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Wingate students experience the world through VR headsets

by Chuck Gordon

Virtual-reality headsets are helping students in Wingate's Thayer School of Education prepare for a better way to teach once they graduate. But eventually, use of the headsets won't be limited to future teachers.

Dr. Tarra Ellis remembers the lo-fi ways her teachers gave their lessons some oomph when she was growing up in Winston-Salem.

“The ones that stick out to me were the ones where they tried to make the content come to life,” says Ellis, assistant professor in the Thayer School of Education. “When we learned about the Vikings, we did dress-up, and we each had an occupation. Those are the things that stuck out to me and helped me to remember the content.”

Ellis isn’t above resorting to dressing up, but these days she also has high-tech gadgets she can turn to if she wants to transport her Social Studies Methods students to a Viking ship off the coast of England, or take them to the top of Mount Everest or the mouth of the Nile. With the help of a grant from the Board of Visitors, Ellis is using virtual-reality headsets to help her education students better grasp the content they’ll teach once they graduate.

Students look into VR headsets in class

The headsets resemble an updated version of a View-Master cartridge viewer, except they contain a smartphone-like device. Students hold the headsets up to their eyes and move their heads until they find aspects of the 360-degree landscape Ellis is referring to in her lesson.

Ellis and Wingate’s Information Technology Services (ITS) department used the $10,000 BOV grant to buy 30 VR headsets from Google. Along with the headsets and charging cart comes access to Google Expeditions, which provides a large catalog of “expeditions” – around 1,000 and counting – on a variety of subjects.

One of Ellis’s students had told her about experiencing Google Expeditions while doing an in-class observation at an elementary school, and Ellis was intrigued by it. The professor did a little more research into the service, and when the Board of Visitors grant opportunity arose, she says a light bulb went off in her head.

In the past, the Board of Visitors and ITS generally shied away from technology-based applications for grants, because of the costs associated with maintaining the technology once the grant money has been exhausted. But Steve Shank, the University’s vice president for technology and information systems and chief information officer, says he could instantly see the benefits of running a pilot VR program.

“When you think about the ability to immerse a student somewhere, you have an expensive option, which is taking somebody somewhere,” he says, “or you have an inexpensive option, which is bringing the world into a classroom.”

“They said when this one came through, it got them excited,” Ellis says. “They were able to see its widespread impact. And it could be long-term. Even though the Board of Visitors grant is a one-time grant, they could see its lasting impact over the years.”

Seeing is believing

In class on Wednesday, Ellis taught about World War II. After having their knowledge base refreshed with facts about Hitler, the Holocaust and FDR, the students lifted their VR headsets to step into the world of a sailor on the USS Arizona before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. A few minutes later, they were at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The visual reinforcement is powerful.

“I think students are going to enjoy learning the content a lot more through virtual reality than looking at pictures on a slide or in their textbook, because this brings it to life for them,” says Alyssa Padillo, a senior from Indian Trail.

Ellis is running the first pilot VR program at Wingate, but she isn’t protective of the technology.

Students look into VR headsets in class

“I wanted something that would be beneficial not only for me and my students but university-wide,” she says. “You’re going inside of a blood vessel. You’re exploring the depths of the ocean. You’re in the trenches in World War II.”

The ability to use the technology in a variety of courses is a big selling point for VR. Expeditions are available in science, history, literacy, geography, journalism, even career exploration.

“I think best case, or better case, is expanding into other classrooms, not just the one that’s piloting it now,” Shank says. “Eventually we could look at our professional science programs, graduate programs. I think there’s opportunities across the board, from sport sciences to health sciences to communication and even business.”

For now, Ellis is the only one using the technology, and she’s been using it for only a few weeks. There have been a few growing pains. The first day she tried to use the headsets, she realized that it took a while for them to boot up and connect to the Wi-Fi network that comes with the kit. Now she has students take a headset and start it up before class begins, so they’ll be ready to go when the lesson calls for it.

“I didn’t get them until after the semester started,” Ellis says. “I didn’t have time to try them out, so this group, they truly are the guinea pigs.”

The students are adapting quickly and can see how they’ll apply it once they graduate and have classes of their own to teach.

“I can definitely see using these in the very near future, because this isn’t that advanced a technology,” says Jessica Fuko, a junior from Apex. “When you use it in the classroom, it brings the students into what you’re looking at. It’s not just this hypothetical thing that they’re thinking of. It’s concrete.”

The axiom that people retain 10 percent of what they read and 90 percent of what they do has been around for decades. The reality is probably more complex than that, but the idea that students need more than reading and a lecture to understand the material in a given class is pretty solid.

For Ellis, VR serves as another tool to help students grasp the concepts she’s teaching.

“It’s one thing to talk about Ancient Egypt,” she says, “but it’s another thing to be able to see and experience it.”

November 7, 2019