At the end of last school year, I was introduced to the possibilities of virtual reality in education through an experience at NCDLCN led by Jeff Crews and Dean Phillips of Beyond the Chalk. I need to add here, that these were the two who introduced me to the Sphero. (You can read all about what THAT did for our district in this blog post.) I immediately knew that this would be another avenue to make the abstract more concrete for learners in our district, but I needed to learn more. And I needed investors.
I'm not talking about financial backers, here. Fortunately, after the campaign to get Spheros in the district proved to be a worthwhile investment, I was given a small budget - a terrifying and truly amazing thing. I just needed a few visionary educators who saw the potential impact this technology could have to transform learning experiences for their students - those are the investors I'm talking about.
In the fall of 2016, The William & Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation offered a Digital Learning Series. Dozens of teachers from schools across our district, with the encouragement of their building administrators, applied for the handful of seats we reserved for two of the two-day workshops: Google Tools for Today's Schools and Digital+Physical Learning = ENGAGEMENT. If selected, we would cover the cost of the workshop and their sub on the days that they would miss school. In exchange, they would offer PD for teachers to share what they learned.
I clearly underestimated the return on this investment.
Three teachers went to the Digital+Physical Learning = ENGAGEMENT workshop. After day one, I know I had found my investors. They were on fire to bring what they had learned back to their classrooms - a pretty normal side effect of professional development at the Friday Institute. Teachers know that when you bring movement into a lesson, the concepts "stick" with students. This is nothing new. But this workshop made them feel like they could really do what they learned - we already had the Spheros that were part of the workshop, but how could they take students on virtual field trips? And how could they share this with others in the district? This workshop started the conversation.
We immediately began collaborating in a shared Google Doc - we added resources we found about devices, viewers, and apps. Google Expeditions was a high priority. We knew that Google Expeditions could not be facilitated on our BYOD network, so we searched for viable alternatives. We have iPads in the district and a management system in place for those devices so we opted for iPod touch devices - twelve of them. We also knew that the traditional Cardboard viewers had a few downfalls. Then there was the process for checkout and use - so many pieces of the Virtual Reality (VR) puzzle to fit together. Let me break it all down...
Devices: We selected the 6th generation, 32 GB iPod touch. In conversation, we discussed the possibility of creating content with these, not just consuming it. Content creation is phase two of this virtual reality vision, but we needed to plan for it from the outset. Also, some of the apps require tours to be downloaded. We needed space for the content. We ordered a simple and relatively inexpensive high impact armor case for each to help protect the devices and keep them securely in the viewers. For each device, that put us around $260.00.
Viewers: We tried a few on for size. We had STUDENTS try them out. That is how we landed on the ones we did. Too often we forget that students are our ultimate investors - we can't overlook their input on their learning experiences. The Cardboard viewers we are used to seeing are made of paper or plastic coated paper. They are usually an adventure in origami. But to us, the down side we were most concerned with was clean-ability. As these would be shared, we needed to disinfect between uses to try and cut down on the spread of germs - especially since this was rolled out at the height of cold and flu season! We found a relatively inexpensive viewer on Amazon for $16.00. It also had a head strap - we removed those. Why? Let's be honest here: lice can be a problem. While the head strap can be a fun addition, I have yet to encounter a single teacher to complain about their removal as it was intended to prevent the spread of lice. We do have the head straps stored and available upon request when hands-free is a necessity due to special needs. Also in that vein, we also have a couple of open viewers and even one with adjustable lenses that could accommodate needs should they arise.
Process: We have had requests for "PD on VR" - well, that PD turns into a conversation and time spent plearning (playing+learning). Our emphasis is on the process. How will you use this to enhance the content of your lesson? We ask questions. We weigh the pros and cons of different apps. We share what has worked for other classrooms. Each VR set is in its own box (from the Dollar Tree) - headset, iPod and charger. The only guideline sheet we have now is a set of suggestions like
Our guidelines are about the equipment - the teachers are the content experts!
The first professional development to include our Virtual Reality sets was at the end of January. There were two on the same day. The facilitators shared the checkout information with participants and the requests have come almost non stop since then! We have a Google form on our website next to the equipment availability calendar. Teachers simply fill it out and tell us about how they hope to use virtual reality as part of their instruction and we do our best to accommodate their requests. Most days, we pick up the devices and take them straight to another school.
This is a new adventure for us. These VR pioneers are leading the way for others. At the moment, most that are using VR with students are doing so in small groups using a rotation model to make sure all students get the experience. I'm eager to see how this evolves Will teachers step back and have directions and expectations posted at the station to guide students? Will students be creating their own 360° videos to demonstrate their learning and to teach others?
NC Governor Roy Cooper recently visited one of our schools and spent some time with these students who were exploring a volcano that day. Looks like they were all engaged! Who knows what the third graders in the image below will be doing with VR (or more advanced technology for that matter) in a few years. I look forward to finding out what the real return on this investment will be.
Last school year, we facilitated a book study on Blended Learning. I hate to call it a book study, though. While the book was the inspiration for the action, and definitely was the scaffold for the teachers involved, this was FAR more than a book study. This was pure AWESOMEness!
There are a few key things to remember when embarking on a blended learning journey.
Leadership is important to the success of blended learning, but relationships are the key. Leadership is more than just the principal. Identify and empower your experts! Your Media Specialist, ITF (instructional technology facilitator) or Instructional Coach can be just the support teachers need - it takes more than one person to champion the vision. It has to be shared. Honestly, it has to be contagious. That is just what we saw in one of the schools that participated. It started with a few teachers and it spread...one teacher shared what was going on with his students and it piqued the interest of another teacher. It was amazing to watch.
Turn perceived roadblocks into mere hurdles.
"We don't have enough devices!"
"My students keep forgetting their passwords."
"They don't all have Internet access at home."
These are just a few of the comments we got in the beginning. Valid points, but they aren't reasons why there can't be blended learning in a class. They are excuses for those that don't feel ready to try something different. Get into the habit of finding solutions instead of complaining about the problems. If you only complain about the problem, you become part of the problem. Brainstorm ways to turn roadblocks into hurdles - and overcome them!
With risk there is reward. The school leaders acknowledged the strengths of the teachers and let them take some risks to maximize learning for their students. The teachers worked together to plan and create experiences that engaged students. Growth was noticed in many forms - not all growth is measured my a number. Let's not forget that growth is also not limited to students.
This year, I've seen the blended learning ideas shared last year spread to another school. I think great things are on the horizon. Remember, it always starts with one. One visionary leader, One inspired teacher. One curious student. One step towards changing the way schools educate students. This is all that is needed to start a revolution.