Future of Learning

Using virtual reality to help students with disabilities

Virtual tours and virtual social interactions give kids a chance to practice life skills in safe spaces

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Danvers, a town about 20 miles north of Boston, has five small elementary schools. The switch to the town’s bigger middle school – where, for the first time, students walk the halls on their own between classes – can be a little scary.

It’s even more daunting for students with disabilities.

That’s one reason the district’s technology director, Jeff Liberman, purchased a 360-degree camera and recruited student videographers to help with a project: This year, students taking a video production class will create a virtual tour of the middle school. The goal is to give new students a chance to explore their future school in advance, in a low-stress environment. Last year, a student intern created a similar tour of the town’s high school, and it was so popular that Liberman wants one for every school.

About 16 percent of the 3,800 students in Danvers Public Schools get services because they have disabilities. Virtual reality is becoming an increasingly important tool for serving them. While the use of VR in schools has been growing in recent years, thanks in part to more affordable resources, Danvers is becoming a leader in finding applications of VR that help students with disabilities.

The school tour isn’t the district’s first foray into creating its own virtual reality. Its first virtual tour was of downtown Danvers. Some students who receive special education services take a life skills class to prepare for living as independently as possible after high school, and one of the class activities is a real-life walk around downtown. Teachers told Liberman it would be helpful if students could take the trip virtually as a practice round before the class outing. Using Google’s virtual reality tour creator and Google Maps Street View, the technology department made it possible to take the 15-minute walk, virtually, from the high school to downtown, turning from one street to another and stopping at each stoplight.

Liberman said it can be particularly helpful for students to have a chance to walk at their own pace, using as much time as they want to take everything in. That’s not the case in a real-life field trip.

“If they were in the group and the group kept walking, they wouldn’t be able to stop,” Liberman said.

Related: How one high-poverty district is adding virtual reality to its classrooms

The district has also taken advantage of prepackaged virtual reality experiences. Floreo, for example, is an app designed to help students with autism spectrum disorders. Among other things, it lets students practice interacting with police officers and TSA agents through virtual reality. One study found that nearly 20 percent of young people with autism spectrum disorders have been stopped and questioned by police by age 21, and the experience can be traumatic. Autism spectrum disorders can make social interactions particularly difficult and anxiety-inducing.

Floreo also helps students learn calming techniques through mindfulness instruction and lets them practice those techniques in otherwise trying locations, like busy train stations.

“VR allows students to go places and see things virtually without actually having to go there,” Liberman said. For Danvers students, he says that offers a low-stakes opportunity to practice critical life skills.

Danvers Public Schools, along with Google, will host a conference in November to share strategies for using virtual reality to better serve students with special needs. Across the district, students experience virtual and augmented reality in social studies, science and language arts classes, and Liberman expects foreign language teachers to bring it into their classrooms this year, as well. But it’s the special focus on virtual reality for kids in special education that sets Danvers apart, and Liberman is excited to share what Danvers has learned with other districts.

This story about VR in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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