Teachers explore virtual reality as a learning tool

March 3, 2017
Argus Leader

Imagine an eighth-grade history lecture on Pearl Harbor.

Now, imagine that same lecture heard from the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri. You walk around, looking from the sky to the ship beneath you, and then take off the headset and you’re back in a South Dakota classroom.

Local teachers are looking to make virtual reality headsets, which give users an immersive, 360-degree view of images and videos, the next tech tool in their classrooms.

And they’re not waiting around for school board funding.

Matt Dick, an eighth-grade history teacher at Harrisburg South Middle School, and Haylee Melham, a social studies teacher at New Technology High School, are both crowdfunding for virtual reality headsets.

Both teachers are using DonorsChoose.org, a site that’s like Kickstarter for educators, to raise money to buy virtual reality headsets for their classrooms.

“I want to ignite this fire in them to go explore the world they live in,” Melham said.

For Melham, the idea came from a conversation with fellow teacher George Hawkins. Hawkins recalled a project students in his government class do where they research and develop a tour through the South that highlights important Civil War landmarks.

“We don’t really have the budget to take the kids on those tours,” Hawkins said. “What would it look like if we could do it some other way?”

Melham found several virtual reality apps like TimeLooper, an app which takes viewers to locations in different eras. She hopes she can take her students to the places they learn about in her geography class.

Virtual reality is also a way to keep students engaged in their learning, especially with subjects that are traditionally lecture- and reading-based.

“They just need more stimulus to keep their attention,” Dick said. “The attention spans have grown a little shorter.”

Many of Melham’s students talk about how they play video games after school and on the weekends, and she sees virtual reality as a way to bring the video game feel to their learning.

“It’s an effort to keep up with what our kids are experiencing,” Melham said.

Both Melham and Dick are looking to fund only the virtual reality headsets, and the cost for a classroom set runs around $600. Donations to their fundraising campaigns can be made at DonorsChoose.org.

That’s not including smartphones, a necessary component to virtual reality because it provides the screen, because most students have those already.

“They have these computers just sitting in their pockets,” Hawkins said. “So how can we tap into them to do more?”

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