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7 important considerations for virtual reality

Districts are exploring virtual reality for students and teachers, but a new report offers some safety-focused guidelines

Virtual reality has a growing number of applications in the classroom, but experts in a new report caution that the technology should be used carefully with students’ still-developing brains.

Recent data indicates that while few teachers are using virtual and augmented reality, the technologies does show some promise. Speak Up Survey data shows that 5 percent of teachers say they are using virtual or augmented reality in their classroom. Higher percentages of high school computer science and technology teachers (11 percent) and science teachers (9 percent) are using the technologies.

Forty-three percent of district administrators in small districts want virtual reality experiences and hardware in their schools. Twenty percent of district administrators said virtual and augmented reality professional development is a priority this year.

A new report from Common Sense analyzes the potential impact virtual reality has on kids’ cognitive, social, and physical well-being. The report also includes parents’ top concerns about the technology.

“While virtual reality research is limited, parental concerns about safety are legitimate, and there are some simple things they can do now to help protect their kids, from physical protections, like setting time limits and creating a safe space for kids to sit down and experience it, to being aware of content and talking to kids about what they are experiencing, including the difference between real and virtual characters,” says Jeremy Bailenson, the head of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

The report, Virtual Reality 101: What You Need to Know About Kids and VR, highlights some promising opportunities for parents and educators. For example, for older children beginning to develop the ability to understand the perspectives of others, virtual reality could help diminish racial bias and encourage empathy. And while it is important to be aware that young children who use it may have difficulty distinguishing between simulated experiences and real experiences, they also could benefit by developing pro-social behaviors as a result of virtual reality experiences with characters.

Virtual reality shows promise in helping children develop critical like skills such as empathy and perspective, but there is still much to learn about the technology, says James P. Steyer, chief executive officer and founder of Common Sense.

“We have a responsibility to parents and educators to understand how it impacts child development so they can minimize the potentially negative effects while maximizing the positives,” he adds. “As advocates and researchers, we have a unique opportunity to stay on top of this emerging technology and influence its development to help kids learn, achieve better health outcomes, and enhance their entertainment.”

Virtual reality’s cool factor aside, the technology offers a handful of promising learning and educational uses, including uses in social and emotional learning and with students who have special needs.

The report highlights other potential positive and negative health impacts, including, on the negative side, sensory and vision issues, aggressive behavior, and escapism and distraction, and, on the positive side, pain management and rehabilitation.

Key report findings include:

1. One in five U.S. parents today reports living in a household with virtual reality, though many parents (65 percent) say they are not planning to buy a device.

2. Virtual reality is likely to have powerful effects on children because it can provoke a response to virtual experiences similar to a response to actual experiences.

3. Characters in virtual reality may be especially influential on young children, even more so than characters on TV or computers. This can be good or bad depending on the influence.

4. Overall, 62 percent of parents believe that virtual reality will provide educational experiences for their children, and that number is higher (84 percent) among parents whose children are already using virtual reality.

5. Sixty percent of parents say they are at least “somewhat concerned” that their children will experience negative health effects while using virtual reality.

6. Some parents report that kids are already experiencing health issues, including 13 percent who have bumped into something; 11 percent who have experienced dizziness; 10 percent who have had headaches; and 8 percent who have had eyestrain.

7. Virtual reality can potentially be an effective tool for encouraging empathy among children for people who are different from them, although parents are skeptical: Thirty-eight percent of all parents think virtual reality will help children empathize with different people. This number increases to 56 percent for parents of virtual reality-using 8- to 17-year-olds.

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Laura Ascione

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