vr and ed FEATURE
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Teachers looking for new ways to engage their students now have virtual options

With today's children growing up in a digital era, teachers face greater challenges in engaging them in the classroom.

Enter virtual reality.

While its in early stages in application, virtual reality has the potential to drastically change the way children learn by engaging them in ways  – beyond traditional textbooks – that were never before possible.

Virtual reality can allow students to know what it's like to walk on the moon. It can take them to war-torn countries so they can see firsthand what it feels like to be in that environment.  And thanks to a startup called Nearpod, it can take them on virtual field trips to places like the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids of Giza and the Washington Monument. Students can go inside volcanoes and to national landmarks, all from their classroom desks.

What makes VR unique? Well, for one, virtual reality responds to head movement and that makes the experience an interactive one for the user, points out Agustin Molfino, a learning designer at No Right Brain Left Behind, in a blog. There's no question that the more engaged a student is with content, the more likely he/she is to retain, remember and apply it, Molfino notes. The learning experience becomes customized and unique to the user. 

See also: VR for Good

Jennifer Carolan, co-founder and general partner at Palo Alto-based Reach Capital, is excited about the potential of virtual reality in the classroom. Carolan is an investor in Nearpod and sits on the startup's board.

"What's really unique about Nearpod's application of VR in education is that teachers are constantly seeking to help their students understand the world, especially beyond the classroom and their community," she said. "And there's so many kids that have not been out of their community to understand what the world is like."

Virtual reality taps into a more "sensory" way to experience the world, Carolan says.

"That really resonates with teachers," she adds. "They're able to deepen childrens' understanding of a concept of a place, idea or person."

Guido Kovalskys, CEO and co-founder of Aventura, Fla.-based Nearpod, believes VR in the classroom will only help teachers engage their students in class in real-time.

"VR is not meant to replace a teacher," he emphasizes. "Our technology is devised to help them be more effective in the lecturing model."

See also: Virtual Reality: The next big storytelling medium?

Schools and districts in the United States and around the world have been increasingly incorporating mobile technologies in the classroom over the last five years, Kovalskys.

Nearpod's technology alone is now in about one in 10 schools in the U.S., serving 500,000 students on a daily basis.

Founded in 2012, Nearpod was mostly bootstrapped in its first two years. In total, the startup has raised $30.2 million from investors. Besides its VR offerings, Nearpod has also developed a mobile app that enables teachers to create and share interactive multimedia presentations with their students. In 2016, it was ranked No. 297 on Inc. 5000's fastest growing private companies list with 1,320 percent growth and $3.3 million in revenue.

"These days it's hard to keep anyone's attention, let alone middle or high schoolers," Kovalskys says. "The biggest challenge for good instructors is to grab students' attention and engage them in a world where there's so much social media and gaming in their lives."

See also: Cisco's VNI Report

In 2016, Nearpod launched its virtual reality lessons. Rather than expecting schools to invest in their headsets or other hardware, Nearpod relies on students using their own devices or those supplied the school districts.

It partnered with a company in Europe that provides access to a "massive" library of 360-degree pictures and created engaging features around them. Giving teachers a way to incorporate them into their lesson has proved very popular so far, Kovalskys says. Nearpod took the static images and made them more interactive.

"We found that very quickly became one of the most, if not the most, widely used features in our platform," he says.

Kovalskys describes his company's approach to virtual reality as "low-tech" but one that works.

"It can work on any device," he said. "And kids absolutely love it."

Carolan says some people seem to dismiss VR as a "shiny new object in education."

See also: VR can take you on the summer vacation of your dreams

But to her, that couldn't be farther from the truth.

"VR has the potential to provide kids with multiple perspectives and help them understand the world in a different way," Carolan says. "It can deepen their empathy and allow them to walk through the life of someone of a different race or with a disability. To experience that can be so powerful in developing the kinds of humans we want."

A TEACHER'S PERSPECTIVE

Harmany Cano, an instructional technology coach with Pasadena Unified School District in California, says the best thing about Nearpod VR is watching students create memories that they can reference while making connections in their learning. Their learning, she says, becomes a story they can share and an experience they can recall rather than just information "to regurgitate on a test."

"Nearpod has integrated ‘tangible' life experiences, explorations, and discoveries in with what is being taught in the classroom," Cano said. "The expressions of joy, surprise, and amazement that you find on a student's face while they engage in a Nearpod VR lesson surpasses any engagement I have seen while covering the same topics traditionally."

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About Mary Ann Azevedo

Mary Ann Azevedo is an award-winning journalist based in Austin, Texas.