A survey of more than 1,000 U.S. K-12 teachers showed that 86 percent feel it is a challenge to keep students engaged in the curriculum. When asked specifically about what technologies could help engage kids, 93 percent said their students would be excited to use virtual reality, and 60 percent are interested in making VR part of the learning experience. However, finding curricula that fits with what they’re already teaching is not guaranteed — in fact, it’s downright hard.
Georgia Tech grad Aditya Vishwanath wants to bring low-cost virtual reality education to students around the world. The idea was prompted during an internship at Google, where he was exploring the feasibility of implementing mobile phone-based VR in a Mumbai, India slum.
“We wanted to just explore what it would be to be able to bring field trips to different places around the world, like the Great Wall of China and the Seven Wonders of the World, into a classroom and have students experience being in these places using phones,” says Vishwanath. The students would use small cardboard viewers inserted in their phones to experience the visual programming.
Following the internship, Vishwanath joined a university research lab to explore a pilot program using the same technology in Atlanta schools.
“Our methodology was not to create something out of the blue and try to integrate that into the classroom,” says Vishwanath. “Rather, we wanted to understand how this would fit in a meaningful way inside an existing classroom context with little behavior change on the part of the teachers, and actually being aligned with the standards and the syllabi that are already set up and established by the state.”
Vishwanath and a Georgia Tech Center for Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing team, with assistance from Naveena Karusala, Amrutha Vasan, and Dr. Neha Kumar, designed a complete biology VR curriculum for grades nine and ten. They also took teachers from the Georgia Department of Education through design-thinking workshops to incorporate their feedback.
The mobile phone-based curriculum reduces the barrier of entry and understanding for the students as they are already likely using their phones throughout the day. The series of VR videos covers cell composition topics including mitochondria, lysosomes, DNA, RNA and protein synthesis.
“We do not propose students to use our content to introduce a new topic,” says Vishwanath. “Students don’t watch our videos to learn about something new. Rather, they watch our videos to revise and to reinforce something that they already have been taught by their teachers in the regular classroom teaching way.”
This particular study, hosted by six schools in Cobb County in March, is likely one of the largest VR education experiments conducted outside of a laboratory anywhere in the world, according to Vishwanath. The goal of the study was to contrast the efficiency of VR as a supplemental teaching tool versus other materials like textbooks or YouTube videos over one week. The 350 students were divided into groups — the VR content group watched five minutes of the VR curriculum at the end of their biology class, followed by a pre-test, post-test and retention test.
“We did a regression analysis, lab analysis and tried to evaluate if students factual knowledge increased, confidence level increased, interest and engagement level increases, as well as empathy building and other experiential aspects that we wanted to measure,” says Vishwanath. “We found in every single category the students who used VR content outperformed those who did not use VR content on their smartphones.”
Another significant finding? Those students who watched 25 minutes of the VR curriculum before taking a test over the course of a week received a whole letter grade average better than those who didn’t.
“With VR, the goal is to engage senses that go beyond your basic five senses,” says Vishwanath. “We’re trying to not only engage your sense of sight and your sense of hearing, but you can activate a lot of other areas in a child’s brain that leads to a lot of positive effects, like higher memory retention.”
So far, he has collaborated with the Georgia Department of Education and Cobb County, Clayton County and 12 schools in Atlanta Public Schools. In south Georgia he is currently piloting a tour of Atlanta through headsets for those students that may not have the means to visit the state’s capital.
Another pilot intended to increase engagement with their city was hosted last summer by Georgia Tech’s summer camp and the Drew Charter School. A group of 65 students had to create a VR movie around themes of social justice, for example, on hunger or homelessness in Atlanta. The films included waiting in line at the Atlanta Community Food Bank to receive food, visiting a homeless shelter, etc.
“We had these students share these videos with their peers and a really interesting finding we found from this experiment was we saw students were becoming more empathetic and becoming more connected with the issues in their own neighborhood,” says Vishwanath. “The ones who experienced a day in the life of a homeless person ended up volunteering and participating more in their day-to-day life.”
Vishwanath has taken all this potential and his studies on virtual reality educational content to found a startup — Inspirit. They offer short VR videos to complement already existing school curriculums, with over 100 videos already in their database.
Vishwanath says they will be growing their library to a entire year’s worth of ninth and tenth grade curriculums in physics, chemistry and biology — around 150 hours of VR content available by subscription. All parents or teachers need is the cardboard viewer, included in the monthly and yearly plans.
Vishwanath continues to explore cognitive research around VR education including how long a child can/should withstand a VR experience, how intense the experience should be and how to avoid triggering phobias that often persist in the VR world. The senior is heading to Stanford University this fall to begin his Ph.D., but plans to continue to scale Inspirit.
All photos courtesy of Georgia Tech College of Computing