Piloting Virtual Reality into the classroom


INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.— It’s an experiment in virtual reality.

Indiana’s only tuition free public charter recovery school, Hope Academy, introduced a pilot virtual reality program this school year.

“I hope it makes us more attractive. I think it’s exciting. I think it’s a phenomenal way to engage students,” said Linda Gagyi, Principal of Hope Academy.

Hope Academy is one of only a handful of recovery high schools across the country. Teachers and staff are trained, not just in a Core 40 curriculum, but in teaching students who have gaps in their education due to substance and alcohol abuse.

“I’ve tried it myself and it is very consuming when you get in there, it makes you want to see what’s behind the next planet and what’s behind the next menu option so that you can go in and experience it,” Gagyi added, “I can see it would be hard to get kids not to do it.”

The virtual reality curriculum is provided by Iowa-based technology company, VictoryVR. The software is delivers hyper-realistic 3D experiences through Oculus Rift headsets.

Hope Academy purchased four headsets to be used in science classes.

By simply putting the Oculus Rift on, students are able to photosynthesis in California, look at design engineering at Kittyhawk, North Carolina and explore the solar system, all without leaving the classroom.

“The beauty of it is, it will really help our students engage in learning,” said Rachelle Gardner, Chief Operating Officer of Hope Academy.

Gardner says many of their students are disengaged and have struggled academically because of their substance abuse disorders. As educators, Gardner and her staff focus on ways to engage Hope Academy’s student body in a way that helps their recovering brains learn.

“Engaging in new behaviors, engaging in a new lifestyle, and so any mechanism we can use—and we’re seeing the virtual reality program as part of that—to just engage them in making a change, making a change in the way they learn, making a change in the way they engage, making a commitment to learning, those are key issues not just in learning but in recovery,” Gardner added.

Solomon, a senior at Hope Academy tested the Oculus Rift at a school-launch in August. He said he sometimes has problems concentrating in class, but while wearing the headset, Solomon said he can’t help but focus.

“It’s kind of hard to lose attention when you’re doing this,” said Solomon as he worked his way through a physics assessment and virtual fieldtrip to San Francisco.

VictoryVR creates virtual reality science courses for students grades 5-12. Relying on Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), VictoryVR says it creates “engaging, and informative content for every one of our science ‘books.’”

Right now that curriculum includes 24 units and more than 100 activities and assessments which will serve as a supplement to regular classroom and textbook learning.

“It’s an individual learning experience they’re not having to worry about what their neighbor is doing and it really gives them time to be self-paced,” Gardner says they’ve found that the visual part of students’ brains heals first as they make their way through recovery. As such, Hope Academy feels that virtual reality can tap into that and stimulate their education faster.

This year, Hope Academy will start off with four Oculus Rift headsets to be used during science classes. In the future, Gardner said she hopes they can integrate a social studies virtual reality curriculum once the software is developed.