Imagine if kids today could transport back to 1965 and experience marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. to Montgomery. Or be transported to outer space with their teacher and classmates to learn about the solar system, and all without leaving their classroom.
It is possible, with an advanced, immersive technology called educational virtual reality (E-VR), which is being introduced in Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools this year.
When the pandemic hit and remote learning began, the school district, like many others, struggled with keeping their students engaged.
Canise Salinas-Willich, principal at New Chelsea Elementary, and other local educators were determined to find something to help keep their students excited and engaged while learning remotely.
After sitting on hours of Zoom calls with technology experts and visits with a local virtual reality company, OmniLife, she discovered how beneficial virtual reality could be, both in and outside of the classroom, and pitched the idea to the school district.
“Being in a school district with urban kids and in the urban core, I want to bring this amazing invention, this great technology to the kids right here,” Salinas-Willich said. “They shouldn’t be the last ones to get the thing that’s on the cusp of greatness and further into the 21st century.”
The district, also seeing the potential for E-VR in schools, approved a one-year pilot program and received more than $80,000 worth of E-VR equipment from OmniLife including headsets, laptops and 180-degree cameras. A portion of the funding came from the Unified Government’s CARES Act funding. The balance came from grant funding secured by the Kansas City, Kansas School Foundation for Excellence from the Barton P. Mary D. Charitable Trust acquired by the.
While to program will not be in place in KCKPS classrooms until the fall, the district has scheduled a celebratory event announcing the new program at Carl B. Bruce Middle School on Wed., March 10, 11 a.m. At the event, community members and students can have an E-VR experiences.
“We’re starting a pilot program because we also want to see what it’ll do to test and achievement scores,” Salinas-Willich said. “Our (test score) data is not moving from year to year and I’m really hoping that this could move our kids further with the integration of good curriculum and technology, not one or the other.”
Benefits & Effectiveness of E-VR
“I’ve been knocking on school doors for a few years now because I know how important E-VR is for education,” said Marco Stanich, CEO of OmniLife. Scientific studies back up his claims.
According to researchers at the University of Warwick, when compared to textbook learning and videos, virtual reality is the most engaging, stimulating and emotionally positive learning method.
The Schaumburg School District in Illinois began using E-VR in their classrooms two years ago, and say they have seen nothing but benefits.
“I don’t think I could give you another example where we’ve seen more enthusiasm and excitement on the part of students than with the lessons that have been developed and implemented using virtual reality,” said associate superintendent at Schaumburg School District, Nick Myers, to Ed Tech Magazine, adding that student engagement has skyrocketed.
Beyond engaging students in traditional learning, Stanich said, EV-R can also help with mental health and wellness. As an example, he pointed out the use of E-VR immersive experiences to teach students how to relax and meditate and how to deal with bullies.
The Schaumburg District, and other school districts, are using E-VR to take their students on virtual fields trips to places their resource and lack of funding would not allow them to go otherwise. In a way, Schaumburg administrators say, E-VR helps level the playing field for districts and students with less resources.
In a study by Stanford researchers, students who took E-VR field trips to learn about the effects of climate change in the ocean retained the causes and effects of climate change better than those who did not have the immersive virtual experience. So, a field trip on E-VR is more than just a cool adventure, its and educational experience.
E-VR at KCKPS
While OmniLife has already helped some private schools, Liberty Public Schools and North Kansas City Public Schools set up a virtual reality lab station, Stanich said the magnitude that KCKPS will be integrating virtual reality into their classrooms is a local first.
The KCKPS pilot program is a collaboration between the school district, OmniLife, the Future Leaders Outreach Network (FLON) and the Global Classroom Exchange (GCE).
GCE is helping match KCKPS curriculum to E-VR experiences that teachers will be able to pull from. FLON is creating a library of careers that students can experience, like becoming a surgeon, mechanic or dentist.
While not every student will get their own headset, KCKPS will have about 160 headsets that will be shared between schools. Some of the headsets are already programmed with lessons that students learning remotely can use without Internet.
Researchers suggest virtual reality sessions not exceed 20 minutes, which the school district will follow, E-VR will supplement, and not a replace, traditional education.
One way Salinas-Willich wants to use E-VR at her school is to launch a global classroom to learn with students in Kenya.
“I have over 17 languages in my school – just imagine if my kids here who are from the Congo could actually talk to someone in Kenya, in their home language in VR,” she said. “The possibilities (of E-VR) are just limitless and I would not be afraid to go through another pandemic knowing I had that kind of technology at my fingertips.”
How financially feasible would it be to continue the program indefinitely and equip every student in the district with a headset.
“We’re talking $10 million,” said Christal Watson, executive director at the KCK School Foundation for Excellence. “That’s why we’re doing this pilot to see what could work, where the need is the greatest and how the technology can benefit the students.”
The foundation is also exploring future funding opportunities for the program, including possible federal funding as well as support from corporations that might have an interest in E-VR
“This isn’t typically provided in urban schools, so for us to be on the front end of this is a huge plus for urban districts,” said Watson. “We’ve got a whole new world out there and if we can raise the money to help bring that technology to the forefront, that’s half the battle.”