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History Nerdfest 2016 Day Three: Using Virtual Reality to Build Content & Empathy

Okay. Some serious History nerd overload going on. It’s Saturday afternoon and I need the Diet Pepsi to kick in. But some amazingly awesome stuff today – started with the #sschat Unconference and some of my favorite Twitter folks, and then three sessions on gaming, using primary sources, and integrating tech into social studies.

Plus I got to meet Stephanie Greenhut, the creative genius behind the powerful DocsTeach site. How cool is that?

There may be just enough caffeine left for this session before heading off the Smithsonian African American Museum later this evening. Paul Howard and Neil Soloman from the local DC schools are sharing how they use virtual reality tools as a way to build both content knowledge and create empathy in their students.

They started with a story of having kids use a VR viewer such as a Google Cardboard to look at a simple 360 Photosphere of the Taj Mahal. The kids went nuts.

Where is this?!

Where are we?

I think I’m going to die.

And we’re all in agreement that using virtual reality tools in a social studies classroom is a great way to engage kids.

But what else can we do with this? Is there a way to tie the coolness of VR with content and skills? I talked about this earlier in the week but I really like how Paul and Neil have pulled a lot of different pieces together to create a detailed unit design.

Before diving too deeply into their lesson plan, the two shared one extra story that highlights the power of VR to engage learners. One of their middle school kids is chronically absent and when he is in class, he’s  constant behavior concern. He was in class during the initial VR activity and decided he was going to just hang around. He ended up doing the same lesson three times and stayed to help others all day.

Paul and Neil wanted kids to explore the issue of immigration and needed a way to create a sense of emotion and empathy in their students. Their focus? Syrian refugee children.

The lesson starts with students reading three primary / secondary sources on the refugee crisis: some raw data on syrian migration numbers, two news articles of both sides of issue, and a written account of the Zaatari refugee camp. Students were then ask to address the question:

What should the US do about the Syrian refugee crisis?

Students were given a list of options to pick that covered options from the US doing nothing at all to allowing all refugees into the US without any vetting. They had to select and option and support their choice with a short reflection piece.

The next step in the lesson was to have kids experience a 3D virtual reality video titled “Welcome to Aleppo” video hosted on Youtube’s 360 channel and narrated by a young Syrian refugee.

Students were asked to identify why people would want to leave Syria and then Paul and Neil led a discussion talk about where refugees should and could go. Clouds Over Sidra video created by the United Nations and available in the Within app (iOS and Android).

Both the Welcome to Aleppo and Clouds Over Sidra are videos that were viewed by students using Google Cardboard 3D viewers. This allows students to experience the video in stereoscopic 3D format. Paul and Neil developed what they call a Cloze Viewing activity.

Three students per Google Cardboard viewer

  • One student watches the video on the Cardboard and lists things she sees. The other two write down her list.
  • The second student repeats the exercise but lists what he hears.
  • The third student lists his observations of how children behave in the camp.

During this session, several of the teachers in attendance walked through the Cloze viewing activity:

It really makes it impossible to not feel a tremendous amount of empathy, very moving.

You begin to forget about all of the policy arguments.

With students, Paul and Neil led a reflection activity:

How did you feel after watching the video?

You have seen the same info on the news, did this VR video have a stronger effect on you?

Then they asked students to go back to the matrix of possible solutions to the crisis and review their answers / supporting evidence. And decide if they wanted to change their answer.

Did your position change? Why?

img_5619Paul said that “it’s okay to make kids sad every once in awhile. We see VR as an important part of the social studies teaching process. It gives us a huge ability to create empathy and emotional connections. It’s making kids feel something differently, makes them want to take action which is an important part of the NCSS C3 Inquiry Arc.”

We don’t think it’s  gimmicky at all. This is immersive and experiential learning in the best possible sense.

Their extension activity: Ask kids to think about and research happens to the thousands of children that don’t get to a camp?

They also shared two other VR videos:

They also shared a Google Drive folder with their presentation, handouts and resources. All of this is a perfect example of how teachers can integrate an engaging tool that is aligned to content and process standards.

Good stuff.

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