PRINEVILLE — The students in Connor Booster’s sixth-grade international studies class turned their gazes in every direction, soaking up as much detail as they could of Robben Island in South Africa.

The 14 students carefully studied Nelson Mandela’s tiny prison cell and voiced their concern that the cell lacked a bathroom.

“You see that red bucket?” asked Booster, and all 14 heads turned sharply down to the floor, their eyes in search of the makeshift restroom that they could only see through their virtual reality goggles.

No, the sixth-graders from Crook County Middle School did not travel to South Africa, but they saw more than would have been possible with a textbook.

For students in the Crook County School District, the ability to travel around the globe while sitting in classrooms has opened endless learning opportunities that teachers and staff in the district are learning are possible. The district applied for a grant from Facebook in 2017 that would help implement the use of virtual reality in the classroom.

The $11,000 grant helped buy 40 Samsung cellphones and virtual reality goggles that are used throughout the school district. The district has seen a lot of success with the use of the technology, although it is fine-tuning the process, said Michael Allen, technology director for the school district.

The phones are used with Google Expeditions, which gives the user a 360-degree view of more than 300 different locations. The phones are placed in the front of the goggles and as the users turn their heads, they can take in the panoramic view.

“We are a rural district, and we are a bit economically challenged so I don’t know how many of these kids will get to South Africa to see Nelson Mandela’s prison cell,” Allen said.

“This way, we are bringing the world to them.”

The students in Booster’s international studies class followed a packet that outlined the lesson, complete with smaller reading passages and fill-in-the-blank questions in between tours of parts of Robben Island through their virtual reality goggles. The variation between virtual reality and supplemental work has kept students more engaged in the learning process, Booster said.

“I wanted the kids to buy in to the lesson,” he said. “There isn’t the moaning and groaning of having to read an article and talk about it. This way, they get right into it, and they are interested in it. I would think that the number of kids who zone out during the reading part is much lower. They are more engaged for some parts that would normally seem tedious and not very fun, even though it’s obviously important.”

The use of technology in the classroom is not new. Students in Crook County are issued Chromebooks that they use throughout the day, similar to students in Bend-La Pine Schools, who use iPads for homework and other class work. The privilege to use advanced technology in the classroom is not lost on staff, Booster said.

Virtual reality has been used in classrooms at Crook County High School to take college tours of campuses on the East Coast, such as the University of North Carolina, Allen said.

“Kids might get over to University of Oregon, and we can (physically) take them to OSU-Cascades, but this allows kids to look at the larger college campuses and see things they might otherwise not get to see.”

The result is a lesson plan and experience that helps engage the students more than reading aloud from a textbook, Booster said.

“You think you’re there, and then you take them off, and everything is different,” said sixth-grader Yadhira Ceja after the lesson wrapped up. “That’s so cool.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7829, acolosky@bendbulletin.com

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