Students in seventh and eighth grade visited the Center for Immersive Learning (SCIL) on the campus of Shenandoah University last month. They participated in a 360 Video Learning experience using the SCIL’s Oculus Go VirtualReality (VR) headsets. The students explored and watched SCIL’s “Atmosphere of Hate” 360 video, which is a VR simulation that follows African-Americans engaged in a nonviolent protest challenging segregation through a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter set in the late 1950s.

We sat down with both Mrs. Miller, the Educational Technology teacher here at Powhatan School, and Dr. Hessberg, the Upper School Director, to discuss both VR and this unique learning experience.

PS: You’ve introduced VR and AR opportunities in our classrooms the past two years, so how was this experience different from the VR work you’ve done so far on our campus?

NM: So far at Powhatan our students have created their own VR worlds through the CoSpaces program and then explored those worlds using either their own mobile devices and Google Cardboard viewers or on their Chromebooks. They have also used some pre-made VRexperiences with the Google Cardboard viewers. A handful of our students have also used either Block or Javascript coding to make their VR worlds come to life. This is very different from the experience at SCIL. The experience there was created using a 360 video camera and involved aspects of storytelling and theater. When you put the headset on, you are instantly placed in a seat at the diner counter and in the middle of the jeers and verbal abuse from the white patrons surrounding you and the others at the counter. This type of experience focuses on giving the viewer a feeling of empathy, letting them feel the intensity of the entire moment, and makes an immediate impact on the viewer.

PS: Virtual Reality obviously gets students excited about learning, but what was the true value of this experience?

KH: J.J. Ruscella, Executive Director of the Shenandoah Center for Immersive Learning (SCIL), led students through a debrief after they were able to participate in the 360 experience. As with classroom experience that allows for provocative thinking, students debriefed both the process (how they learned through the experience) and the content (what they took away). Professor Ruscella asked a series of questions to guide the conversation: How did the experience add to your understanding? How did the technology impact your engagement to the experience? Whose perspective did you take in viewing the experience? What various story elements did you focus on, and why? Students shared their insights in how the technology allowed for an immersive, rather than superficial, learning experience. Students also reported feeling engrossed in the learning as a part of it, which allowed for being connected emotionally to the characters around them.

PS: How is this experience different than reading the information in a book and talking about it? What makes it a better learning experience?

KH: Partnering with SCiL and their 360 VR lab, allows for the modification and redefinition of more traditional learning experiences. For example, it takes a traditional textbook reading assignment on the Civil Rights era sit-ins and adds richer and more authentic skills to the learning experience. In participating in the experience, students were required to summarize, analyze, think critically, and make decision based on what they were seeing and hearing. These immersive experiences require deep cognitive and skill-based demands on students, which allows for more permanent learning.

PS: What are some of the things you’re thinking about moving forward now within this space?

NM: Through the connections I have made and our school has made with the individuals over in the SCIL, we have started to create a partnership between us. They have graciously opened their doors to us and have answered many of our questions about VR, AR, and 360 videos to help us get started with it here at Powhatan. With the help of a generous donation through the Annual Giving, we will be bringing the SCIL and their mobile VR lab to Powhatan’s campus during an upcoming Teacher Professional Day to train our staff with the VR equipment and experiences. Through the donation, we will also be bringing the new Oculus Quest headsets and potentially a 360 video camera to our campus. I plan to continue with the programming and creating VR worlds that we’ve started, but we’ll now be able to take them one step further with the new headsets. I hope to also create some of our own student-created 360 Video Learning experiences, since theater and acting is a prominent part of our community. In addition to bringing VR to Powhatan, we will continue to work with the SCIL on projects and bring students and staff to their VR lab. We hope to take Upper School students back to experience the 360 John Brown trial when it fits with their curriculum, and I hope to take our science teachers soon to experience some of the VR possibilities with their curriculum.

PS: What is the role of VR in the classroom?

KH: The SCiL’s 360 VR experience was a powerful and rich learning experience for students. This technology, and truly any technology, has the potential to enhance learning for students. However, technology is only one of many tools available for learning. As our teachers continue to add new technology to their teaching as complement to other learning strategies, the outcomes are richer and more authentic learning experiences for students.

We want to extend a huge thank you to Marjorie Lewis, J.J. Ruscella, Joanne Ruscella, Cody Pugsley, Sally Anderson, and everyone else over at the SCIL who have helped start this VR journey for us and for their continued support throughout it.

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