The Inside Story

Kate Waffle’s sixth period English Fundamentals class recently learned how to get inside a story—with the help of virtual reality (VR) technology.

Kate’s class read the short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldes. It tells the tale of a futuristic, overpopulated world where couples can only have children if they are granted permission by the government. The story explores the relationship between a mom, Monica, and her human son, David. When she can’t form a connection with David, she adopts an android child and instantly bonds with the robot. Sound familiar? Maybe it’s because Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Artificial Intelligence,” is based on the short story.

Kate teamed with Anne Marie, MId-Pen’s director of technology, to bring VR into her classroom. After downloading the Google Expeditions app to their smartphones, Anne Marie helped the students use VR headsets to explore simulated landscapes similar to those in the short story. 

Students went on expeditions in a garden and a crowded city with skyscrapers so they could better understand how these environments impacted the main character’s sense of living in an overcrowded, holographic world. 

“Students were able to better understand how Monica felt in the story, to live in a virtual world with virtual people—and time stands still,” said Kate.

A recurring theme in the story is that of loneliness. The characters live in a perfect world, but they struggle with human interaction.  Looking at the students as they participated in the VR lesson, they were all in the same room but in different virtual environments, with unconnected experiences, and no interaction.

It wasn’t until after the VR lesson that they realized they had nearly recreated the mood and experienced the solitude of the characters in the story. When Kate and her class discussed their expeditions, students were most surprised by the passage of time. A few students opted out of using VR headsets; sometimes VR can cause motion sickness. But these students were able to observe their classmates in their simulated worlds.

“When they were in virtual reality, they were unaware of how time passed around them,” said Kate, noting that students were shocked when she let them know that class was almost over. “The real world went on without them while they were exploring this fake reality—which is exactly what Monica [in the story] experiences again and again. Time passes her by.”

Getting inside a story is just one integration of VR in the classroom to enhance student learning. Kate and Anne Marie have more VR collaborations in the works.