Windermere Elementary just became the first Orange County Public School to embrace learning with the assistance of virtual reality.
Virtual reality is breaking down the classroom walls at Windermere Elementary School.
A group of excited fifth-graders sat down on Thursday, May 16, on the floor of the maker-space room at Windermere Elementary School. Lining the walls of the classroom are different tools for the students to use to create with, like Legos, origami papers and even a 3D printer.
But these gadgets and materials are overshadowed by the new bright orange headsets that the school’s media specialist, Amy Diederich, is handing out.
After going over a few rules for safety, Diederich instructed students with the gadgets in their hands to put them up to their eyes. Suddenly, it’s as if someone was turning the volume knob up on the whole classroom.
At the front of the room a big ,electronic whiteboard shows what the students are seeing. It’s a 360-degree photograph of the view from the lunar rover on the moon. Though many of the students have experienced some kind of virtual reality technology before, each one chatters excitedly.
Just recently, Windermere Elementary School became the first Orange County public school to incorporate virtual reality technology into its learning environment with the purchase of a mobile, virtual reality system called ClassVR.
“I know how hard it is to compete with what our kids have at home and the technology they have,” said Diederich, who first saw the technology at a conference. “We were like, ‘let’s embrace it and start teaching them on it instead.’”
ClassVR is a fully-integrated system that came with software that includes an ever-growing database of lesson plans and virtual reality content for a variety of subjects specifically designed for classroom use. Unlike a lot of virtual reality devices, the headsets don’t require a second device. The teacher is in full control of what is shown on each set.
On the front whiteboard screen, the program shows what the students are seeing and where each one is looking at any given time. With a touch, Diederich directs the children to look at a specific spot in the 360-degree photo. In this setup, the students are getting a close-up look at the lunar rover and a view of the Earth.
Since it is the end of the school year, this specific class was less teaching and more similar to what a field trip would be like, observing and exploring.
Over the span of an hour, students explored everything from the Galápagos Islands and a coral reef in the ocean off of New Caledonia to an aerial view of Paris, France and the top of an active volcano in Sicily.
“This is what we would call a culminating activity,” Diederich said. “So after we’ve taught a unit, we would use something like this to complete it – bring the learning full circle.”
Funding for the ClassVR set was raised at the beginning of the school year by the Mustang Education Fund, a group of parents and the community’s mission to bring technology into the classroom.
According to Dena O’Malley, president of the Mustang Education Fund, the bulk of the money was raised during an event held in the fall the group called Tech Week. Between donations from that event and a comparatively smaller amount left over from another fundraiser, the group was able to purchase the new technology for the school at $350 per headset. The school now has 24 headsets.
So far, Diederich said the reactions from parents and teacher have been overwhelmingly positive.
“I could actually feel like I’m walking down the Great Wall of China and actually looking at the mountains or like being swimming under a reef even though I’m not soaking wet,” fifth grader Julia Trimble said. “It’s just a really cool experience overall.”
For Diederich, the biggest benefit of using technology to teach is how it prepares students for the 21st century workplace.
“So, we want our students to be collaborative, innovative thinkers and we teach them with technology, tools and engagement in project-based learning tasks with technology,” Diederich said.
Every third-, fourth- and fifth-grade class at Windermere Elementary School has had the opportunity to use the sets so far. Soon, training will begin for all the teachers at the school and starting in the fall they will be able to check out the cart to bring into their classrooms and use during lessons.