Virtual Reality Could Bring History To Life In The Classroom

Feb 14, 2017

Brentwood Middle School geography teacher Casey Phillips was scared to take a step forward, lest he fall 64 stories from the top of the U.S. Steel Tower to the street below.

“That’s how realistic it is,” he said. “That is nuts.”

Phillips wasn’t really standing atop the building in downtown Pittsburgh, but it felt like he was because of the HTC Vive virtual reality headset he was wearing.

Phillips and 23 other social studies and history teachers got to test top of the line virtual reality technology last week as part of a training offered by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

The Vive sells for $799, and that’s not including the PC needed to run it. It’s an expense that’s likely not realistic for most school districts, but the Google Cardboard VR viewer sells for under $10.

Google's Potok Cardboard virtual reality viewer is one of the lower-end VR viewers, sells for $8.99 on Amazon.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

It’s a little more difficult to use than the Vive – teachers had trouble centering their smartphones in the viewer – and the quality is not as good.

But Marietta D’Alessandro, who teaches middle school social studies at St. Gabriel’s in Whitehall, said she immediately saw an application for it in her classroom.

“It brings history to life and that’s what’s so fantastic about it,” she said.

Eric Weimerskirch, a 6th grade social studies teacher at Elizabeth-Forward, said he thinks VR could help break down stereotypes, especially for kids from rural communities who have had limited exposure to diverse communities.

“This would be a great way to meet a child from another country without telling them beforehand what religion or nationality they are,” he said. “Let them see a life in the day of the child, and afterwards tell them what they are religious-wise. I think that would open their eyes.”

Some teachers are already using VR in their classrooms. Sixth grade social studies and science teacher Jonathan Bursich of South Fayette said this year’s students are already outperforming last year’s kids on tests for units that incorporated VR.

Ed Hrinda and Brian Tharp of McKeesport Area High School and Marietta D'Alessandro of St. Gabriel's in White Hall experience virtual reality during a training at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit on Friday, February 10, 2017.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

“We’re learning about the eye right now and talking about the parts of the eye,” he said. “I took them on a virtual tour of a 3-D model and they’re able to explore in a different way than just a textbook would allow them to.”

The technology is not immediately a perfect fit for the classroom. The experience makes some people dizzy. There can be bugs with the software. And even at less than $10 each, it would still cost a good deal to outfit an entire classroom of students with VR headsets.

“The issue is cost. How can every student benefit from this?” said D’Alessandro. “Yes, they do have phones. But my phone was outdated – it wouldn’t download the app – so that’s a problem.”

Some schools have found workarounds, connecting one VR device controlled by a teacher or student to a TV screen, so the whole class can share in the experience.

AIU director of instructional innovation Tyler Samstag said the AIU training wasn’t meant to present VR as a panacea, but rather to give teachers a starting point with the technology.

“Let’s give them the opportunity to really experiment, get their hands on with it, figure out where the value lies and where some of the obstacles would arise in implementing it into their classrooms,” he said. “And really start to think strategically about the application to the curriculum in the classroom, so it’s not just a shiny new toy in the classroom but it’s adding true value to student learning.”