School excursions become a virtual reality for primary school pupils

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Students at West Spring Primary School using virtual reality (VR) in the classroom to enhance their learning experience for their social studies lesson for the first time. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

SINGAPORE - A picture may be worth a thousand words, but virtual reality (VR) could be taking that a step further in the classroom if a government pilot project takes off.

Last Thursday (May 18), a class of Primary 4 pupils from West Spring Primary School had the opportunity to visit an offshore fish farm, a dairy farm and the National Gallery - right from their classroom during a social studies lesson, thanks to VR.

The pupils were whisked away virtually to various locations in Singapore in under an hour, by donning VR headsets which displayed a 360-degree VR video. The clip allowed the pupils to look around in all directions as if they were physically there, with educational facts being taught by a virtual guide.

The school was involved in a project to test the feasibility of using VR for educational purposes. The trial started in March and ended earlier this month. Five schools were involved in total with almost 400 Primary 4 to 5 pupils participating in the pilot.

Besides using VR headsets, the pupils also completed worksheets and discussed in groups to reinforce what they learnt.

Fascinated by the instant transportation to different locations, West Spring Primary School pupil Nur Haziqah Abu Mansor, 10, said that the experience was extremely realistic, and that it was "a very fun experience for me".

The Ministry of Education (MOE) worked with local virtual reality start-up Hiverlab and local production company Beach House Pictures on the project. Beach House Pictures had been awarded a grant from the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) in December last year for the project.

This is part of several VR developments the government announced on Tuesday (May 23) during the Infocomm Media Business Exchange Opening Ceremony. Besides introducing VR in primary schools, IMDA will also partner with Tan Tock Seng Hospital and SideFX Studios to use VR for clinical training.

"Virtual and augmented reality technologies can be used across various industries to improve processes, reduce costs, and enhance outcomes," said Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information.

MOE director of humanities Kenneth Lee said that the Government was not trying to replace school field trips. "There is value in going to places. But it's not possible to go to so many places in the course of a year. (VR) replaces textbook exploration," he said.

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Mr Donovan Chan, creative director of Beach House Pictures, said what his company tried to do with the project was to transform "our storytelling platforms to converge with new technologies out there".

He also added that while many people are focused on VR entertainment and gaming, Beach House Pictures saw a huge potential for VR in education.

At least for West Spring Primary, the project has reaped some benefits. Its principal, Mrs Jacintha Lim, said she was amazed with the answers of pupils' answers in the worksheets they had to do after watching the VR clips.

"The quality of answers given surpassed the normal, everyday responses they would be giving," she said. "The VR experience must have stimulated (them), it really helped them to give very insightful answers."

But emerging technology such as VR does not come cheap.

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The VR headset's retail price is about $150, and the price of the accompanying smartphones used with the headsets can cost between $500 and $1,200.

For now, there are no concrete plans to roll out this VR initiative to other schools yet.

However, Beach House Pictures intends to first turn this into a roadshow model for schools here. This means the VR sets will be loaned to schools on a daily basis, and schools can decide how many times they want to loan them for their pupils.

"We want to control the quality of the experience, and also ensure that cost won't be a barrier," said Mr Chan.

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