Transcend the Classroom with Virtual Place-Based Learning

By Louis Pienaar

Personally, I’ve always been a sucker for games like SimCity, Age of Empires or Theme Park Tycoon, where I get to be the master of a little universe for a while. From an early age, these games allowed me to construct an alternate reality where I got to be an architect, emperor or entrepreneur. Although these games were always more about fun than anything else, I learned an incredible amount about grown-up things through them—business management, resource allocation and the economy, for example. The simulated environment allowed me to make mistakes and explore possibilities within a realistic scenario.

3d virtual city designed as part of virtual place-based learning project

Simulation-based learning allows us to play in a highly immersive environment that reflects aspects of the real world. In virtual simulations, we can explore and create with much lower stakes than we would encounter in the real world. Questions of “What if?” flourish in a virtual simulation as we create and experience new possibilities with increasing realism. With smartphones making access to virtual reality easier and easier, virtual simulations can now become part of place-based learning in the classroom.

Using virtual reality creation technology, we asked our students at Parklands College to design “District 2020,” a hypothetical eco-city based on an area of Cape Town, South Africa, formerly known as District Six. Students were to virtually design District 2020 as an urban area emphasizing sustainability and food security and reflecting the area’s social history. This created a place-based interdisciplinary project where students drew from English, history and geography learning and applied their knowledge to a contemporary challenge in a local context.

Students designed their eco-cities in a simulated virtual reality environment during class time. They worked in groups of three. While working collaboratively on designing District 2020, each group had an architect, a researcher and an urban planner. We provided students with a checklist of design considerations, but allowed them total freedom as to the appearance, presentation and embellishments of their eco-city. Their final product was a link to their virtual reality eco-city. We could open their links on our phones, slip it into Google Cardboard and assess their work from inside virtual reality.

School and village simulated in 3D as virtual place-based learning activity

Students built their projects using CoSpaces, a virtual reality creation tool that is impressively versatile in its creative offering to students and educators. Students can place a wide array of objects in a blank virtual reality plane and adjust them as needed. Text bubbles, sound and images can be part of this virtual reality world, allowing for a multimodal learning environment. One great feature of CoSpaces is how intuitive it is. Students accustomed to smartphones or computers adapt to it quickly and tend to enjoy it immensely. (A practical tip: Do not show CoSpaces to your students at the beginning of a lesson if you plan to move on to something else.) Developers are moving the program in exciting directions, such as importing custom-designed objects and creating interactive animations.

The opportunity to use virtual worlds in education is exciting. Students are able to recreate scenes from literature or history with relative ease, and can display their thinking and solutions visually like never before. Students are able to experience and design virtual worlds transcending the limitations of the classroom and the stakes of a real-world scenario. As an educator, you can also design scenarios and learning environments for students to navigate, providing your students with a deeply immersive learning experience. Learning in virtual reality lends itself to interdisciplinary work since reality itself is, after all, cross-curricular.

Designing District 2020 was our first exploration of using virtual reality in placed-based learning. While the project could still be fine-tuned and developed further, it allowed my students to reimagine their local environment, address real-world challenges and consider future possibilities. This is exactly the kind of learning I want for my students in the 21st century.

You can view some of the results of our project here, via the CoSpaces website. If you have access to Google Cardboard, try experiencing the projects in virtual reality!

This blog is part of our “Place-Based Education” blog series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, check out the PBE campaign page. Join in the conversation on social media using #PlaceBasedEd. For more on Place-Based Education, see:

Louis Pienaar is a teacher at Parklands College in South Africa. You can find him on Twitter at: @MrLouisPienaar

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