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How Virtual and Augmented Reality are Shaking Up the Classroom

Imagine teaching your students about the solar system. Now imagine being able to give them the opportunity to really ‘see’ the solar system. Take this one step further and imagine enabling your students to be able to step into the galaxy and walk around the planets.

The good news is this isn’t some far off idea. It’s completely possible – with the help of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard at least a bit about VR, and maybe even had the chance to experience it in some form yourself. It’s an expanding form of technology that has gone from being more gaming orientated, to having a valuable impact in a broad cross-section of industries – including education.

As the technology has developed, it’s become much more accessible and usable. Now, almost anyone with a smartphone, tablet or even Chromebook can engage with VR and AR in meaningful ways. With the technology becoming more accessible and simplified to use, it also means that anyone – even the least tech-savvy individuals – can utilise this fantastic tool in the classroom without training or heaps of expensive gear.

What’s the difference between VR and AR?

Augmented Reality (AR)

Techopedia defines Augmented Reality as “an enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to add digital information on an image of something.” AR is more frequently used in apps for smartphones and tablets. AR apps use your phone’s camera to show you a view of the real world in front of you, then put a layer of information – such as text and/or images – on top of that view.

A popular use of AR that many students will be familiar with is Pokémon GO, where users track down Pokémon using GPS locations and the camera on the phones to ‘hunt’ down the creatures they need. Moving away from more games-orientated uses, the app Layar allows users to access interesting information about the places you visit. Similar to Pokémon GO, you open the app at a set location and when scanning the area with your camera, the app presents you with different information on your screen that matches the location.

Virtual Reality (VR)

According to Techopedia, there is no concrete definition for what a virtual reality experience involves and opinions differ depending on how it’s being applied and the mode used to achieve the virtual reality environment. It’s generally defined as “the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment.” Essentially, when you step into a VR experience, you are viewing a completely different reality than the one in front of you.

Virtual reality can be made up of an artificial environment – such as an animated scene – or a replication of an actual place that’s been photographed and then interpreted into a VR scene. Usually, with virtual reality, you can move around and look in every direction — up, down, sideways and behind you, as if you were physically there. You can experience VR through a specially designed viewer, such as the Oculus Rift, or via your standard smartphone device and VR apps, such as Google Cardboard or Daydream View.

With VR apps, you can explore inaccessible environments, such as the surface of the Moon or the top of Mount Everest. The New York Times even has a virtual reality app that lets you experience virtual environments across Earth and on other planets.

How is it currently being used in the classroom?

There are a number of really exciting and engaging VR apps that have been developed and designed especially for use in the classroom. The great news is that many of these are completely free to download and use! Here are a few of the more popular ones:

Google Expeditions – one of the well known VR apps in education. It’s been used by over 1,000,000 students in the UK, with over 600 expeditions to choose from.

Titans of Space – an excellent resource for teaching about the solar system. Students take on the role of an astronaut and take a tour of the solar system.

Discovery VR – run by The Discovery Channel, this app contains a series of 360° videos from around the world. Students can visit pandas in China or the bottom of the ocean to find out more about the world around us.

VR is also a fantastic way of encouraging students’ imaginations and providing them with a great tool to generate their ideas for exercises such as creative writing, research/descriptive based writing, STEM exploration, and creative media/art sessions.

3 VR and AR creation tools for students

Taking these new technologies one step further in the classroom is also becoming highly accessible. Rather than simply using VR and AR as a tool to add to lessons, there are plenty of platforms emerging that actually allows students to create their own VR and AR experiences.

Here are three of our favourites:

CoSpaces

CoSpaces is a great tool for introducing students to the world of creating VR – and it has a free version for the classroom. It’s predominantly web-based, but also has Android and iOS apps for creation and viewing. CoSpaces allows students to create their own VR scenes that can be viewed with VR goggles or via a Chromebook, tablet or computer.

When it comes to integrating STEM into the classroom this is a fantastic tool. It offers the ability to use block code or javascript to animate objects and add interactivity such as movement or switching between scenes. For more advanced students, there’s also a physics integration that allows them to give the object’s mass and friction via coding and programming.

Tour Creator

Along the same lines as Google Expeditions, Tour Creator is a public version of the Google Expedition creation tool. Very similar to a regular expedition, it allows students to add points of interest, descriptions, images and audio narration to any scene they like. It’s integrated with Google maps and students can take the 360 images from street view, and incorporate these into the scenes they want to develop in VR.

The benefit here is that the tech required in the classroom is very minimal. Students get access to high-quality images that they can adapt and utilise, without having to have a 360 camera available, or even leave the classroom.

MetaVerse

In terms of AR creation, Metaverse is one of the top platforms out there for students to engage with. It allows students to program an AR experience in a web-based interface that is extremely easy to use. Because it’s so quick to learn, students can quickly build an experience with step by step planning and storyboard style programming.

Any tips for best practice?

When it comes to STEM development, the benefits of utilising these tools are endless! With using the tools above for VR and AR creation, you can really let students use their imagination and team it with practical, technical skills to create something.

When it comes to careers, what about getting to students to create a short VR experience of their work placement or an industry they want to work in? Getting them to research, source images and put it all together to present to other students is a great way to boost engagement and give students a tangible project to deliver that not only meets real-world skills requirements but also encourages more critical thinking around the workplace and careers.

The best lessons that incorporate VR and AR are those that use it to compliment the lesson plan, rather than relying on it to be the main focal point. VR is most effective when used for shorter periods of time, with a clear objective for what you want students to get from the experience, whether that’s to develop ideas and students imagination or to provide relevant and relatable content.

Elaine Mead

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