Virtual reality at Shawnigan Lake School

Virtual reality at Shawnigan Lake School

November 6, 2017
Christina Chant, Communications, Shawnigan Lake School

Despite making the conscious decision to give up his own cell phone three years ago, Shawnigan Lake School social studies teacher Galen Loiselle has always been an early adopter and explorer of new technology. He was one of the first teachers at Shawnigan to have an iPad and the early touch-screen version of the iPod. Most recently, his technological curiosity has been piqued by the myriad academic applications of virtual reality.

“My touchstone will always be traditional teaching techniques,” he says. “That’s what I always find myself coming back to, but VR is an interesting teaching tool because the immersive experiences it offers users can help build connection and empathy. I think we are only just touching the surface of the ways in which the technology could be used in the classroom.”

The VR platform Mr. Loiselle currently uses is Google Cardboard, where the student’s own phone and headphones can be clipped into a simple pair of googles. Getting everyone up and running can present a few technological challenges, he notes, as the current goggles are not large enough to comfortably hold the latest iPhone 7. The affordability of the set-up makes it accessible, however, and when they are successfully connected, students are exposed to a 360-degree VR space with accompanying narration.

Last year, VR technologies were utilized for exactly this reason when the Grade 11 class undertook a wintertime refugee crisis simulation based on the Doctors Without Borders' Forced From Home initiative. This exercise saw the students attempt to replicate the experiences of refugees fleeing from conflict zones, including navigating border crossings, dangerous roads and bodies of water, all the while finding themselves subject to simulated explosive devices and sniper fire.

The stimulation was put in place to help the students engage even more deeply with some of the human geography components of their social studies courses. As the refugee exercise here on campus happened at the same time as some of the biggest refugee exoduses from Syria, it was also particularly timely. Being fully immersed in VR spaces designed for precisely this kind of scenario helped bring the lived experiences of refugees from conflict zones to the peaceful forests of Vancouver Island, driving home for the students not just the theoretical human geography concepts of migration, but the realities of one of the most pressing human rights issues of our time.

Last month, Mr. Loiselle’s law class used VR to follow an Ethiopian girl undertaking her daily challenge of water collection. He also outlines other potential VR applications, such as taking students on a virtual walking tour of the Coliseum in Rome to explore the intersection of history, architecture and culture.

“Students using VR feel like they are on the ground experiencing the situation or place first-hand,” Mr. Loiselle explains. “It’s this active engagement that builds the understanding and empathy that lifts theoretical concepts off the pages of a book and plants them in the students’ minds and hearts.”