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What Is Virtual Reality's Role in Education? An Interview with Nearpod Cofounder Felipe Sommer

By Blake Montgomery

Nearpod launched virtual reality lessons on February 17th. Their platform is the first publicly available virtual reality (VR) tool for schools (Google Expeditions involves an application process). It could be an academic revolution, but are teachers ready for it? Nearpod's cofounder Guido Kovalskys told the Wall Street Journal, “Our biggest hurdle is to become relevant to teachers that are not fully ready to adopt technology.” As teachers journey into uncharted territory, who will direct them with professional development? Virtual reality has received a great deal of press lately, but how will it function in the classroom?

Nearpod's virtual reality mimics Google Street View and integrates with the company's other digital learning content. It's one feature of a lesson where a number of curricular elements come together. In the lesson on the Berlin Wall, for example, students read about the history of occupied Germany, draw their own escape plan and view what the wall looks like today through the 360 viewer. Nearpod currently offers around 40 such lessons.

Kovalskys' cofounder Felipe Sommer sees his company as ushering teachers into the land of virtual reality and equipping them to cultivate their own gardens. A key element to teachers' adoption, he believes, is equipping them to create their own content. He thinks teacher-created lessons that incorporate virtual reality will be the most relevant to classrooms and essential to Nearpod's long-term success. In the interim, while teachers begin to learn how to enmesh virtual reality into their pedagogy, Nearpod is creating model lessons.

As for the short term, it's too early to say how many teachers are adopting the features for their lessons, but Sommer claimed that one million teachers use Nearpod and that his team has seen thousands of requests for the VR kits and training since the announcement. His team is scurrying to send out free trial kits to interested teachers and schools.

Virtual reality 

EDSURGE: This is such an exciting new product! Why did you decide to release educational VR now?

We’ve been studying the field, and there’s so much traction on new devices. The tech is now ready to deliver those experiences. In the case of Nearpod specifically, we realized that the virtual field trip will increase engagement in the classroom, which is one of our major goals as a company. We’re excited to take people to new places. Traveling is a simple activity that, once we started studying the field and how it would integrate with our products, we saw a huge opportunity to create lessons in virtual reality on core subjects. For example, one of our math lessons is called "Geometry is everywhere.” Students observe buildings around the world and find the geometry in each one. It’s not the whole lesson, but it’s a fun part. 

Your cofounder said that teachers may not be ready to adopt the technology. What are you doing to address their lack of expertise? 

Yes, by helping to build ready-to-use lessons, we’re enabling teachers to put this content directly in their classrooms. The biggest issue my cofounder Guido was referring to was teachers not having the time or skills to publish quality content. So we’re creating a lot of content to try to solve that issue. We also allow them to add virtual reality to their lessons and create their own content. 

I understand you're enabling to teachers to create their own content, but how are you training them to implement it? 

When we sell to schools, professional development is included in the license agreement. It covers Nearpod, which will now include virtual reality. That includes onsite trainers and webinars; we also hire what we call "Nearpod PioNears" on location at the school to work with their colleagues.

Why have you chosen to focus on delivering the content through school- and student-owned devices?

To achieve widespread adoption, you need to rely on devices that exist today. There’s a lot of BYOD, and there are schools that already have devices that can be used for our curriculum. The alternative to that would be developing virtual reality content for Oculus and other far more expensive devices that may make it to schools, maybe not. We do know that they’re not in schools today. We launched our content, and schools are using it right away. Today I spoke with a school that’s using virtual reality; they’ve purchased the cardboard viewers for a few bucks. It’s very easy to implement, and teachers can assemble their own lessons from this content. 

Are school devices and bandwidth fast enough to keep up with VR?

It depends on the way you implement it. In our case, I think it’s working well. If Nearpod is supported by the wifi, Nearpod’s VR will work. If the students have devices, they will be able to use the VR modules. There is the broader issue of devices and connectivity in schools, but I don’t think virtual reality will affect the operational aspect of that. If there are issues with bandwidth and devices, virtual reality may not work, but other things will not work as well. It’s a low-demand load the way we’ve implemented it because these are 360 degree pictures that are stored on the cloud. Video is more demanding. If you have an Oculus with continuous video, you need a very strong connection. That’s not part of our offering today. That would be too tough for schools.

On a broader level, what is the role of VR is in current K12 education? 

VR brings to life a number of experiences that otherwise are really difficult to feature in the classroom w/ so much diversity and different levels. You can go places and see unknown phenomena, you can conduct experiments and see how things evolved. With new experiences, students will get better learning and a new type of engagement. 

What’s next? 

Certainly more content. There will be also be tips and best practices on how to integrate virtual reality into teachers' existing lessons. Video may come, but that’s a bigger challenge. We’re not going to have video this year. It’s in its infancy. Even if everything were super sophisticated, there’s a natural progression of the users to adopt this. Even if we do something super cool stuff that teachers don’t adopt, that’s not really our goal. We want a regular teacher to be able to use this.


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