Chicago Schools Ponder a Future With Virtual Reality

Schools test out virtual reality with students.

by Ronnie Wachter, Pioneer Press Newspapers, Suburban Chicago / July 1, 2016 0
At the Bronx Latin School in New York City, students took a field trip to ancient Aztec ruins using Google Expeditions, a virtual reality teaching tool built with Google Cardboard. Google: Official Blog

(TNS) —  As some area educators see it, an emerging technology has the potential of becoming a school teacher's dream tool.

It can let kids wander and explore wherever they want to go because they're not actually wandering anywhere — they're still in the classroom.

That is the potential of virtual reality technology in education, according to some instructors in Lake County. Before the end of the school year, students at Aptakisic-Tripp Elementary District 102 in Buffalo Grove were one of the latest groups in the area to receive a trial run with Google Cardboard, the tech company's virtual-reality player.

"It has to start with students answering their own questions rather than the question adults are lining up for them," said Tom Donovan, chief technology officer at District 102. "That, to me, is how we leverage the full power of any of these tools."

Administrators at other area school districts also are beginning to experiment with virtual reality, but some have said the developing technology may not quite be ready to use in their classrooms.

Throughout the one-day visit, classes at Tripp Elementary in District 102 spent a period in the library, wearing Google's equipment on their heads. With their peripheries blocked out, the kids looked straight into the screens that hung about six inches in front of their eyes.

Virtually, they were all in the same place, Donovan said, riding on a drone helicopter over the Grand Canyon, visiting the museum on Ellis Island or swimming underwater. But each child was free to turn his or her head, as individual screens could show views from all angles.

The technology doesn't involve computer graphics, Donovan said, just film of real places recorded by 360-degree cameras.

He acknowledged that the virtual-reality equipment amounts to the technological version of field trips to the zoo and other places. But he said he believed it could give the learner a degree of control.

"You take the kids to the zoo, and they don't read all the signs," he said. "Schools, historically, have moved students in groups of 20 to 25 through a set of lessons. There needs to be more ways that kids can meet those expectations, that they can have much more control over.

Around Lake County, other school districts are starting to pay attention to the possibilities of virtual reality, a multi-billion-dollar industry in waiting, according to some industry experts. So far, though, many area districts haven't earmarked funds or made plans to incorporate the technology into classrooms.

"It is something that several of our teachers have talked about, but have not used with students yet," said Mary Todoric, spokeswoman for Vernon Hills-based Community High School District 128.

Erin Brooks, a spokeswoman for Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214, said teachers have shown interest in the technology, even though it's too early for the district to talk about specific uses.

At Stevenson High School, board President Bruce Lubin said the board has not discussed the idea. While at Barrington School District 220, administrators have yet to make any "firm decisions" on incorporating virtual-reality technology into classrooms, spokeswoman Morgan Delack has said.

In May, students at Lines Elementary in District 220 received a similar demonstration to the one students at Tripp Elementary recently received -- all organized by the Google Expeditions program, which can provide educators with virtual-reality kits, according to its website.

The one-day virtual experience at Tripp Elementary came at no cost, Donovan said. But if the emerging technology does take off, the district expects the price tag to outfit students with the technology to be a large one, he said.

He did not know of any districts saving money for a large purchase of virtual-reality technology.

"It's hard to predict timelines because of how fast things can change," he said. "But it's got the 'wow' factor."

©2016 Pioneer Press Newspapers (Suburban Chicago, Ill.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.