Real-world opportunities with virtual reality

Issue: Volume 100, Number 7

Posted: 10 June 2021
Reference #: 1HALhe

A repurposed classroom at John McGlashan College in Dunedin with black walls and some state-of-the-art virtual reality technology is being used to enhance curriculum learning.

Ethan and Alex have been working on a virtual reality experience of Dunedin's Town Belt for the past few years.

Ethan and Alex have been working on a virtual reality experience of Dunedin's Town Belt for the past few years.

Education Gazette  walked on Mars, went inside a human heart and experienced the World War I trenches at John McGlashan College in Dunedin earlier this year. 

The experiences were compelling and immersive and are not only enhancing curriculum learning but also providing two students with an opportunity to create a unique 3D experience of the city’s Town Belt.

It began when Year 7 and 8 teacher David Beazley joined the school in 2019. A gamer and technology buff, he followed his mother and his wife into teaching after working in the private sector. 

“My role here was to help with the transition to the new digital technologies curriculum at our school. Working alongside my colleagues, we developed a pretty cool curriculum and then we looked at what we could do next,” explains David.

“We thought, let’s go as far forward as we can. We looked at new technology being used in the private sector – virtual reality [VR] and augmented reality [AR] are the new things at the moment and, moving forward, artificial intelligence is the next big horizon.

“The dream was to equip our boys so that when they left our school, they could be accepted into universities and programmes that are specialising in this advanced technology,” he says.

With the support of the school’s management team and funding from the Otago Community Trust and the John McGlashan College Parents and Friends Association, David was set to offer his colleagues a powerful new teaching tool to inspire and engage students in technology.

David went shopping for VR gaming gear; he bought six high-powered PCs, six VR headsets, then linked them up together and downloaded six copies of each of the applications he wanted to use. 

Inspiring and engaging

Ella Murdoch’s English students ‘experienced’ life in the trenches before beginning their study of WW1 poetry.

Ella Murdoch’s English students ‘experienced’ life in the trenches before beginning their study of WW1 poetry.

Teacher Ella Murdoch’s Year 13 (Year 2) International Baccalaureate English class was studying Wilfred Owen’s WWI poetry when she heard that David was building an archive of programmes in the VR suite and was happy to mentor her through using the suite. 

He showed Ella through a WWI simulation of trench warfare. She says it gave her students a sense of being there.

“We were starting to dive into all of the autobiographical details and the back story to this amazing poetry. There was a huge amount of impact on their understanding of the world Wilfred Owen was writing about. They felt like they were there; they got a sense of Owen himself being a soldier and where this writing has come from.

“They used words like ‘palpable’, ‘visceral’. They were also quite intrigued by the technology behind it all and how it was all put together,” she says.

Ella can see huge potential for using VR for Year 9-13 English classes. 

“The nature of English is that we are encouraging our students to step out of their shoes and transport themselves into other historical, social or cultural contexts and this is just one extremely powerful way of enabling that to happen.

“I’m already thinking of how I could use it at different levels of a unit of work for different reasons. We’ve got about a dozen VR programmes now and that will grow as other staff members see what’s out there and how that would fit in beautifully with their planning and their learning. It’s just a fantastic, very modern 21st century learning tool and I can see a place for some fantastic learning to come from this assimilation experience,” she says.

Memory triggers

Teacher Hamish Cartwright’s Year 9 science classes journeyed through the digestive system after they studied the topic.

“We see the role and function of the whole system in their prior learning and they have some familiarity with it,” says Hamish. 

“They take that and go through a whole new experience with the VR suite. So instead of seeing an image, or listening, discussing, or reading something about it, they can go inside the system and they can watch the intestine do peristalsis and follow the track of the food as it’s digested.”

Hamish says the experience is like being on a a movie set and students are able to track the food and experience muscle contractions as the food passes through the system. 

“It’s a good way to pose a big question like: why is this happening and how can things go wrong? It really engages them – there’s a lot of excitement in the room,” he says.

Feedback from students is that VR gives them a larger learning experience and that it’s easier for them to reconnect with those memories, Hamish says.

“When I teach, I try to have as many little triggers as possible that activate bits of their memory. It’s not going to be the same for every student, but on the whole, I think the experience of it, the memory of going there, being inside – the sound and the visual – I think that whole package helps to build their understanding.”

Relevant and sustainable

David Beazley says new frontiers in technology can help to enhance curriculum learning.

David Beazley says new frontiers in technology can help to enhance curriculum learning.

While the suite is very popular, David says VR programmes should be relevant and tie in with what the class is learning.

“The boys just love it. It’s quite funny because you can’t see exactly what they are experiencing, but they are ducking down and looking under and inside things, spinning around. 

“A lot of them want to come back and game on it and we make it very clear that we’re not gaming here, we’re here for learning. Overall, it’s a very positive experience for them but boys are pretty excited by anything that’s new and technology-based,” he says.

Ensuring that the programme is sustainable is important.

“The challenge for schools is that if the person who is into that technology leaves the school, they leave all that knowledge, drive and passion and the passion dies. The idea is that by bringing in other areas of the school, it will continue on and as teachers and students get more competent at it, we’re going to have more buy-in,” says David.


Work on the VR experience of the Town Belt continues in the  repurposed suite at John McGlashan College.

Work on the VR experience of the Town Belt continues in the repurposed suite at John McGlashan College.

Future thinking

Year 11 students Alex and Ethan have been working on a VR experience of Dunedin’s Town Belt for about two years and expect to have it completed by the time they finish Year 13. 

David says the years-long project has been one of exploration and discovery for the students, as VR development is so new that there are no external experts to mentor them. 

“The technology is super new in education and quite new in the commercial sector, so there actually isn’t a lot out there. We had to research a lot of stuff ourselves, we downloaded programmes and Alex would come up with ideas, Ethan with other ideas. They had the vision – they’ve driven it all. 

“It’s totally an organic process that they’re going through in their own free time, which has to be the essence of a lifelong learner. Probably by the second year, they knew more than me, so now I’m just trying to offer perspective from an end user,” he says.

In Year 8, the two boys were involved in the Town Belt Kaitiaki (TBK) programme with schools from throughout Dunedin, with a focus on protecting the swathe of native and exotic trees and plants that runs from north Dunedin to just south of the city. While the school isn’t currently involved with TBK to the same extent, the plan is to make the VR experience available for elderly and disabled people who can no longer enjoy getting out into nature.

Trial and error

When David arrived and the VR suite became a reality, Alex and Ethan’s idea for some kind of Town Belt experience simulation began to take shape. There’s been a lot of trial and error and learning along the way.

“We’re trying different things with it – we tried having 360-degree images where you could look around, but you couldn’t actually walk in it. In VR, you could see the area but it wasn’t in 3D. We then tried modelling it from scratch – that was in around Year 9,” says Alex. 

“Originally we tried the 360-degree photo, which was good but still not interactive enough,” adds Ethan.

The boys then found photogrammetry software and took photos in the Town Belt, which were imported into software called MeshRoom, which creates a 3D model. They believe they will have a useable product by the time they finish high school. 

“I think we’ve had to restart our project three times now because the VR toolkit keeps getting updated. We’ve found out what has worked and what hasn’t,” explains Ethan.

Once the visual experience has been developed, bird song and sounds will be added to make it more realistic. David has also suggested adding labels to plants, as well as Māori and local history stories to the experience.

VR commonplace

David believes that VR headsets will become increasingly commonplace in homes and businesses and used for everything from virtual shopping to virtual world tours. There’s already been interest from a local real estate company in using the programme that Alex and Ethan develop, so home buyers anywhere in the world can walk around a house. 

He also believes that, because of the expertise they have developed, the two boys could walk into jobs in the tech sector straight out of school.

“I haven’t decided what I want to do after school; maybe VFX – like 3D modelling for Weta Workshop,” says Alex.

“I’m interested in computer programming. I think I’ll probably enroll in some computer science courses at the university and see where that takes me. I might work for Google – if it’s still around!” says Ethan.

Eye on new trends

Technology generally needs to be replaced or upgraded and David reckons most technology has a life of about five years.

“So you have to go to the very edge and the next step after this is artificial intelligence. That’s where I see the next evolution of this programme – once VR has done its dash. Once Alex and Ethan have completed this project – probably in Year 13 – we will want to ask: ‘Was this programme successful? Do we have boys who are more prepared for the next cycle of life? Is it worth our time and money or could we put the money into something else?’

“And you have to do that every single time with technology, otherwise you can become complacent. Tech is a bit of a double-edged sword like that – it’s great when it’s new, but you always have to keep an eye on the new trends,” says David.

Virtual experience of Hillary’s hut

Photo credit: Tim McPhee

Photo credit: Tim McPhee

Primary and secondary schools will have an opportunity to virtually explore Sir Edmund Hillary’s hut in Antarctica thanks to the Antarctic Heritage Trust. Hillary’s hut was Scott Base’s first building and was built in 1956/57 by a team led by Sir Ed to support the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition and the International Geophysical Year.

Developed in partnership with Auckland University of Technology, the VR experience features a tour of the hut’s five rooms, along with an opportunity to view hundreds of artefacts from the early years of New Zealand’s Antarctic programme. It provides insights into how Sir Ed’s 23-man team lived and worked in the world’s most extreme environment more than 60 years ago.

“Sir Ed’s hut is part of the rich history of Antarctic exploration and we are excited to bring this experience to as many students around New Zealand as we can,” says the Trust’s Francesca Eathorne, who oversaw project development.

“Most people will never get the chance to visit Antarctica so virtual reality is a fantastic way to provide a glimpse of what it would be like to visit this special place. Hopefully the fascinating stories of what Sir Ed and his team achieved furthering science and exploration will inspire the next generation of explorers,” she says.


BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 8:25 AM, 10 June 2021

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