The world’s first virtual reality school

Virtual reality is back in the news (again). According to Google, you’ll soon be able to insert your smartphone into a new plastic headset and use it as a virtual reality headset. Using a controller that acts as a virtual hand, you’ll be able to explore the natural world, become part of YouTube videos and step inside news stories.

Until recently, virtual reality was associated almost exclusively with the gaming world but Google wants to make it part of our everyday lives. The New York Times has gone into partnership with Google to produce VR news reports and there are already many VR documentaries out there designed to make the user experience a new environment such as a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.

In the entertainment world, Google is working with IMAX which has just announced its plans to create virtual reality entertainment hubs for cinemas, shopping malls, and tourist spots across the United States. Meanwhile, at this year’s Facebook developer conference in San Francisco, the company’s Chief Technology Officer gave a live demonstration of Facebook’s Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. As part of the presentation, he “teleported” to London and took a selfie with a UK-based colleague.

This story reminded me of a classroom activity I wrote for iT’s for Teachers back in 1992. It was an April Fool lesson in which students read about the world’s first virtual reality school which had opened in Mataró, near Barcelona.

This revolutionary new teaching aid is the idea of Tony Hoax, who plans to open other Virtual Schools in Madrid, Seville and Barcelona. “It’s a whole new way of teaching. Instead of using books and relying on teachers, the system actually allows people to virtually travel to Britain and learn the language by using it in real situations.”

Back in 1992, virtual reality was already going to be ‘the next big thing’ but it never really took off. One of the main problems has always been the expensive and cumbersome headsets and the fact that exploring a virtual world is a solitary activity. But the world is a very different place now and we are more accustomed to interacting with people in a digital world.

Hollywood is also wondering if virtual reality will save the film industry. In the same way as 3D did?! Industry figures fear we’ll lose the unique live experience of sharing a film with other people. In spite of the fact that I try to go to the cinema at least once a week, I’ve never been a great fan of sharing the cinema experience with other people who talk, eat popcorn, constantly check their phones and kick the seat in front of them. So maybe virtual reality will be my kind of entertainment.

In the meantime, I dug out the original virtual reality classroom activity and thought it’d be fun to share it. You’ll find it here.

Using multimedia in the classroom

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On Wednesday this week I gave a webinar as part of the 2014 Macmillan Online Conference. The topic was ‘using multimedia in the classroom’ which is one of those themes that could easily fill a whole week of webinars. While I was doing some research, I came across two surveys that served as an introduction to the theme.

The first was a survey carried out by Ofcom, the independent communications regulator in the UK. Ofcom carries out research to help understand people’s awareness of technology and communications. In August this year it published the results of a survey to find out how tech-savvy people are in the UK. It discovered that we’re at our most tech savvy between the ages of 14 – 15 years old. This seems to reinforce the belief that students know more about technology than their teachers. But do they really know how technology works or is their knowledge limited to carrying out the tasks they’re mainly interested in?

For 12–15 year olds, more than 90% of their device time is message based (‘chatting’ on social networks or sending instant messages) while 10% of device time is spent sending video and photo messages, sharing or commenting on photos. That doesn’t leave much time for using their devices for other things.

The results of the second survey were published in the journal Educational Technology Research and Development and reported on in Science Daily. The survey revealed that teachers still know better when it comes to using technology. The researchers looked at the technology skills of 24 science teachers and 1,078 middle school students from 18 different schools in two US states (middle school students are typically between the ages of 10–14).

According to the survey, most students were not very familiar with information and communication technology or even Web 2.0 tools designed to make information production and sharing easier. They have little opportunity to practise technology beyond pursuing personal interests, such as entertainment. Their teachers, on the other hand, depended much more on using technology to solve daily problems, to improve productivity, and as learning aids.

So it seems that teachers have a lot to teach their students about using technology to solve problems, enhance productivity, and develop creativity. This gives force to the case for using mobile phones and tablets in the classroom rather than banning them.

If you were one of the 500+ teachers at the webinar, thanks for coming. It was good to see so many teachers with a positive attitude to using technology and multimedia in the classroom. And if you want to try a simplified version of the Ofcom survey to find out how tech-savvy you (or your students) are then follow this link.