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Virtual Reality - how applicable is it for schools?

This year might just be the year that Virtual Reality (VR) finally reaches the mainstream consciousness. But amongst all the hype, what application might this technology have for an educational context? Can VR be successfully used by creative professionals to support the curriculum and raise standards, or will it be one more technological distraction that gets in the way of learning?

What is Virtual Reality?

A combination of software and hardware places a user within the confines of a 3D immersive environment through the creation/replication of realistic sights, sounds and other sensations. VR experiences range from situations where users are passive observers to others where the user can move around within the environment and even manipulate objects using controllers that give the user physical (so-called 'haptic') feedback.

The most basic technology uses a mobile device (which must contain an in-built gyroscope) to project content onto a simple head-set to produce a stereoscopic 3D view. There are a number of different headset technologies available including cardboard versions that can be sourced very cheaply or even home-made. The Samsung Gear VR (and Google Daydream) features a more robust headset and a smart phone interface that enables the user to access head-mounted controls and the option to use blue-tooth enabled touchpads to select content and control 'movement' within the VR environment. The most expensive devices interface a headset with a PC and sometimes feature additional controller devices - examples include HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Sony PlayStation VR and Microsoft HoloLens.

Why use VR?

One of the most obvious questions might be 'why' to use this type of technology in the classroom? A simple answer could be that it promotes engagement. I am of this opinion that this is a valid argument, but also clear that this type of technology is situated; it must be mediated by adults and is best used within a clear context to support learning rather than being the learning itself. There is no doubt that immersive experiences can make content more comprehensible, something that has resonance for all children but particularly those who may for whatever reason be culturally deprived due to lack of exposure to leisure activities, travel, books and other forms of educational activity.

Practitioners need to decide when to use VR and will need to develop mature pedagogical approaches so that judicious use accentuates learning across the curriculum rather than being something learners earn the privilege of using when they have completed their other work.

VR has the potential to impact the whole curriculum as evidenced by the multitude of applications and experiences that have already been developed. It also has resonance for developing empathy and promoting creative writing as children can become fully immersed in a way that would be impossible unless they had actually experienced something in real life. There is also potential for children to develop skills and/or overcome fears through carefully constructed digital assets revealed through VR.

Who can use VR?

As childrens' eyes are still developing Google recommends that its cardboard headsets (and by implication similar devices) have an age restriction for children younger than 7 years of age. More sophisticated technologies like the Samsung Gear VR are recommended for children aged 13 and above.

Younger children in Key Stage 1 can still get a feel for the technology by using the technology without a headset in 2D mode. Used in this way the technology still gives a 3600 view even if the user does not receive the fully immersive experience.

Specific applications for 'Cardboard' clone headsets

An appropriate place to start is with Google Expeditions. This free app has obvious resonance for use in the classroom as it has been designed to facilitate whole-class activity mediated by an adult (or perhaps older pupils).

Google Expeditions contains an ever-expanding set of interactive 3600 virtual journeys set within geographical, scientific and even historical contexts. The app enables a controlling device to lead the expedition, using pre-built interactions. As the expedition proceeds the learner's focus is moved from location to location by arrows which indicate where to look in the virtual landscape. A suggested oral narrative is also provided at each location.

There are many third-party VR developers that provide free interactive content, such as the Discovery Channel.

A selection of other collections/experiences worth checking out include Within, Scopic, YouTube 3600 photos and videos, Sites in VR, NYT VR, War of Words VR and Titans of Space.

Google Cardboard Camera is a photography app that allows a user to create their own 3600 photographs which can be saved locally or shared in the cloud. These photos can subsequently be viewed on a suitable VR headset.

Google Street View allows an immersive walk around any mapped locality. The VR headset adds a measure of first person perspective that is not entirely replicable when using Google Earth in a more traditional way. A user's 3600 photographs can also be tagged by a geolocation in this app.

Mainstream publishers are also beginning to integrate VR experiences (and Augmented Reality (AR) experiences) with more traditional forms of educational media such as textbooks and worksheets. For example, Computeam Ltd. have already released apps that trigger VR content within historical and geographical contexts.

Beyond Cardboard devices

More sophisticated technologies like Gear VR and Google Daydream provide a better all-round VR experience and come with their own software interfaces. For example, Gear VR draws from the Oculus Rift range of VR experiences and Daydream offers its own platform for delivering content. There is a degree of overlap in content between these major platforms and those available to Cardboard devices.

Use of more sophisticated headsets is likely to require careful thought as cost may be prohibitively expensive for using whole-class sets. However, there will be resonance for their use in small group/individual work.