Emerging technologies in immersive environments such as extended reality (XR), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), or extended learning (XL) took a back seat to just getting students online during COVID-19. However, XR has great potential to address many issues of equity and access to resources in the world of social isolation.

According to the Immersive Learning Report 2020, XL “encompasses augmented, virtual, and mixed reality—a collection of technologies that enhance the physical world with interactive digital imagery and graphics.”

“VR typically immerses the user in a virtual world via a headset that largely isolates the user from the real world,” explains Charles McLellan in his article “VR and AR: The Business Reality.” “AR, on the other hand, inserts virtual objects and information into the real world, augmenting your experience of it via a headset that, ideally, is as discreet as possible.” Mixed reality takes elements from both VR and AR to create a “mixed” strategy. Also included in this mix are technologies that provide a 360-degree experience.

Why would a secondary educator consider using XL in a classroom, remote learning environment, or hybrid environment? According to John MacLeod, the director of XR Libraries in California, there are three key benefits:

1. Can be used by all age groups and education levels
2. Increases content understanding
3. Provides link to future job/career opportunities

XL works well with both middle level and high school students. It’s not a strategy that has any age limitation, and it works across disciplines. Science-based activities as well as literary excursions provided great opportunities for students to learn more and at deeper levels. AR tools, especially 360-degree views, have that potential, while VR tools require special equipment that might not be available to students working from home.

We want our students to see the real-world connection, especially with job and career opportunities. XL incorporates technologies that are among the fastest-growing arenas in the marketplace. Digi-Capital, an AR/VR/XR adviser, sees an overall VR/AR market totaling $120 billion by 2020. In 2019, AR outpaced VR and accounted for 75 percent of the market—$90 million. We should not only provide XL experiences but provide opportunities for secondary students to use the tools that can create XL experiences.

Kristine Cathey, a member of the Consortium for School Networking, adds two additional reasons to consider XL:

1. XL allows staff and students, such as those in low-income environments or those with physical disabilities, to target previously inaccessible opportunities
2. XL lends itself to the development of empathy and a greater understanding of others’ perspectives.

Voyage Project With Cornell Middle School: Pittsburgh

In 2018, students from the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University began to work with Cornell Middle School, located about 10 miles from Pittsburgh, on a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) project. The educators at Cornell wanted to create an immersive experience for their students. According to their project website, “Voyage … allows students to go on virtual field trips in which they immerse themselves and explore a deciduous forest biome. The experience is designed to be undertaken in a middle school classroom and facilitated by a teacher using a tablet computer. Through this project, we explored different interaction techniques used to promote collaboration among students as well as between the students and the teacher.”

Susan Donnell, the science teacher at Cornell Middle School in Coraopolis, PA, explained the importance of this type of experience. “It’s invaluable to take them someplace, even if it’s virtual reality,” she says.

“The project did give us a glimpse into the future,” notes Kris Hupp, director of technology and instructional innovation for the Cornell School District. “Some challenges include the number of students able to participate at the same time, as well as the teacher trying to monitor students in a virtual space and physical space at the same time. The team developed an app on an iPad, so the teacher didn’t need to put a headset on to see what the students were doing.”

Virtual Tour of Sewickley Academy Campus: Pittsburgh

Erin Whitaker, the middle level technology coordinator and teacher for Sewickley Academy, an independent school located about 10 miles from Pittsburgh, wanted to provide a collaborative learning experience for middle level students. She searched for a tool that would allow students to combine 360-degree photos, programming, animation, and research to create an animation. She discovered CoSpaces Edu, a software tool that allows teams of students to produce a virtual or augmented reality product.

Whitaker divided the project into phases. Each student selected a part of the campus to research. The students created 360-degree photos for their campus section. Finally, the students had to include an animated guide to talk about the campus area. All of the individual projects were saved as one large file into CoSpaces Edu and then combined to generate a schoolwide tour. For the final phase, the students shared their tours with a real audience at the Grandparents and Special Friends Day at the end of the trimester.

Building History in 3D: Mill Valley, CA

In project that spanned the semester, the community library in Mill Valley, CA, worked with a team of high school students from Tamalpais High School. The students were asked to do research and then build a VR history of the region starting from 1864. They used the software tool SketchUp 3D modeling software to re-create Mill Valley buildings from the past after participating in a series of hands-on tech classes. The finished 3D models were rendered in TimeWalk, a historical virtual world. Students received an introduction to Unity—a real-time game engine platform—to further enhance the representation of Mill Valley history. The program was a collaboration with TimeWalk.org—an open-source project that enabled students and other contributors to build historically accurate 3D models of their towns.

Building Immersive Worlds: Houston

As schools began to close when the COVID-19 virus struck, students from the Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy in the Houston Independent School District were learning how to design in 3D. Computer science and engineering instructor Astra Zeno created a choice board that used interactive technology tools to help students showcase their knowledge. “Since we were away from our MakerSpace, we used 3D design tools like Tinkercad, Minecraft, Paint 3D, and Autodesk Fusion 360 to create an interactive and immersive experience,” Zeno says. “I also chose Minecraft EDU, PowerPoint, and FlipGrid as tools to showcase student learning.”

Tackling a real-world problem heightened student engagement for this challenge. Zeno chose the format of a design slam for its innate integration of design, skill, and presentation. Younger students were asked to utilize their design skills to address climate change, while older students tackled affordable housing, disaster relief, and equitable access to resources. Since students could not create physical models in a traditional classroom due to COVID-19, they used Tinkercad, Paint 3D, and Autodesk Fusion 360 to create 3D models of their solutions.

The results were astounding. Designs ranged from “The Onsy,” a home energy tracker designed to help consumers reduce energy waste, to “The Flood Vacuum,” an innovative device designed to move water away from essential travel routes during flooding events. They were able to create presentations showcasing the features of their 3D designs using PowerPoint’s new 3D design/morph tools. This allowed students to truly have an immersive view of each group’s design.

For more information on how to fund XR projects, go to www.kajeet.net/extracurricular/10-new-grants-for-ed-tech.

Norton Gusky is an educational technology broker for NLG Consulting LLC in Pittsburgh, who previously worked as a coordinator of educational technology for the Fox Chapel Area School District in Pittsburgh. Beatriz Arnillas works in the Amazon Web Services Training and Certification Department. She was one of the key leaders of the Houston Independent School District PowerUp program, the first successful large-scale, urban 1:1 student/device program in the United States.

Sidebar: Extended Reality Resources

Use these links of you’re looking to implement extended reality—like VR and AR—or something similar and want to engage in current and relevant projects: