The Digital Frontier continues to move. Can it reshape our understanding of history? Innovative technologies boast realistic recreations of the past, from the glory of Athens to the trenches of Verdun. Virtual Reality allows students to “visit” significant sites, “witness” crucial events, and “experience” history in the making. Virtual Reality tools and applications open for educators a whole world of new classroom strategies and teaching methods. VR enables students to explore virtual venues and create exciting exhibits. Here’s an overview of VR technologies that you can use in the social science classroom today. 

Introduction To Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality has been around for a number of years. Popular with gamers, the technology has only recently been utilized in the classroom—and only rarely by non-STEM departments.

VR possesses enormous potential for the social sciences and history in particular. With 360-degree cameras, teachers are already able to take students on virtual field trips to places such as the Acropolis, ancient Mayan ruins, and Jerusalem.

Tell me and I’ll forget,

Show me and I may remember,  Involve me and I’ll understand. 

– Chinese Proverb

VR enables students to re-imagine the sights and sounds of historical events. Imagine walking the streets of Victorian London, or witnessing the protests of the American Civil Rights movement. The possibilities are only limited by the passage of time…

Real World Skill Building

Coding platforms currently exist that allow students to build their own virtual worlds. CoSpaces allows students to build their own 3D objects and then view them in virtual or augmented reality. In practice this presents the opportunity for the building of virtual exhibits that can be enjoyed by viewers beyond the physical halls of school.

Nearpod VR builds upon the popular platform by making high-quality VR field trips easily available to teachers and students anywhere. These field trips include integrated primary sources and links to amplify the experience.

Google Earth VR allows teachers freedom to travel with their students to almost any locale, opening up nearly-limitless possibilities for exploration and discovery without leaving the comfort of the classroom. Google Expeditions brings together 360° scenes and images for a collated experience through which teachers can guide their students.

Strategies for the VR Classroom

The strength of VR lies in the experiential possibilities. Students learn more when they are immersed in a lesson. Students can:

  • explore the Sistine Chapel and write a journal on what they see
  • experience the fall of the Berlin Wall via augmented reality, and report on the event as if they were witnessing it as journalists
  • wander through the ancient Roman Forum, recreated via Rome Reborn ®
  • construct a virtual exhibit on a historical event of their choosing
  • discuss the methods of creating public history and design choice
  • have students reflect on what images, video, and text they used to design their exhibit and, afterwards, host a virtual museum opening

FAQs

What about the cost?

VR equipment is becoming more affordable every day. Those wishing to try it out should look into purchasing a set of inexpensive  cardboard goggles for use with most smartphones. Software is more costly, but Google VR is free for users. Most of the companies surveyed here have teacher ambassador programs that assist in reducing costs.

Isn’t this a distortion of history?

The question of “reality” offers teachers a great way to discuss how to engage with all sources.

How time consuming will this be to implement in the classroom?

Some activities like field trips can be a brief, but efficient use of time. Others, like virtual exhibits, can take several class periods but are ultimately very rewarding—not only for students but also for teachers.


Virtual Reality in the Classroom

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Hardware:

Cardboard Viewers: Cardboard viewers are going to be the go-to device for classrooms, due to their affordability and ease of use. They can be purchased for typically $5-$15 on Amazon. Users put their cell phone into the viewer and use the Google Cardboard app to play. The biggest thing to keep in mind with these is that not all phones will fit inside them (typically up to 6 inches) and they are made of cardboard, so YMMV.

Samsung Gear VR / Google Daydream : A mid-range headset. More immersive and realistic and comes with controller. ($50-$100)

Oculus Rift, Oculus Go, and Oculus Quest: The standard in consumer VR use for gaming. These are more expensive devices ($200-$400) that offer more realistic and responsive experiences. They are stand-alone devices that do not require a phone, although the Rift requires a compatible computer.

Generic Viewers: There is a growing number of VR viewers available through various manufacturers and the price continues to drop.

Applications:

Google Earth Logo

Explore virtually anywhere on earth with Google Earth VR. Google Voyager offers interactive stories. Learn more here.

Promising to “Bring History to Life,” the developers at Timelooper have created an app that illustrates the potential of educational VR in the discipline of history. Users can visit real places and use the headset to view what these places looked like at other times in history through augmented reality. They also have videos that combine primary source material with VR video to offer students a more immersive experience as they study periods like the Great Depression, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Civil War. www.timelooper.com

A series of individual apps and videos that take users on a virtual tour of the recreated city of Ancient Rome including  the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, the imperial fora, the imperial palace, the Pantheon, and the entire city seen from the air. https://www.romereborn.org

Nearpod VR builds upon the popular platform by making high-quality VR field trips easily available to teachers and students anywhere. These field trips include integrated primary sources and links to amplify the experience. https://nearpod.com/nearpod-vr

My favorite! Put your students in the developer seat with this app. Students develop and use 3D objects to actively create their own virtual worlds. https://cospaces.io/edu

Check out a project created by my freshmen Gulliver #2023 students this Spring!


This information was initially presented at the National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference, November 2018. Hopefully it has provided some inspiration for your next VR project. Share your ideas with me in the discussion below or on twitter!


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