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Students make a difference with VR

May 15, 2017

Virtual reality (VR) in the classroom gives students “the opportunity to do things that otherwise would not be possible,” such as walking the Great Wall of China, or exploring the pyramids of Giza, said Dakota State University social sciences instructor Dan Klumper. This creates experiences for students that can put them in the middle of their learning.

VR “will be the next big thing in education,” he predicts, so to keep DSU education students on the cutting edge of their profession, he was awarded a $1,000 mini-grant from the institution for 30 virtual reality viewer headsets for classroom use. “We want to use them to change learning, to be a difference-maker,” he said.

With their smart phones secured in the headsets, his geography students watched the United Nations film “Clouds over Sidra,” during class this spring. This video shows life in the Jordanian refugee camp Za’atari, which is home to 82,000 Syrian refugees, many of whom have lived there for years. “Childhoods are being spent here,” Klumper said.

This enabled the DSU students to “see this area from the eyes of someone who has to live there,” namely 12-year-old Sidra, who had been in the camp for 18 months when it was filmed in 2015. The students also viewed “The Displaced,” a New York Times VR video featuring three children, one each from the Ukraine, South Sudan and Syria. The featured children are some of 30 million children driven from their homes by war, the most since World War II.

“Instead of reading about refugee camps and trying to understand what the inhabitants are experiencing and how those conditions affect children, families, and learning, the VR headsets allow education candidates to immerse themselves in the camps and be a ‘feet on the ground’ observer with a 360-degree view of what is happening,” said Dr. Crystal Pauli, dean of the College of Education at DSU.

Tatum Ronke, an elementary education/special education major from Watertown, said she became completely immersed in the video. “It puts the story more in a personal light,” and she felt it could help students understand the reality of global situations.

Klumper encouraged the geography students to observe the culture and emotions visible in these videos, but the most powerful question he wanted them to consider was “How does an experience like this help our future students develop empathy?”

“You’re going to teach your students important skills such as reading, writing, math and research,” but with VR headsets future teachers could teach students the difference between sympathy and empathy. Citing examples of bullying in schools, he said “you really need to teach students empathy.”

The students noted that many of the children seemed content, despite the drab scenery around the refugee camp. Preston Nordling of Madison said this observation could change a student’s outlook about their own life, helping them to be more grateful.

The experience with the VR went beyond simply viewing prepared videos. In another exercise, Klumper had the students create some of their own videos. A tool called CoSpaces gave the students “the ability to create their own virtual world to explore and share,” he said, which turned the students into VR creators rather than just consumers. The students also learned about the practicality of the technology for an average classroom. While young elementary students would not all have smart phones, said Amanda Larson, an elementary education/special education major from Hayti, S.D., there might be an option using iPads.

These experiences with virtual reality, said Pauli, give students the “time and space to explore ways to be creative with their teaching.”