The success of ‘virtual’ lessons in schools suggests integrating the latest gaming tech into the classroom is to the benefit – and not detriment – of learning, discovers Alex Burns

 

MOST children would jump at the chance to step into a new reality where they possess the power to completely change their surroundings – and for pupils at Granton Primary School in Edinburgh, a special project has allowed them a glimpse of the  future with a device that many predict will become the biggest home technology revolution of our lifetimes.

As part of a special project organised by Scottish social enterprise group Viarama, several hundred virtual reality (VR) sessions were carried out with two different groups within the school. 

Although VR is still generally used for gaming, the first set of pupils – aged from primary five upwards – took part in a wide  range of immersive learning  experiences using full room-scale VR technology. 

With their state-of-the-art HTC Vive headsets, the youngsters got to enjoy a selection of school lessons, namely history (from within the Egyptian pyramids) biology (by travelling through the human body) and art and design (through drawing, painting and sculpting in 3D). 

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Reactions to the technology were overwhelmingly positive, with many of the youngsters expressing a renewed interest in the topics explored through the technology. 

Some articulated a desire to work with VR in future, with an enthusiasm to develop, code, or even produce content for software. 

And in a particularly poignant example of how VR technology is set to shake-up not only gaming and education, but also sectors such as travel, pupils at the school who had immigrated to Scotland were able to revisit their homelands through the headsets.

But it was within the second group of children that the transformative potential of VR became apparent. 

This group consisted of twelve pupils who had experienced learning difficulties, behavioural problems, social difficulties, adverse childhood experiences, mental health issues or developmental disorders. Some of those involved had even been excluded from the general school population.

These children were gradually encouraged to use the technology  to build their confidence – and to understand the importance of perseverance when presented with a difficult task.

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During the session, one female youngster communicated for the first time a love of cars and all things mechanical. Viarama were then able to use VR to let that pupil work in a virtual car garage, and soon she was solving complicated problems independently. 

The difficulty of the tasks she was undertaking was then gradually increased, to the point where she was working at a level on the VR software that many adults struggle to complete.  

Her confidence rocketed – with subsequent reports from teachers, social workers and her psychologist showing a marked improvement in a wide variety of areas. 

According to Billy Agnew, CEO of Viarama, this case is far from exceptional. He stresses that despite the intense, sometimes overwhelming nature of VR, children have proven to be among the most successful adoptees to the technology. And for those who have a difficult start in life – like those in the group at Granton Primary School – the results can be even more remarkable.

“Some of the kids we work with come from very disadvantaged backgrounds,” he explains. “And we provide them with a safe space where they love to spend time. 

“Our initial work is often to let the kids understand that they can solve problems, they can learn, they can accomplish tasks that seem difficult, and they can achieve things they previously thought impossible. Once the kids accept there’s no stopping them, it is wonderful to witness.”

Yet although the current generation of youngsters are, inevitably, accustomed to using digital technology, Agnew insists that people of ages can benefit from virtual reality. 

As part of Viarama’s work as a social enterprise, they have also introduced VR technology into nursing homes, hospices, respite centres, and hospitals.

“We have developed a variety of processes and procedures to gently prepare people for their first experience, and our focus is as much on psychology as it is on technology. 

“For senior citizens in hospices or nursing homes, their reaction to the experience can often be deeply emotional. No two reactions are the same as it is a very personal experience.” 

The idea of an automated technology provoking such an emotional response may seem exaggerated.  But in the case of the group at Granton Primary School, teachers all agreed that the experience had incredibly powerful results for pupils, and a report compiled following the project confirmed the positive engagement.

It stated: “Pupils who had expressed suicidal ideation no longer did so. Pupils who exhibited very low self-worth or self-esteem were beginning to believe in themselves to a greater extent. 

“Resilience and tenacity in the face of problems showed marked improvement across the entire group. Problem-solving skills among all participants showed general improvement, as did their wellbeing, and their desire and willingness to learn.”

With such undeniable benefits, it certainly seems a good idea to introduce VR technology more widely across Scotland’s schools. Agnew hopes that will soon be possible.

“The uptake of our work in schools has steadily increased since we started,” he explains. 

“But there is so much more to be done to help us reach more pupils, continue to boost interest in STEM subjects, and allow many more children to experience the very best in technology.   

“Viarama has worked so hard to propel the technology in the education sector, but we need support at a governmental level if we are to achieve our admittedly ambitious goal of making VR available to every school pupil in Scotland.”

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How Minecraft VR is building new skillsets

ONE particular pupil involved in the Viarama VR project at Granton Primary had been struggling to make friends due to a developmental disorder. 

He had actually tried various types of VR learning beforehand – then eventually discovered that the game Minecraft VR (an experience where the user can build structures using blocks) was profoundly relaxing for him.

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Having previously been monosyllabic throughout several weeks of sessions, he started to speak openly for the first time during his initial Minecraft session.

The pupil was able to communicate to his teachers that he “felt calm”, and was soon talking about what he saw, what he wanted to see, and what he wanted to do next. 

This increased verbal communication was evident not only during the VR session, but before and afterwards too. His general wellbeing and outlook on life was noted to have improved following the 12 weeks of VR learning. 

When asked who he would like to try VR next, the pupil nominated his friend, who he said would “love” virtual learning. This is a fellow pupil he met within the group, and indeed it was the first friendship that he had made at school.

The youngster’s ability to create and express himself in the VR world eventually translated to improved self-expression in the real world too. According to a report compiled by Viarama about the project, there is a clear correlation between happiness in the virtual world and a corresponding happiness in physical reality.

The report states: “For the first time these pupils find themselves in a world that makes sense to them, a world they can understand, and, crucially, a world they have control over. This feeling of agency is vital, and the importance of this cannot be overstated. 

“Furthermore, and while it is clear that much more study is required, this feeling of increased agency seems to transcend the virtual world and have a positive effect on the real world.”