On any given day, students across Milpitas Unified School District are setting off on Apollo missions alongside Neil Armstrong, visiting different countries they have only ever read about in their history books, creating and taking tours in homes they create, and reducing their speaking fears by presenting in front of a virtual audience.
What once seemed like science fiction has now become reality, Virtual Reality (VR), since the District kicked off its efforts in 2016.
“VR is the next progression of technology that students are being introduced to experience learning in an immersive way,” said Chin Song, the district’s Director of Technology Services.
He explained that, currently, two versions of VR exist: fully interactive and partially interactive. Oculus is full immersion, which couples a powerful computer with handheld controls while cardboard VR requires users to hold a mobile unit (usually a phone with limited processing power) with both hands.
“We’re starting our collaboration with Oculus (Facebook) to imagine what VR will look like in K-12 education,” Chin said. “Today, the primary purpose for students and staff is for them to be exposed to VR and its possibilities.”
Since the experience launched last year, Chin said a few teachers have used VR while teachers at multiple sites in all levels have utilized cardboard VR in some way and several teachers have had Google Expeditions to participate in a whole class virtual field trip experience.
On February 6, fifth graders at Burnett Elementary School went far beyond using VR as a tool to bridge an experience to one that is building intimate understanding, human connections, and empathy with others.
In order to introduce her peers to what it might be like for a person with autism to process incoming sensory information, fifth grader Gianna Ciardella teamed up with MUSD's Special Education and Technology Services department to bring Virtual Reality in the classroom that simulated visual and auditory experience.
This was just one part of a project that Gianna, aspiring to be a preschool special education teacher, created through “Genius Hour.” Students in Burnett’s fifth-sixth grade combination class and the other two sixth-grade classes were able to select something that they were interested in learning about and then did so under the guidance and facilitation of their teachers: Jenn Harlow, Michelle Mandeville, and Joanne Stallings, according to Principal Richard Julian.
"I am going to invent a Sensory Tool Kit. It is going to help teachers help kids with autism stay focused during class,” Gianna wrote in a letter to Chin, asking for support from his department by borrowing the glasses.
That day, students were immediately engaged and afterwards shared how much they learned about what it might be like to have autism and integrate sensory information.
The toolkit also included a variety of items to support students with autism in the classroom be better able to focus and attend to instruction such as noise-cancellation headphones, a variety of "fidget" toys, gum (great for proprioceptive input) as well as a weighted blanket, which can be helpful in calming and supporting self-regulation.
“It was an opportunity for students to engage in personalized learning in its purest form,” Principal Julian said of Genius Hour. “Students were intently engaged in learning about something that they were highly interested in. It was an incredible experience for them, their teachers, and our school.”
Chin acknowledged that the important aspect of slowly incorporating VR now is to demonstrate what is possible today, and what the future may look like.
“We hope to incorporate VR in our fabric of learning to help students expand their imagination and learn through experiences,” he said. “In addition, as VR will be a huge growing economy in the future, our hope is that our students will aspire to create VR experiences for others in addition to benefitting from the experiences. VR today is where the Internet was in the early 90s.”
If you are a Milpitas teacher interested in utilizing VR in your classroom, fill out the following Google form.