In Focus: How to bring learning to life through virtual reality

Immersive technologies can ‘lift learning off the page’, writes Hiten Mistry from Putney High Junior School

Putney High School virtual reality and immersive technology

For teachers who love education technology, there’s never been a more exciting time to be in the classroom. Innovation is everywhere, as EdTech rises to the challenge of delivering engaging, interactive experiences, no matter where learning is taking place.

“Any digital tool that enhances learning and unlocks students’ curiosity can create an immersive experience.”

As someone who has enjoyed teaching with technology for 15 years, it’s amazing to see how digital learning has progressed. For me, perhaps the biggest innovation has been in immersive learning –which enables the exploration of new worlds and puts students fully in the moment.

In its purest form, immersive learning includes technologies such as virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR). But in truth, any digital tool that enhances learning and unlocks students’ curiosity can create an immersive experience.

When I first started teaching, classroom instruction was very traditional and mostly worksheet orientated. After experimenting with digital content, I saw a real change in how my students responded. Technology helped me to create an active learning environment in which all my students could fully participate – with some great learning outcomes.

“Instead of just hearing or reading about other worlds, they can see, touch and inhabit them.”

The benefits of active learning – where students take part in the learning process, instead of simply listening –  are well documented. When students have greater control they are more engaged. And when learning is memorable, it boosts retention and understanding. I believe immersive learning is the pinnacle of active learning, because it put students at the centre of the process. Instead of just hearing or reading about other worlds, they can see, touch and inhabit them. Learning is lifted off the page and brought to life, with spectacular results.

At Putney High School GDST we want our students to learn without limits and immersive learning experiences are part of this.  Here’s how we use digital technology to spark curiosity and boost engagement in every lesson.

Digital Content

When it comes to creating a hook for learning, digital content immediately makes lessons more engaging. Video is especially good for immersing learners in new topics and short clips can be a great way to introduce and explain concepts that students can’t visualise.

Discovery Education Espresso and the BBC Bitesize website both have great videos mapped to National Curriculum, and we use these to introduce new themes or to kick-start discussion.

Charities are another good source of digital content. The World Wildlife Fund has some excellent resources linked to topics such as climate change and videos to immerse children in the natural world.

Interactive Resources

One topic that really lends itself to immersive learning is Space, and we have a number of go-to resources for creating memorable learning experiences.

Nasa’s website has some fantastic content to immerse students in all things intergalactic, from videos about astronauts to activities such as rocket building and even making edible asteroids.

Likewise, the European Space Agency is also a great source for space-related content, as is the Royal Observatory.

Green screening

Green screening is another go-to tool for immersive learning. Transporting students to the world of their choosing, it has the benefit of being low cost and easy to set up.

Last year we used green screening to teach Year 4 students about climate change, with impressive results. The girls filmed news reports on their mobile devices, before editing the backdrop to place themselves in the jungle!

At Putney we use Apple’s new iMovie app for our filming projects. The latest version has built-in green screen functionality, which removes the need for separate editing software.

Augmented Reality

Recently, we’ve been experimenting with Augmented Reality (AR), which definitely brings the wow factor into the classroom. AR superimposes virtual images onto students’ view of the real world and works on mobile devices with an app.

Our first experience of AR was with The Very Hungry Caterpillar, an app which brings Eric Carle’s famous book to life for EYFS students. It’s an ideal hook for children who are learning to read, because it helps them to connect with the story in a different way.

“As teachers we are all trying to create an environment that’s less passive.”

More recently, we’ve discovered Sandbox AR a new Augmented Reality app also from Discovery Education. Sandbox AR takes immersive learning to the next level, because it enables students to build and even inhabit virtual environments, by scaling them up to life size. This virtual “maker environment” has fantastic potential, because students can be part of the world they create. Our Reception girls have been using the app to learn about space. They returned from lunch one day to discover that a rocket had landed in the classroom.

As teachers we are all trying to create an environment that’s less passive, and immersive technology can really help us to achieve this. It makes learning more dynamic and sparks students’ curiosity by transporting them to a different place and time.

For teachers looking to get started, Twitter and You Tube are great for sharing and finding ideas.

Having realised the potential of immersive learning, our next step at Putney High School is to explore Virtual Reality (VR). It’s something we’re really excited about. Who knows where it might take us?