTube and type “360 degrees” in the search.

Take 360 degree photos yourself! With the Google Streetview app, you can take them anywhere, and it’s free! This app does not seem to exist on the iPad. There are other apps that do a better job for a low cost.

After you have the picture, you can create a virtual reality tour for others to experience being in ‘your’ shoes. There are rumors that Google Expeditions will soon be allowing others to create their own Expeditions. This could be amazing for teachers especially if there is a library of non-Google created content for others to use. This will be an awesome way to make projects for a real purpose.

Google Tourbuilder, Roundme and Story Spheres are all programs that allow you to build your own tours although all are limited in what you can add. while one allows audio, the others only allow added texts. Tourbuilder is not available through an iPad. I encourage you to look through these as there are amazing examples on each of the websites.

CoSpace Edu seems by far the most expansive. You can add your own picture, one you downloaded from the above sources or you can choose from their library. Some environments are fictional and cartoon-like. You can add 3D models created on Tinkercad to your virtual world and you can access Google Poly library for open source 3D .stl files. Finally, there is a coding component you can add using block coding like Scratch to make the 3D objects move. It is fantastic and second graders can use it.

Ideas for Producing VR in your class:

  • Create a VR scene to a poetry reading
  • Create a scene in history or from a story
  • Take 360 photos in students’ favorite spaces on field trips. Kids can bring them back and curate a virtual fieldtrip
  • Find pictures of rooms in museums around the world and students can create their own virtual field trip.

Lead Discussions with Your Students

Discussion questions that can be adapted for all ages:

  • What is cool about VR?
  • How did it feel to be in another person’s shoes? How did it change your perception of that person or place?
  • If you could immerse yourself in another environment which would you choose? Where would you go? What environment would you not choose?
  • How could we use VR to help people?
  • How could we use VR to scare people?
  • Think about the creators of the VR environments. Do you think there is potential for bias? How could this become a problem?How could we solve that problem?
  • What rules should be in place to protect people?
  • Is it actually a benefit to empathize with people we disagree with? How so?
  • What about VR games? How cool would Minecraft be as VR!? How would it change the way you play the game? Is it possible to make a VR game too realistic? How could a violent video game like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty be too realistic in VR. If so, how can we protect people?

I encourage all of you to follow @gregkuloweic and @arvrinedu to stay up on this technology and how it is impacting education.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series: Wearable Technology Taps into our Emotions

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