A new partnership between a local school and a small business is helping students stay connected to their class even when learning remotely.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Bishop Flaget School and Objective Reality Games — a virtual reality arcade and game studio — collaborated to provide a new educational opportunity. By using an Oculus headset, students can visit a VR classroom, participate in lectures, complete assignments and engage with their peers all from home.
“Imagination is the only limitation in the virtual space we’ve created,” said Colin Rose, who owns Objective Reality Games with his wife, Sara. A big reason why they wanted to become involved in the project was to allow smaller schools the same resources as larger ones. “We can offer anything from VR recess — hide and seek or dodge ball — virtual tours of the galaxy, or even chemistry and biology labs. As we build out the space, we are so lucky to have Bishop Flaget involved in the coding and design process.”
On Wednesday, eighth-graders in an English Language Arts class were the first to beta test the program. In one room, two students equipped with a headset and touch controllers entered a virtual world where they rode an elevator to their classroom. In another room, their classmates could see the VR world in real-time.
Students in the virtual world logged on to Bishop Flaget’s learning platform through a VR web browser. There, they have access to tests, homework, lectures, and they can even see their classmates in real-time, speak with them and interact by sharing videos, playing games or even high-fiving.
As they explored, beta testers encouraged each other to learn new things and found joy when they discovered something cool. Student Mason Brown was particularly excited when he realized he could interact with the sun and even throw it around the room.
For technology and art teacher Christy Fay, it was moving to see the students excited about learning. It was through a relationship she formed with the Roses at their 1080 N Bridge St. location that the software became available to the local school.
“Through this connection, we hope that students don’t feel as isolated,” Fay said. “We are so worried about academics that we sometimes forget about social and mental health.”
In August, the Roses reached out to their partners at Knoxlabs in Burbank, California to see if they had any ideas for programming to bridge the social gap. From there, the two gaming studios were able to adapt a VR world designed for corporate offices into a classroom.
The environment allows students to feel like they’re physically present, Rose said, thus allowing them to turn on an educational mindset but it also lets them see their peers in a more personal way.
He added that while they built a solid VR platform, the biggest challenge is integrating different schools’ programs. Although they had to do a bit of troubleshooting at the beginning, Fay added that it’s a great opportunity for the students to see adults working together without giving up.
Classroom knowledge is important, but she said it’s priceless to see the VR program teaching students soft skills, like adaptability and problem-solving, too.
And while efforts to vaccinate K-12 staff across the state in an effort to reopen schools and have students back in the classroom —at least partially — have already begun, Fay believes the school will continue to utilize this program even when the pandemic is over.
Now, students who have special needs, experience regular absence due to medical conditions or individuals who have to stay at home for any reason can receive an education despite not being present in the classroom. It can also be used to help manage snow days and ensure districts don’t have to extend the school year.
While Bishop Flaget’s eighth-graders will be the first Ross County students with access to the VR world, Fay said that eventually, they hope to phase it throughout the entire middle school. Rose hopes that someday, other schools will utilize the program to integrate it into their own virtual learning platforms.
“We didn’t plan for this pandemic and we might not plan for the next issue that’ll keep us home,” Fay said. “We can keep in practice and stay one step ahead.”
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