Virtually There: Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones

These educators are embracing virtual reality as a new tool for student engagement, collaboration, and content creation.

Illustrations by Joe Magee

Students who don’t struggle in social situations might never understand what it’s like for those who do. Junior and senior photography students at Parkville High School (PHS) in Baltimore, however, are using a new medium to give others a glimpse into emotions that accompany social anxiety. Using a Ricoh Theta-S 360 camera, the students created a short virtual reality (VR) movie about social anxiety called “Breaking Barriers”. “I have some students with severe anxiety problems,” says their teacher, Ryan Twentey, adding that the topic came up during class discussions. “But in that classroom, they were open and willing to say, this is what I feel and this is how I feel it.” The movie opens showing a student getting ready for school, with a voice-over of her thoughts as she steels herself for the day. The next scene takes place in a classroom, shot from the student’s viewpoint. Apparitions of classmates fade in, approach her, and make cruel comments—what she imagines them thinking. It closes with an actual student asking the girl to join their group, suggesting that much of what she perceived was manufactured by social anxiety.

Ryan Twentey’s students at Parkville High School in Baltimore set up a VR scene.
Photo courtesy of Ryan Twentey/Baltimore County Public Schools

The film won the Complete 360° Award from the Digital Promise 360 Filmmakers Challenge, a competition “to inspire the next generation of virtual reality creators,” and was shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It was a valuable learning experience for the students, says Twentey. The 360 camera gave them a chance “to really show off who they are, where they live, and how they’re dealing with everything.” Educators are embracing virtual reality as a new tool for student engagement, collaboration, and content creation. “When kids use it, they are enthralled,” says Maureen Yoder, professor of educational technology at Lesley University. “There’s something magical about looking through that viewer or looking through your device and seeing something pop up. It’s very engaging.” VR, augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) are three related but separate technologies, all of which have educational applications. With VR, users wear a special visor that blocks out the real world entirely, immersing the user’s field of view in a 360-degree spherical image or video. While experiencing AR, the user sees an image or video overlaid on the real world. The definition of MR is still in flux but seems to fall somewhere in between the other two. Whatever the technology, the availability of high-quality virtual content for schools is growing steadily. Professionally created VR content can bring immersive experiences to students, from the streets of Pompeii to undersea exploration. For librarians who want to start exploring, Yoder suggests Google Expeditions because of its high-quality educational content and associated free lesson plans. Google Expeditions offers a collection of VR field trips, allowing educators to lead a group of students on a tour of places such as a coral reef or the surface of Mars. The Google Expeditions app is available for iOS and Android devices. Each student needs a mobile phone and compatible VR headset, such as Google Cardboard, a basic version of which costs less than $10. National Geographic, NASA, the New York Times, and other organizations also offer free educational apps for Google Cardboard and other smartphone-compatible VR headsets.

Collaborative VR projects

Students at Warren (NJ) Middle School (WMS) have collaborated on numerous simulations using the HTC Vive VR system in the school’s maker space. The system is “much more high-tech than the typical Google Cardboard,” says WMS media specialist Cynthia Cassidy. The headset is tethered to a computer by a cord, and students hold two handsets to manipulate objects and maneuver around the virtual space. The Vive system costs about $800 and requires a powerful computer to run the simulations. Cassidy runs them on the Steam gaming platform (, which is available as a free download for Windows, Mac, or Linux. To create a more collaborative experience, she connected the Vive to a Dell interactive display board. That way, the other students can see what the student wearing the VR headset sees and share ideas for completing the simulation. “It makes it a more collaborative and integrated experience for everyone,” she says. Cassidy has tried numerous VR simulations from the Steam store. Discovr Egypt: King Tut’s Tomb is free and lets students explore the ancient tomb of King Tutankhamun. Fantastic Contraption (around $30) allows users to build and operate machines. Everest VR (about $15) lets students virtually climb Mount Everest. TheBlu (around $10) explores the underwater world of an ocean. Discovr Egypt: King Tut’s Tomb was one of the first simulations Cassidy used with her students when they were studying ancient Egypt. Students pretended they were archaeologists, discovering various artifacts in the tomb. They worked in teams, and while one member was in the simulation, the others could share ideas about where to go and what to look at. Outside the simulation, students researched the contents of the actual tomb, compared them with items they found in the simulation, and drew maps of the interior. Cassidy has identified specific criteria for classroom simulations. She looks for those that require teamwork and are short enough to be completed during a single class period. (Unfortunately, she says that information isn’t always readily available.) Another criterion is that the simulation should offer a challenge or problem for the students to solve, ideally as a team. Finally, she looks for simulations with controls that kids can learn to use quickly because buttons and triggers can have different functions in each one.

A student at Warren (NJ) Middle School encounters a Stegosaurus using
the HTC Vive and the program Lifeliqe VR Museum.
Photo courtesy of Cynthia Cassidy

Student-created VR field trips

Students at Burley Middle School in Charlottesville, VA, began their exploration of VR with Google Expeditions last winter, but quickly ramped up to creating their own when the school purchased a Samsung Gear 360-degree camera in January. IdaMae Craddock, Burley library media specialist, works with students to create virtual tours. For their first project, the students created a tour of their school. They uploaded a school map to ThingLink, an online service that lets users attach text, photos, audio, video, or other links to web content. The students used the camera to take 360-degree photos of the classrooms, cafeteria, gym, and library, and then uploaded the images to YouTube and linked them to the school map in ThingLink. Viewers could click through the map and explore the school in VR. Some of the students also created a VR tour of their seventh-grade history class, focusing on the district’s history of segregated schools. They took a field trip to a former segregated one-room schoolhouse to produce a virtual tour of the space. They uploaded the tour to YouTube, and other students could wear their Google Cardboard headsets to go on a virtual version of the same field trip. In August, students created their latest virtual field trip to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, including the slave quarters on Mulberry Row. Craddock had the students write captions to accompany each of the 360-degree images in the tour, and she plans to submit the completed project to Google Expeditions with the goal of letting other students experience it. “It was shockingly easy to create content with the VR,” she says, and students soon discovered extra features, such as time-delay photos. Because the camera captures everything on all sides, anybody in the room will be included in the pictures. Consequently, some of the images the students took for their first virtual tours show people standing around in the room. The students figured out that they could set a timer—so they could set up the camera, clear the room of people, and then take the picture.


Before the students from PHS created their “Breaking Barriers” movie, they took the 360 camera on a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. As an experiment, a student held the camera on her head while the principal moved around her in a circle. The combination of the movements of the student holding the camera, the principal in the video, and the viewer watching the video was extremely disorienting. “There was awesome footage inside the Met in New York, and we can’t watch it,” Twentey says. While making their movie, they placed the camera in a fixed position and let the action happen around it. Even when using a fixed-position camera, however, some people still report feeling dizzy when they look through the headset. There’s also a potential for people to walk into objects, trip, or fall when moving around with the headset on. To avoid those risks, Yoder suggests using the sets while seated on a rotating chair or stool. The fact that everybody and everything in the room is recorded by a VR camera also presents challenges. When Twentey’s students were recording their movie, the students had to remain in character all the time, even when they weren’t actively part of a clip. They storyboarded “like crazy,” Twentey says, considering the full 360-degree scope as they scripted the main and background action. While VR is an immersive experience, Yoder says it can be isolating as well. “If you have a classroom full of kids looking through the headsets, they aren’t interacting with each other,” she notes. Cassidy’s strategy of displaying the VR content on a screen for other students to see can remedy that.

Augmented reality

“There are very different kinds of educational applications [of AR] available,” Yoder says. “Some of them show tremendous promise, and most of them are free.” The educational AR app 1600, for example, launches an interactive video of the White House when students point their device at a dollar bill. Elements 4D allows students to point their device at physical blocks representing elements from the periodic table and see an animation of the molecule they created. With the app Anatomy 4D, users touch key points on a picture of the human body to interact with corresponding animations. Yoder also recommends online services, such as Aurasma, which allows users to create their own AR experiences. She notes that some students use apps such as Aurasma to create AR for their school yearbook or even for book reports. When someone points their device at a book, it launches a video of a student presenting a report on that title. Yoder and others immersed in these mediums see worlds of potential in VR and AR. “The future,” Yoder says, “is really in educating teachers and librarians and school administrators to see the value in this.”
Leila Meyer is an education and tech writer in British Columbia, Canada.

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