As with many of the most powerful and sustainable ideas in education, the Virtual Learning Lab’s success is a result of a teacher’s personal investment and belief in a program. After hearing about virtual reality technology in the classroom at a regional educators’ event, superintendent Dr. Tim Bobrowski set up a demonstration for staff. Determined to give their students access to this opportunity, science teachers Jennifer Hall and Jessica Cole teamed up to apply for a Kentucky Society for Technology in Education (KySTE) Outreach grant that would help fund VR equipment at OCHS.
OCHS was awarded a KySTE grant, which was used to purchase three zSpaces, a learning station that combines elements of AR and VR to create lifelike experiences that are immersive and interactive. We were able to match that amount with Title 1 funds to purchase three more zSpaces. Around the same time, we were awarded a Go Online and Learn Grant (GOAL) from Kentucky Power, which we used to purchase a subscription to Nepris (a tool that connects teachers and students with the right industry expert) for teachers grades 6-12, webcams and speakers, Zoom professional accounts, and connection fees for videoconference lessons. Additionally, we were awarded a Berea GEAR UP grant, which we used to purchase a Smart Board. Without the KySTE and KEDC GOAL grants, totaling about $25,000, we could not have launched the program.
Over time, other teachers joined the program, bringing new ideas for transforming the space and expanding the scope to address the shared goal of creating more opportunities for OCHS students to connect outside of their community.
For us, virtual reality started by using the comparatively low-tech Google Cardboard equipment, which is a low-cost option for providing VR experiences using your phone. This was a low-risk, less technically complicated opportunity from the beginning to get teachers excited, involved, and bought-in, providing professional development to learn about how to integrate virtual reality in small steps into their classroom. By the time we set up the Virtual Learning Lab, teachers had an understanding of what they were signing up for and were able to choose from multiple on-ramps to learn how to get started.
This process is common to our ethos -- to support teachers with new tools and opportunities, create ownership among staff, and capitalize on the human capital we already have. We do a lot of in-house professional development and EdCamps where teachers can try new things in a low-risk environment. Bringing teachers together in these types of low-pressure situations helps everyone feel comfortable with new tools and collaboratively explore how they can use them in their classrooms.
Additionally, it is important to get parents involved as soon as possible. Virtual reality was a brand new concept for our parents. To get ahead of any skepticism, we included demonstrations during a regularly scheduled school open house so parents could try out the tools for themselves. We have not experienced any pushback.
We purchased three zSpace workstations -- VR learning experience hardware and software -- with our original KySTE grant. We chose zSpace because its equipment and software best fit our needs: its curriculum spans multiple subject-areas, its visual delivery is incredibly realistic, and it supports collaboration among students, with the opportunity for three students to work simultaneously at one station.
The program took off. Students and teachers were hungry for these opportunities. We applied for additional funding, such as the KEDC GOAL grant and Berea GEAR UP grant, to support the expansion of creating these out-of-school connections, which helped our school equip the lab. We currently have:
Making dedicated space for these virtual reality experiences is critical and, admittedly, has come with significant challenges. In an ideal world, we’d recommend creating at least one dedicated space where teachers and students can access these opportunities. With only one high school serving the entire county, space is a precious commodity, and we need to be creative. When we first started with three zSpace stations, we were using a room that had largely been used for science classes. We tried that initially, but outgrew the classroom we’d dedicated to VR learning.
As the project grew, we moved to a room with a wide-open seating area, an interactive board, space for the zSpace stations and our HTC Vive, and a set of tables—rather than an open virtual lab for teachers to build into their classes. Engaging with this space is now required for regular sixth-grade classes. Though we created the space for these types of non-traditional class experiences for teachers to leverage, we’ve struggled with limited space in the building. The competition for classroom space is a stumbling block that we’re still trying to work out logistically. For now, rotation schedules are working relatively well.
Our VR lab and tools, such as Nepris and Zoom, open doors and widen the world for our students. These types of experiences have opened up different career options, helped students make real-life connections to the things they learn in class, and allowed students to understand content more deeply by talking with experts.
After students attended a video-conference where a surgery team from Jewish Hospital in Louisville performed a live open-heart surgery, several of them decided they would like to explore the medical field further, something they had not considered before. By providing deeper, richer, more hands-on learning experiences for students—connecting virtual reality and professional interviews—students are more engaged, collaborative, and knowledgeable.
We identified these opportunities based on students’ requests for more opportunities to connect visually with content, which cemented their enthusiasm for the process. It’s important to remember to survey students on their experiences and include them in decision-making processes about next steps. Ultimately this program is for them, and without their feedback and buy-in, these tools are only as helpful as students’ level of participation.