Year 7 student Megan McTaggart dons her VR headset and enlists an expert at BETT 2017 

Virtual reality. What’s not to like about being able to feel as if you are actually in space? That is what having a VR headset strapped to your head and given two hand controls and left to navigate around a space station feels like. It felt real and, also a little bit scary.

For a short time on the Dell stand at the BETT 2017 show, I felt cool. This is very different to the laptops we sometimes get to use in our secondary school in north London.

It was mind blowing being able to grab stuff with special remote controls operated by your real, earth hands and work as a virtual astronaut outside a space station. The astronaut in this game had to leave the safety of the spaceship and go outside to dangerous space and fix the damage in the side of the spaceship. It was my job to pull myself up the ladders using the handgrips to get to where the problem was.

'Nothing digital ever felt so real'

BETT VR Dell standIn this virtual reality world, I was the astronaut, and nothing digital ever felt so real. It allowed me to become a real space traveller and part of the action. I was engaged and hooked.

This was Bett 2017 and it was full of VR action and was like nothing I had seen before. (I went last year too). For an 11-year-old this year’s event and the companies who were exhibiting there were more interesting, ‘live’ and ‘off the hook’ [awesome].

There were other equally interesting things to see if you had the time to walk out the entire hall. For example, the Microsoft Maker stand in the STEAM Village was demonstrating how teachers in their Project Cordoba work with pupils to make a robotic ‘hand’ out of everyday things we have at home like plastic drinking straws, fishing line and plastic sheets. They connect via sensors to a simple app they created to show feedback in Excel.

The Microsoft education demonstrators said these can cost as little as £3, although the sensors and wires cost a little more. But it was all low-cost and it was a great way to get kids into robotics. I had a go and everything I was doing the robot was doing. I was so impressed that I filmed it on my phone to share with my friends.

The Microsoft ‘maker’ stand also showed us how to use bits of sticks and paper plates to make a simulation of a building affected by an earthquake. I wasn’t so interested in that because it was more difficult but I am sure older children and maybe boys might find this fun. It was definitely interesting when they used public data in Excel to show exactly where earthquakes happen, but it also looked a bit complicated.

Raspberry Pi inspiring with simple circuits

Raspberry Pi circuitMoving on to a Raspberry Pi stand, I learned how to make a simple electric circuit using conductive tape, an LED bulb and a small ‘button’ battery. Now I know that the metal contacts of the light and the metallic tapes have to touch and complete the circuit to make the bulb light up.

One of the 'legs' to the LED bulb had to bent and one had to be straight (I’m not sure why) but it worked, and I left that stand feeling as I had achieved something amazing. We had done some of this in primary but I have yet to see a Raspberry Pi in my school.

So how much of this am I likely to see in my own school? I doubt that the system on the Dell stand, the Vive with SolidWorks, will ever show up in my school because you would need headsets and two handsets and a powerful computer for each. It was the best experience but it’s expensive and our school can’t afford it.

I did see the Google Expeditions on the Google cardboard goggles but while I liked the smell of them (really) they made me feel cross-eyed and I would rather have my hands free. I saw a set-up for a class on the Parotec stand. The Google Expedition Kits (Redbox VR) had headsets, a tablet and mobile phones, all in a huge box, but it seemed expensive and we didn’t get a demonstration.

I also played with a headset from CherryPicks [part of NetDragon, new owner of Promethean]. It was nice to use but needed a mobile phone and I can’t see my teacher setting up phones for us all. And not all of us have mobile phones.

One of these days we might get something like the ClassVR on the Avantis stand because it doesn’t need a mobile phone – the images come by wireless – and it has a special charger. There is no fiddling about with phones for the teacher, and there are lesson plans too (see "Reality check – Avantis 'tames' VR for classrooms").

The view from a teacher's teacher

Sanjesh SharmaOn the CLassVR stand we met Sanjesh Sharma (pictured right), of NewWays to Learn, who used to be a teacher and now trains them. He had given a talk about VR at BETT 2017. I asked him how he thought VR would shape up for schools. This is what he said:

“For schools, VR is about getting beyond the gimmicks and focusing on the phenomenal experience it can deliver. In education, what excites me is how teachers can use VR to stimulate discussions, deepen understanding and promote active learning.

“Take the example of a Year 4 class walking through a deep, dark forest, only able to see the faint glow through dense and gloomy leaves. The faint whisper of rustling leaves harmonises with the distant sound of an owl warning the other forest creatures of the arrival of the Year 4 class and their teacher. VR, through visual literacy, has the potential to transport whole classes to places like this and encourage descriptive storytelling like nothing before it.

"Let's take this one step further by breathing life into STEM and transporting Year 8 children to the International Space Station for lunch with an astronaut as they watch the world zoom by at five miles per second, maybe even catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights over Norway.

"Finally, let's take this to where I feel VR can have the biggest impact, the ‘impossible experience’. At BETT we took attendees on a virtual journey with a Year 10 group to war torn Aleppo. They walked slowly through the rubble and devastation of destroyed buildings on a central street not too far from Liberty Square. They stood silently among refugees surrounded by thousands of makeshift tents, dust, and debris. And they looked out over the rooftops of a once beautiful city, against the distant sounds of a call for prayer.

“Now imagine taking this new perspective and applying it to a debate, a discussion or a research piece into the impact of war on family, faith and culture. The heightened awareness and added perception VR brings with it has the potential to transform oral and written communication skills through much deeper and emotive experiences.

“VR is not a tablet or laptop replacement. It is not the next Chromebook killer and nor is it a replacement for interactive screens. What VR adds to the learning experience is 10-15 minutes of total immersion. It is the Tardis in Doctor Who and the DeLorean in Back to the Future and it gives teachers the ability to add the "power of experience" to enliven discussions, enrich storytelling and add a little bit of the wow factor to every lesson.”

Megan McTaggart is a Year 7 student at a north London school

Google Expeditions  
VR channel