What the coming educational VR revolution teaches us about the tech’s future

[It seems like I’m on a VR/AR roll. In this TechCrunch article, Peter Sena outlines a variety of ways that VR is already changing the K-20 landscape. He highlights tools like zSpace and Engage. In previous articles I’ve shared my first-hand impressions of zSpace. I agree with what Peter Sena has described. It really does engage students and allows new opportunities for learners to investigate situations like frog dissections or machine manipulations that would have been dangerous or cost-prohibitive in the past. I’m especially interested to find schools who have looked at Engage. I want learners to be creative producers, not creative consumers.]

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0



Imagine the following scenario: A fifth-grade science class has just begun and the teacher makes a surprise announcement — today the students will be dissecting a frog.

I’m sure you remember dissecting a frog as a kid — the sour-pickle odor of formaldehyde, the sharp scalpels slicing into rubbery skin. You don’t have to be an animal rights activist to grimace a bit thinking about it.

But here comes the paradox. In this scenario, like-minded fifth-graders who are queasy about cutting open animals are excited to participate in this dissection. Indeed, no animal was harmed when the specimens were collected. What’s more, the teacher promises the students that they won’t have to clean up a messy station afterward.

How? Thanks to the paradigm-shifting creations of zSpace, an educational VR/AR company, students can harmlessly dissect an animal on an interactive screen known as the zSpace 200. Students wear a special pair of glasses equipped with sensors and use a stylus that allows them to engage with a virtual image that can be turned or even disassembled.

By importing VR/AR into the classroom, one minute students can explore the anatomy and organs of an animal without harming it, and the very next build and test circuits or set up experiments that test Newton’s laws.

For young students who have been inundated by tech in almost every other domain of their lives, this form of learning comes naturally.

“Kids say, ‘Well of course it should be like this.’ They believe they should be able to reach into a screen, grab something, pull it out, and interact with it,” said Dave Chavez, chief technology officer of zSpace.

While VR is often discussed as a gaming technology, the gaming applications of VR are simply the first wave in a sequence that will profoundly shape the way we experience content over the next five years. Educational startups have been working on VR material for classrooms ranging from kindergarten through medical school. Current estimates project that the global edtech market will reach $252 billion by 2020; VR will capture a big chunk of this pie.

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For Digital Natives, Appreciating Shakespeare’s Words with Performances

[It’s not often that I come across a very innovative use of educational technology, but in this Mindshift article you’ll discover how digital technology can make Shakespeare come alive to a new audience. The initial research is quite impressive. ]

While we may not exactly know all the ways Shakespeare was taught to classrooms 200 or even 100 years ago, we do know that many of today’s high schoolers, increasingly engaged in the more visual communications of the digital world and the language of texting, find Shakespeare difficult to read and even more difficult to comprehend.

And while today’s teens have become more tethered to visual and digital means of communication, the teaching of Shakespeare in US classrooms hasn’t changed much, according to secondary English Language Arts curriculum specialist Kristen Nance, who facilitates resource use for one of the largest school districts in Texas.

“A lot of very traditional instruction goes along with teaching Shakespeare,” she said, such as reading the plays, showing movie clips to help with visualizing, or reading parts in class to read out loud. “Getting it new and fresh sometimes is a struggle.”

Nance also said keeping kids engaged in the text can also be demanding; between understanding the archaic language and deciphering the vocabulary, and teachers trying to fill in the gaps as best they can, some kids find it a challenge to keep up.

Then last year, Nance’s superior brought in Alexander Parker, who had developed a digital product for teaching Shakespeare that appeared to bring the best of two worlds together. Parker’s invention, a series of web-based ebooks called WordPlay Shakespeare, offered something Nance had never seen before: Shakespearean text alongside a performance of the play. Instead of just studying the text or watching the performance, the ebook provided a way for students to do both at the same time side-by-side, which enhanced both the reading and the watching. The performances were simple and stripped down, so as not to distract from the text, and the text had some helpful features built in to help students, like a built in dictionary, scene-by-scene synopsis, on-page annotations, and even a modern translation.

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3 Challenges As Hands-On, DIY Culture Moves Into Schools

[I just had a chance to participate in Studio A, a 3 day workshop sponsored by the Avonworth School District with funding from the Grable Foundation. The workshop linked Arts Integration + Human-Centered Design + Project-based Learning. Here’s an NPR article that looks at some of the key issues that we, educators, experienced and overcame as we realized that if it’s good for student learning, we need to find ways to integrate it into the school program. ]

Take a look this summer inside some of America’s garages, museums and libraries and you’ll see that the “maker movement” is thriving.

This hands-on, DIY culture of inventors, tinkerers and hackers is inspiring adults and children alike to design and build everything from sailboats and apps to solar cars.

And this fall, more of these chaotic workspaces, stocked with glue guns, drills and hammers, will be popping up in schools, too.

But the maker movement faces some big hurdles as it pushes into classrooms.

Here’s the first big one:

Schools “are not thinking about it as an instructional tool,” says Chris O’Brien, a former teacher who helps schools create maker and project-based learning spaces in New York City.

He says schools make a big mistake if these programs are merely a popular elective with the hip teacher, or the place to go after school to play with wood, cloth or a 3-D printer.

Schools that embrace making, he says, need to find a thoughtful place for maker projects in the school’s curriculum. Otherwise, he warns, maker spaces could “go by the wayside and become an after-school program.”

Linking maker-based projects to classroom curriculum and academic standards, he says, will help “ensure that students will learn, but also that the maker movement won’t become just another educational trend.”

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