Alternative school sees immediate benefits to mixed reality lab

When the time came to update Valley Day School’s aging computer lab, staff members went on the lookout for a technology that was fun, educational, and appealed to as many senses as possible.

Educators at the Pennsylvania alternative school, which serves students with behavioral and emotional disabilities, often rely on multisensory experiences to engage their students and help them learn and retain information longer, said Education Director Ron Hall. “Our students are really hands-on, active learners,” he said.

Thus, when Hall and other staff members came across virtual reality devices at an education conference two years ago, they were hooked. Using the devices, which combine augmented and virtual reality technology, teachers can imbue lessons with visual, tactile, auditory, and kinesthetic components.

The school purchased 13 machines, which look like large computer screens, 3-D glasses with sensors, and stylus pens, from zSpace for approximately $5,000 each, Hall said. So far, the machines have proved cost-effective and beneficial to students, he said.

“We’re a small school with a fairly limited budget. With this system, now we have a highly advanced biology lab and a highly advanced physics lab, there are art components where we can do high-end sculptures, and we can do CAD,” Hall said. The devices came loaded with curriculum lessons and more than 2,400 images that can be manipulated, he said.

Hall explained some of the benefits of this technology to Valley Day’s student population:

• Appeals to multiple senses. The augmented reality devices have visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic elements to them. For example, the student can see a 3-D image of a floating heart in front of his face, he can hold it in his hand and turn it around to see the different valves and chambers, and he can feel the vibration of the heartbeat quicken through the stylus as the program simulates what the heart would be doing during exercise. “If you want to teach the brain, you have to teach to the senses, and this is a profound way to reach the senses,” Hall said.

• Allows teachers to guide, direct students. The machines have also been beneficial to those students who have attention issues, Hall said. “Rather than true virtual reality where 12 kids have on virtual headsets or masks, which would present a big challenge for effective delivery of instruction, this technology lends itself better to the traditional pedagogy,” he said. Staff can move around the room and see what the students are looking at and direct or guide them through the lesson.

• Removes literacy barriers. “A lot of our kids have literacy issues, so when you have textbook or even computer-designed instruction, it’s primarily literacy-driven, which can be a problem for them,” Hall said. The mixed reality lab “pulls out” the literacy aspect, he said. A student is no longer reading about a frog in a textbook; he’s looking at an actual frog and seeing the layers of skin and bone, Hall said.

Tips for incorporating virtual, augmented reality devices

Hall provided the following tips for those who may be considering adding this technology in their district:

  • Test devices in resource room. Valley Day was one of the first schools in its region to add a full mixed reality lab with 13 augmented reality machines, Hall said. Other districts could start with one or two devices in a resource room setting, then scale up to a larger lab, he said.
  • Teach students how to handle frustration with technological issues. A lagging device can raise anyone’s frustration level, but for students with emotional or behavioral issues, it’s important to have staff ready to help. “We make sure we have the staff available to handle any educational or behavior issues that may pop up,” Hall said. Having at least one extra device available in each class also helps so that a student can move if a machine isn’t working correctly, he added.
  • Explore uses. Teacher buy-in is critical, Hall said. When they first started to look at these devices, he had teachers explain how they’d use these devices with their classes during monthly staff meetings. After purchasing the machines, staff continue to work together on how to use the devices to differentiate for their student population.
  • Train in-house experts. The school offered all its staff training provided through the company zSpace, and then trained a smaller cadre of staff to be able to troubleshoot more advanced problems, Hall said.
  • Create schedule. At Valley Day School, the computer lab has 15 unused slots during the day where teachers can sign up in advance to use the devices, Hall said. “They work with the computer teacher, who initially is facilitating the technology, how to get everything working, while the teacher focuses on the instruction,” he said.

Jennifer Herseim covers Section 504, education technology, and Common Core issues related to special education for LRP Publications.

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