Footsteps of History: Learning with Virtual Reality

The following is an interview with Emily Cruz, Tech & Design Integrator, who spoke about incorporating virtual reality technology from Footsteps of History into the fourth grade curriculum earlier this spring. 
Could you describe how the Footsteps of History enhanced learning for the students and how it aligned with their curriculum?

As the fourth-grade students excitedly embarked upon their Silk Road unit, they were thrilled to discover Footsteps of History–a tech-forward social studies enrichment program comprising both standards-aligned lessons and immersive VR walkabouts that place students in pivotal moments of world history. Students engaged in immersive, interactive, and curriculum-aligned activities while exploring their social studies Silk Road unit through the “Footsteps of Marco Polo.”
The experience transported students through time, history, and the rich tapestry of cultures along the fabled Silk Road with critically acclaimed filmmaker, author, and explorer Denis Belliveau, who spent two years following in the footsteps of Marco Polo. They were taken on a 3D multimedia tour of five fabled Silk Road cities featuring artifacts, videos, stills, and untold stories. Inspired by their newfound knowledge, they personalized their own Silk Road maps. They chose from a cache of images, many in 3D, focusing on the resources, animal life, culture, and technology of the ancient world. Inspired by the event and eager to continue their Silk Road studies, students plan to continue their journey and engage in a real-world Silk Road trading experience.

Could you describe children’s reaction to the presentation and the technology? 

The students were thrilled to experience the Silk Road through the “Footsteps of Marco Polo.”  The novelty of virtual reality sparked instant enthusiasm and engagement as it immersed students in Silk Road walkabouts that brought their curriculum to life. Students proudly used their previous knowledge to investigate each VR scene and deepen their curricular connections. They excitedly shared their new perspectives as they recorded and reflected upon their unforgettable “journey.” 

In general, how do you see the future of classroom instruction as it relates to advances in technology and virtual reality? Advantages? Possible drawbacks and how to offset/address those?

With rapid technological advances in education, cutting-edge tech tools afford possibilities for personalization, differentiation, transformation, and limitless innovation. In the sector of virtual reality, students are instantly engaged in an immersive experience that deepens curricular understanding and even has the potential to foster a sense of empathy. While the medium naturally promotes exploration and inquiry, it also offers opportunities for agency as students investigate, record observations, and reflect on new perspectives. Additionally, as “active” VR programs enable students to create their own VR experiences, the shift from consumer to creator empowers students to be at the forefront of the digital revolution. However, with limitless possibilities, effectively navigating these technological affordances is essential. Exploring the pedagogical impact and identifying ways these tools can improve learning designs is just as important as realizing when they may be unnecessary. These technologies should never be seen as curricular replacements but as complementary tools that have the potential to enhance educational outcomes in unimaginable ways.

Plans for future use of VR technology in the classroom either with outside organizations or independently with our own technology?

We hope to engage in more curriculum-aligned VR experiences in the future. We are particularly excited to explore more “active” VR experiences that challenge students to design their curriculum-aligned virtual worlds, offering more cross-curricular integration opportunities and innovative design possibilities.

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Grace Church School is a co-educational independent school in downtown Manhattan, New York City providing instruction for nearly 800 students in Junior Kindergarten through Grade 12.