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Catholic board piloting virtual reality technology

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Virtual reality may be coming to local Catholic schools sooner than some might think.

The technology is becoming increasingly prominent in classrooms and the Northwest Catholic District School Board is taking note of this.

The implementation of virtual reality in the classroom was one of the topics discussed at last Tuesday night's board meeting.

Information systems manager Colin Drombolis and MISA Data Co-ordinator Mike Belluz gave a presentation to the board about how they are working to choose the best virtual reality technology for classroom learning.

“Right now we are in the very early stages,” Drombolis said.

“We're starting to pilot a few different pieces of hardware to see what will best fit our needs, for both staff and students.”

A few months ago, the board purchased the HTC Vive, which currently is being piloted by St. Joseph's teacher Michael Nerino.

In the coming days, Our Lady of the Way School will receive eight ClassVR headsets to pilot there.

ClassVR is a U.K.-based technology company which has designed virtual reality that's specifically for an educational setting.

They are standalone devices that deliver a fully-immersive virtual reality experience while being managed and controlled by the classroom's teacher.

Other virtual reality headsets being ordered are the Google VR, with 10 headsets expected for St. Patrick's and St. Francis School.

Over the next few months, Drombolis said the board also will be looking at the Lenovo Mirage and Oculus Go.

One of the key educational components of virtual reality is virtual field trips.

“The kids can go to places they would never be able to go to in real life,” Drombolis noted.

For example, if they wanted to visit the Vatican, the teacher could give them a virtual tour simply by getting the class to put on their headsets.

Drombolis also noted the headsets will have a definite impact for special education.

The Oculus Rift Virtual Reality headset recently was tested with special needs students in Australia.

Instructors found it sparked the students' imagination, as well as gave them visual insights they would not have had otherwise.

Students can explore outer space, Egyptian temples, or a jet engine to develop a clearer understanding of how it works, making lessons more hands-on and immersive.

For the sciences, Drombolis said the technology it will be great for doing virtual dissections of animals.

In more advanced forms of education, he noted it could be used to replicate surgeries.

“We probably don't even realize some of the potential that's there for our students,” Drombolis stressed.

The students' response to the virtual reality headsets has been great, with Nerino saying those at St. Joseph's absolutely love the new technology.

Drombolis, meanwhile, said virtual reality will become increasingly prominent in education as more companies innovate and the price point drops.

He sees virtual reality at as another tool in the classroom and doesn't think it will displace existing technologies.

“I see it as another tool in the classroom,” Drombolis remarked.

“It's not going to replace an iPad or a Chromebook, for instance, but it's another tool a teacher can utilize to help teach and further engage students in lessons,” he explained.

The next steps in implementing virtual reality is choosing the best product to go with.

“Once we choose that product, we will have to base that project on budget and manpower to see how quickly we can get those installed,” Drombolis noted.

“We ran a 'smartboard' project about six or seven years ago and we had a three-year implementation plan,” he recalled.

“The costs were roughly the same as they are right now for VR so I think that would be a good plan for us to follow.”

It still is to be determined how many virtual reality units will be purchased and the format they will be used in.

“We still have to figure out if there is a need for it in every single classroom, or do we have so many per school that are used on a sign-out basis in the library, for instance,” Drombolis said.

“So those are things from this pilot that we are going to gather, and do are due diligence with, before we come up with the continuation of our plan.”

In the coming months, Drombolis is hoping to test out as many different virtual reality software as possible to determine what will best suit the needs of the board's students and teachers.

“We want to make sure the board's getting the best possible [technology] for staff and students,” he reiterated.

Moving forward, Colin hopes to have the technology implemented in the board's schools by the beginning of next year.

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