VR, AR are real in the Metro Atlanta classrooms 

Atlanta Business Chronicle

By   – Contributing Writer

New technology tools in metro Atlanta’s classrooms and libraries are not only bringing real-world applications to learning, they are making it more fun.

Through augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) offerings, school districts and libraries are encouraging students to use new technologies to learn the alphabet, explore a national monument or experience the feeling of blood pulsing through the human body.

Dacula-based Alive Studios makes reading and math come alive through augmented 3-D reality and 26 virtual zoo animals. Cynthia Kaye, Alive Studios’ CEO and “chief zoo keeper,” created Learning alive and its two components, Letters alive and Math alive, after seeing firsthand the struggles her sons, adopted from Russia, were having with reading.

To make the letters “come alive” on a screen teachers place the program’s “flash cards” under a document camera attached to a computer loaded with the company’s software. For example, when using the “A” card, Amos Alligator seems to leap off the screen to teach sounds and words associated with the letter, and, eventually, sentences. As there are no individual glasses needed, the technology allows teachers to reach all students at once.

“Between the ages of zero and five years old is when the most dramatic learning is happening with our children,” said Kaye. “Studies have shown that only 37 percent of fourth graders are proficient in reading, and when we test them again in the eighth grade, they aren’t getting any better. The time to win this is in pre-K and kindergarten by equipping our teachers with something fun and engaging that supports new learning concepts.”

Alive Studios’ learning kits are being used in more than 3,500 classrooms around the country, including in Atlanta Public Schools and the counties of Gwinnett, Clarke, Douglas and Cobb.

“We are hearing from teachers that when using the program, the kids don’t even want to stop for recess,” Kaye said.

The Gwinnett County Public Library system recently purchased the program for all 15 of its branches. The library’s youth services team will be incorporating the technology into existing early literacy programs, said Shelly Schwerzler, development manager at Gwinnett County Public Library.

“When you think of the library, you think of books, but modern public libraries have so much technology and we are trying to incorporate more of that in our offerings,” said Patty Reeber, the library’s youth services manager. “I can’t wait to see how our children’s librarians integrate it into their story times.”

The price tag was $20,000 – a hefty investment, but a crucial one, said Schwerzler. “Everyone realizes that early childhood literacy is critical to help with pathways for life.”

Aleigha Henderson-Rosser, executive director of instructional technology at Atlanta Public Schools, said they purchased 20 zSpace AR/VR laptops for classroom use. APS is one of just three districts nationwide who have adopted this technology, she added.

From building a virtual theme park and testing scientific principles on the rides to exploring the body’s circulatory system to taking a virtual field trip, these AR/VR machines allow students to lift images from the screen and physically manipulate the virtual simulations, thereby gaining a deeper understanding of the concepts.

“It really does make science and learning come alive,” Henderson-Rosser said, adding that this is the first time zSpace has offered a portable unit, making it easier to take these experiences to all students. “Our teachers can decide what is grade-appropriate and build their lessons around these capabilities.”

These technologies are the wave of the future classroom, Henderson-Rosser said. “As long as it remains cost-effective, I can see this becoming the new way of classroom learning. Teachers we want to bring the world to their students and now they can.”

Though the benefits of these types of technology are discussed, the challenges remain unknown, said Michael Helms, research scientist for the Center for Education, Integrating Math, Science and Computing (CEISMC) at Georgia Institute of Technology.

“Including technology into a lesson for the sake of including technology can be a distraction,” he explained. “Sure, it might engage the student but not all engagement is always good. The students could get so wrapped up in the technical aspects they forget about the learning part. If it is not carefully guided, it can become a problem.”

CEISMC is applying for grant dollars to do research to determine whether technology is truly motivating students and advancing their studies in certain subjects, Helms said.

“There are not a lot of people studying AR/VR in actual classrooms,” he added. “How is it different in an under-served classroom compared to a more mainstream classroom? We don’t know the extent of what opportunities educators can take advantage of and that is what we want to find out.”

Founded by recent Georgia Tech graduate Aditya Vishwanath and Neha Kumar, assistant professor at Georgia Tech, inspirit is a virtual reality design consultancy that works with schools, government agencies, nonprofits and other organizations to design and integrate VR-based curricula into classrooms.

“Immersive VR content delivered on high-fidelity VR devices has shown to improve learning outcomes, increase confidence and effect positive behavior change,” said Vishwanath. “These studies have been predominantly conducted in controlled laboratory settings using very expensive equipment. Smartphone-driven VR is an emerging technology that has yet to be widely adopted in educational environments.”

A VR or AR intervention is successful if the design and development of the content is aligned with the desired learning outcomes of the classroom, he added.

“It is not enough to deploy a VR experience and expect to ride the ‘wow-factor’ wave. To have sustained long-term VR use, it is key to involve teachers, students and other stakeholders in the content creation process right from the beginning, so that the content we develop is contextually relevant and impactful.”