SXSW EDU Panel: Students Can Build the VR/AR Worlds of the Future

Left to Right: Jessica Lindl, Unity’s Global Head of Education; Mark Suter, Elida Public High School, Director of; Rafranz Davis: Executive Director of Professional and Digital Learning for Lufkin, ISD, in Lufkin, TX; Jordan Budisantoso, Washington Leadership Academy, Washington, D.C.;

Unity  is a leading VR platform from Unity Technologies.  Unity’s Jessica Linda moderated a panel on VR.  I’m skeptical of sessions where corporate sponsors hand-pick a few of their favorite users to showcase their best implementations, but this turned out to be one of my favorite sessions at SXSWEDU 2018 .  To its credit, Unity didn’t pick superstar VR teachers or leading edge researchers, but teachers who confessed that, “A year and a half ago, I had no idea about VR.”  Two of three teachers came from rural districts.  One only had a single VR headset for the entire high school.

Yet each told of amazing VR experiences in their classrooms, and modeled a practice where teacher and student explore together, following each other’s lead and learn from each other.   Perhaps most important to the audience was the no-experience-necessary message to launching a VR class. Mark Suter of Elida Public High School, in Ohio (@Garlicsuter), said the conversation went something like this:


“Let’s build some VR stuff.”

“I don’t know how”

“Neither do I.”


But rather than being the end of the conversation, it was the beginning of a new curriculum.  Suter showed pictures of paper prototypes of VR user experiences that themselves represented a sophisticated sense of how to gather requirements and design a user-centric experience.  When asked how he planned his curriculum, Suter said he “lets [students] make cool stuff that they love,” and he even got a round of spontaneous applause when he said, “I have a confession: I haven’t written a lesson plan in two years.”

Rafranz Davis, Executive Director of Professional and Digital Learning for Lufkin, ISD, in Lufkin, TX (@RafranzDavis,) talked about organizing hackathons at her rural TX high school.  In her administrative role, she tried to offer new pathways for teachers who are “used to being told ‘no’.”  She also sent a similar message to teacher and student alike: there’s liberation in the realization that experts don’t know everything, and that everybody is using the same tools to figure things out.

Jordan Budisantoso, Washington Leadership Academy, Washington, DC, (@jordanbudi), talked about co-teaching a course with a civics teacher on “VR and Civics,” in which students used VR to represent pressing issues like global climate disruption and DACA.

Most meaningful for me was seeing teachers use VR to empower student creativity and agency, rather than to simply deliver the same content in a new form.  Centering the panel around student world-building (rather than how ed tech providers could use VR/AR) distinguished this panel from almost all the others I saw on the topic.  Unity deserved praise for framing the conversation this way, the the amazing teachers clearly inspired the packed room.

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