Using virtual reality to keep students engaged amid a pandemic

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — This next school year will probably look unlike any other, with many school districts considering redefining the meaning of homeroom. As the coronavirus impacts schools and students begin learning from a distance, one thing that could help keep learning interactive is virtual .

“It’s really hands-on, so it’s something new to the students,” said Eric Garcia, a teacher at Browning Road Steam Academy in McFarland.

Garcia is no stranger to using virtual reality in his classroom and says it’s a tool that helps bring the lessons to life and develop students’ social and emotional learning skills.

“Not all students learn the same way. You have some students that do fine with just reading a book but when they see that plant that has the roots and they’re able to look around it through it. So when they see it hands-on, it gives them excitement and shows them there’s more than one way to learn.”

Garcia has been using virtual reality goggles to bring his lessons to life in the classroom. He said virtual reality allows him to bring a whole new world to his students, one they may not have been able to experience before.

For Garcia, teaching is not about the lessons — he’s helping his students develop skills like empathy, compassion, and understanding. He does this through virtual reality tours of places like the Holocaust museum or the Mayan Temples. He can bring a Dia De Los Muertos celebration to life to help teach his students about different cultures.

“Virtual reality really helps out not only students with learning disabilities but students with social-emotional problems or language barriers, who have never been outside the bubble,” he said.

Garcia said his students who normally struggle with traditional learning systems are drawn in through VR.

With the coronavirus leaving questions surrounding the next school year, many teachers have had to start thinking about how to keep students engaged from afar — especially those who already struggle in the classroom.

When it comes to teaching these social skills, teachers like Tricia Fuglestad say virtual and augmented reality can help students connect lessons to their emotions even without the typical school setting.

Fuglestad said she has just started exploring the use of augmented reality this past year but the more her students experienced their projects coming to life — the more eager they were to learn.

“It started to empower my students when they think about the possibilities,” she said.

As for Garcia, he says that any teacher can use VR to help keep students engaged. They don’t necessarily need to have VR goggles and cards to take their students to the digital world. Even just taking an online virtual tour of a museum or zoo can help students engage in lessons in a new way.

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