Categories: Community, News

Engaging Students with Virtual Reality


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Leslie Ahern, itslearning

Rothaugen Middle School in Bergen, Norway, has been using the itslearning LMS for over 20 years. Terje Pedersen – one of the most innovative teachers I’ve met – has been teaching there for around 14 years. Terje is always ready to hear about, and help test, the latest itslearning features. It had been a while since I’d checked in with him, so I called to ask him what he was up to. Here’s what I discovered…

Future Learning Lab

Last year Terje and his fellow teachers turned their school’s largest classroom into a space they call the Future Learning Lab. The room includes sections for gaming, podcast-making, video-making, VR and more. Its purpose is to explore new teaching strategies and allow students to get creative with technology.

The lab is available to other schools in the area as well. To lower the bar for less-experienced teachers, Terje and his colleagues ensure that the space can be used without a lot of pre-knowledge or preparation. The equipment is already set up, there are no complicated logins and lesson plans are readily available.

Terje Pedersen, Rothaugen Middle School Teacher

Virtual Reality

Rothaugen school invested in Oculus Quest VR headsets, which are completely wireless and don’t require a gaming pc. Oculus Quest users have access to free software which enables them to communicate with people anywhere in the world, as if they are in the same physical location. Terje uses this software to develop engaging lessons and create deep-learning experiences for his students. For example, his class can interact with native speakers to learn foreign languages and experience other cultures, as demonstrated in this video:

“VR is a great tool for learning, as it puts you in a virtual world where anything is possible – you can look around, and most importantly, interact with everything – which makes it fun, enjoyable, and more memorable. All in all, it’s a win-win for both teachers and students. It’s a great tool for learning that every school should use, in my opinion.”

Gabriel Ray, Rothaugen Middle School Student

Rothaugen school is currently working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to determine if VR and gaming can help increase self-awareness regarding racism and discrimination. They will also work with Oxford University to create a virtual room in which teachers and professors can discuss the effects of VR and other pedagogical strategies.

Engaging Interviews

Terje’s classes interview people using VR and video conferencing. Among others they have interviewed a journalist from New Orleans, a former Chicago police officer and a man who was sentenced to death in Alabama (but later released). Terje explains, “VR interviews are strange at first because you’re in a room as an avatar, so you feel like you’re inside a cartoon. At first the students got a bit distracted and focused on moving around more than on the interview – but after a while they got used to it.”

During their interviews they discuss topics such as Black Lives Matter, the US election (see their VR visit to the White House), the coronavirus and ‘fake news’. One of the experiences that made the biggest impression on students was meeting juvenile inmates of a Miami prison. The Norwegian students expected the prisoners to be ‘typical gangsters’ like they’d seen in the movies, but they found out they were just regular kids like them, with similar interests. The only difference was that they had been incarcerated for things that wouldn’t even be considered serious offences in Norway. The meeting caused the students to empathize with the young prisoners.

Gamification

While studying the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, Terje’s class is reading historical accounts of the Trail of Tears and the Battle of Wounded Knee. In addition, they are playing a video game called This Land is my Land. I often hear of teachers using games in their classes, and I wonder what the students learn through gamification. In this game, students take on the role of 19th-century Indigenous North Americans – to hunt, farm and interact with white settlers who are moving closer and closer to their homes. Part of the point is to negotiate peacefully and not take any lives. If students end up harming a settler, they have to write an apology to the victim’s parents. The game inspires their writing and provides them with a more personal experience of the choices Indigenous peoples were forced to make in order to survive.

I mentioned to Terje that my 14-year-old son would love to be in his class, because my son’s school doesn’t use gaming or VR. Terje replied, “Teachers should teach in a way that they feel comfortable. I try different tools and sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. I think it’s important to fail too. I’m not really afraid of failing, even though it annoys me when I do. It’s important to try new things.”

I wish there were more teachers like Terje!

Feel free to follow the adventures of his class on Twitter: @terjepe

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