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IDEA WATCH: Mobile Technology Goes Virtual–Using Virtual Reality in Education

By Carolyn Foote - Posted May 1, 2017
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Virtual reality (VR) was a hot topic at Austin’s recent SXSWedu and Interactive conferences held in March. But as with any new media, we need to learn how to use VR effectively instructionally, determine what its place is in educational settings, and how to not only consume it, but turn our attention to student creation and what students can learn from being intentional creators of VR content. What are the opportunities, the current realities, and current tools we have to work with?

For students of library information specialist Andrea Trudeau (Alan B. Sheppard Middle School in Deerfield, Ill.), “It all started with RYOT. …. [Last year, The Huffington Post acquired the virtual reality and immersive storytelling company RYOT.] Students were able to watch Syrian refugees come ashore by boat in Greece or be there to sit in on a class in a small village in an African nation. It truly helped our 7th graders in social studies understand what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. What’s even more amazing is since our seventh graders did this last year, they now, as eighth graders, are creating videos to help a Syrian refugee family in our community. . . . It’s AMAZING to me to see how a short three-minute video in Google Cardboard followed by reading articles and discussion turned into our students making a real difference in this family’s life this year.”

Because the media is so immersive, it also can be used to help create empathy in students. Videos that walk students through refugee camps, for example, help them experience the world in a more empathetic manner. And VR can be a way to pique student interest in other places. Westlake High School’s AP Human Geography teacher, Craig Gaslow, comments: “We’re always looking for hooks—brief attention grabbers—that help engage our students. We’ve found that students really respond to virtual reality. With Google Expeditions or Google Street View VR, we’re able to take our students to a farm in east Africa, a famous cemetery in Buenos Aires, or Mayan ruins in Mexico. It’s pretty exciting. We’ve found that it can be very motivating for a research project, as it provides an image as a point of departure.” Similarly, Trudeau says: “A French teacher wanted to teach her students about the Parisian catacombs, so she and I built a very cool Breakout EDU game that incorporated a three-minute video on YouTube. It brought the students into the catacombs; they were squealing with delight and reaching their hands out as if they hoped they could touch the skeletal walls” (

Where to Find Content?

One of the most developed sources of VR content is from The New York Times, which has lengthy content as well as daily VR360 videos. At SXSWedu, as part of a panel from the School of The New York Times, Audrey Heinesen and Kevin Alster discussed some of these resources as well as suggesting tips for video creation. The’s Daily 360 video channels has very short videos on newsworthy topics or general topics of interest—everything from life on Mars, bees, and desert flowers to serious topics such as immigration, Zika, or hate and bias. (www.ewr1 The site also has longer video content, such as the powerful “The Displaced,” which takes a look at three refugee children’s lives; “Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart”; “Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina”; “Notes on Blindness,” about the experience of relying on sound; and more. All of these are accessible from The New York Times’ VR app and run about 7–12 minutes.

Google also has a wealth of content with its Google Expeditions app, including lesson plans. Expeditions, which include Field Trip to Argentina, Ancient Roman Ruins, Biomes, Into the Cell, and Masterpieces of the Renaissance, portray the breadth of the collection across many subject areas. The teacher can act as a guide to lead students through an expedition, or the class can follow an expedition. Google Expeditions are meant to be used for education so are more tailored to that than the Times’ VR content.

Another group presenting at SXSWedu was Global Nomads, whose work centers on connecting youth around the world to build global understanding ( Its VR app comes with teacher lesson plans as well, and so far it just has a couple of units, meant to build more global perspectives for students ( Discovery Education also has developed original VR content that can be viewed online or via its VR app, but also content that connects with shows during Shark Week or programs such Mythbusters (

Generally, to view VR content, students need a viewer of some kind, such as Google Cardboard glasses, and a smartphone such as an iPhone or iPod that can stream video content. While having the phone can be a barrier to using VR, the glasses are very inexpensive online. Libraries that have one or two of these could create stations for students to experience the VR content, or loan them to classrooms for those experiences as well. The library could also have a unit available for students—perhaps a donated iPod or iPhone. It only needs Wi-Fi availability. One caveat to be aware of, however, is that some videos do cause some students to feel nauseous or carsick. Mention this to students ahead of time, especially for videos with content such as rollercoasters or air flight. Remind students to move their heads slowly when using Google Cardboard to limit these problems.

Creating Student Content

VR content opportunities are only going to grow by leaps and bounds, but we don’t want students to just be consumers. We need to determine if immersive media requires some different abilities and sensitivities, and then help students to also learn to create their own content. That’s where some of the real creativity occurs. Andrea Trudeau uses CoSpaces for student-created content. Trudeau explains: “This is a free web-based tool that allows the user to create virtual worlds. The worlds can then be shared with a link or QR code and viewed using the free CoSpaces app on a phone along with Google Cardboard or a View-Master VR set. It’s been such a cool way for students to demonstrate their learning!”

For example, Trudeau notes that her 6th grade social studies students have used research about various Civil War battles to recreate these battles using CoSpaces. “They can add in captions or narrate like a museum docent using the audio feature,” she says. Her students have also created their own utopias and used Blockly to program their virtual spaces.

At the SXSWedu session, New York Times staff shared some “lessons learned” about creating more journalistic VR video content. They likened filming VR videos to hunting with a “bear trap” rather than a rifle, because you often wait for content to unfold. They suggested training students to look and listen like journalists and record events as they happen. The medium requires some different storytelling techniques as well.

First off, there is a lot of design associated with creating a VR story. The storytelling is important. What do students want to convey to the viewer about an experience? While students can’t necessarily storyboard an event before it occurs, they can storyboard the sorts of shots they would like to get, or the kind of experience they want the user to have.

There are technical skills involved also. Kevin Alster suggested thinking of the viewer as a guest as well as what you want the viewer to experience, since he or she will be engaging with a 360 view. Also, because of the 360 view and nausea factor, he says to remind student filmmakers to film at head height and to think of viewer comfort so they can experience the story comfortably. The New York Times even offers a course (for $125) for those getting started with producing journalistic content ( live-stream).

As far as equipment is concerned, there are standalone 360 cameras such as the Ricoh Theta S, which is recommended by Kathy Schrock. But there are also ones that attach to an iPhone, such as the Insta360 Nano. (See more at and

There is much research to be done on the outcomes of VR use in the classroom as well. One project I did with an English class asked students for their reflections after watching The New York Times’ refugee camp video, “The Displaced.” Their increased levels of empathy were obvious from their emotional comments on the class whiteboard. How can we gather qualitative data like this on student use of VR to better understand its impact on student learning? A SXSWedu session on the impact of VR on students shared the work of Gail Jones and Rebecca Hite of the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation and their early research. And in an example of a study that could be replicated, researchers asked students to draw a heart before experiencing it in VR and then afterwards; students’ drawings were far more intricate and accurate afterwards than prior to their VR experience. This “before and after” qualitative research strategy could easily be documented by librarians and K–12 educators to help us understand the impact of the media.

VR technology is still in its infancy. Imagine the future of education when students can learn French by being immersed in a Paris cafe instead of walking into a classroom. These tools also open up all sorts of ethical questions about the connection between the real world and the immersive world and what it means to be present in either. Will VR help us build more global empathy for students? Will it help with career training? Discovery Education’s Hall Davidson points out that the use of VR is beginning to spread across industries—with technical career training such as welding or auto repair taking advantage of VR /AR content to train workers.

Librarians are already big fans. Librarians in the Future Ready Librarians Facebook group are using many tools such as Google Expeditions, cardboard viewers purchased with, or district grants at stations in the library and in collaboration with teachers. The more we and students are knowledgeable, the more we can grapple with these technologies beyond a “gee whiz” phase and do serious thinking about both the capabilities and the challenges for us and our students going forward.

Contact Carolyn at

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