Guest Blog: A New Path - Fresh Applications of Virtual Reality in Special Education

In early 2021, Spaulding Academy & Family Services applied for and received a technology grant from the Flutie Foundation for the purchase of Virtual Reality (VR) headsets. We are a small, non-profit special education school serving students with a wide range of abilities, including many who are on the Autism Spectrum and/or have limited mobility, and it was very important to us from the onset that we use this technology to meet the needs of all our students.

SEN student engaged in VR experience

Selecting a VR Solution

When choosing which devices to purchase, it was important to us that we have the ability to create and upload custom content. Spaulding focuses on the unique needs of each student, and we strive to meet those needs in creative, innovative, and fun ways. In this case, as in most others, that meant creating customized learning structures.

We chose ClassVR headsets because their platform allows for an efficient workflow when creating custom content – 360-degree video is quick and easy to upload, and integrations with CoSpaces and Thinglink allow us to think beyond just the physical world. The headsets themselves are also pre-loadable, so we’re able to customize each headset to the needs of a specific classroom or service provider.

To create our content, we purchased an Insta360 ONE X2 camera with selfie stick, tripod stand, and head mount. We also purchased CoSpacesEdu at the onset of the project in order to expand our world of possibilities – we will be implementing Thinglink as well!

Experiment, Brainstorm, and Problem Solve with Virtual Reality in Special Education

1. Our implementation team consists of Charley Suter, Spaulding’s Digital Learning Specialist, and Jen Benjamin, Occupational Therapist. After reviewing existing research and extensively discussing the still-untapped applications of this technology, and then experimenting with the devices themselves, we were able to narrow our scope of VR usage to several areas. Our main ideas centered around physiological and sensory regulation, emotional regulation, skill-building, social interaction, and transitions (new places or experiences) – all of which tend to present significant challenges for our students.

2. Once we identified our initial target areas, we explored the myriad ways of approaching each one. Could we use CoSpaces animation, or 360-degree video, or both? If we’re using video, what types of footage will we need, and how will we film it? How does a static camera differ from a moving camera (in many people a moving camera is more likely to cause motion sickness, but for some students it provides just the stimulation they need), and which method works best in which situation? What capabilities do we have to code scenes, situations, and sequences within CoSpaces? Which subject matter experts should we pull in to ensure we’re using pedagogically informed, evidence-based strategies? All these questions required collaborative problem solving, and these proactive brainstorming sessions allowed us to approach the next steps in a much more informed way.

3. Step three was to identify students who have particular needs that could be met using this technology, and to determine which content creation strategies would best fit their individual situations. What this comes down to is knowing our students, and knowing our capabilities when creating content – in many cases that also involves gathering information from colleagues who work closely with each student. Our “Implementation Story” will show you just how specific we get!

This creative process need not be limited to special education – it is intended to be used in any school with the time and resources to do so and it is designed to help you get the most of the technology.

Implementing and Assessing ClassVR

We have had successful implementations of ClassVR with a wide range of students, all of whom have differing needs – the results of virtual reality in special education thus far have been truly inspiring.

Student wearing VR headset

Pre-teaching our students has been crucial to our success during physical implementation of the headsets, and that work can take many forms. In some cases, we were able to verbally communicate with students to talk them through what the devices are and what the experience will be like. For our students with limited verbal abilities, however, we carefully communicated by physically modeling the headsets to show that they will not hurt, by first showing students the video content on a laptop, by providing choice throughout via prompts and/or assistive speech devices, and by starting with low stimulation content for very short periods of time. We’ve found that all our students have been very receptive to the devices once they’ve received proper pre-teaching.

Our clearest successes thus far have centered around physiological and sensory regulation, emotional regulation, and opportunities for students with limited mobility. Our implementation story provides an example of a student’s sensory needs being met via a ClassVR headset – Ms. Benjamin’s theory was that we could “trick” the vestibular-ocular system into feeling that it is receiving needed movement stimulation, and the results have been very positive!

From an emotional regulation standpoint, we’ve focused on providing calming or preferred experiences to students who are overstimulated or are in overstimulating environments. If a student likes trucks, or bugs, or balloons, or anything else, we can put them in an immersive experience that features that specific content. We theorize that, when implemented correctly and in a timely manner, this can reduce the likelihood of a student becoming heightened, or of a crisis occurring in the classroom, by providing easily accessible and customized immersive experiences when needed.

Lastly, we’ve been working with a student who has limited mobility – this student craves movement and has a penchant for speed! In order to provide him access to activities that were previously inaccessible to him, I spent a day filming 360-degree content with Jason Sterner, our Outdoor Education Teacher. With this footage, we’ve put this student on a mountain bike on our trails – the same ones his peers are able to bike on. We’ve put him on our ropes course – the same one his peers use. We’ve put him on the ski slopes and many other places, and the look on his face says it all.

Student engaged in VR

Here at Spaulding Academy & Family Services, we’ve been able to implement ClassVR to meet the personalized needs of our students. We hope that you are able to pull from our strategies to find what will work in your unique situation, and that these ideas get your own wheels turning as to how custom content can meet the needs of your students!

An Example of ClassVR - Our Implementation Story

SEN Student engaged in VR

Implementation Story

This particular student has physiological and sensory needs that, when met, enable him to better focus and learn in the classroom. Because Ms. Benjamin works closely with the student, we knew that his preferred sensory activity is swinging. We also knew that there is a particular swing set on campus that he prefers.

Armed with this information, we wanted to try providing that input – that specific, comforting input – through a ClassVR headset. To accomplish this, I filmed 360-degree video content of myself swinging on his favorite swing set, so that the wearer’s point of view is that of the person on the swing. I formatted and uploaded the content to a headset, and I tried it out. It gave me motion sickness within 30 seconds!

Because our student craves this type of vestibular stimulation, however, he reacted in a much more positive way. When using the device, our student has repeatedly communicated a desire to continue swinging – even when presented with other preferred options. The student is able to more successfully return to classroom programming after use, and he has been observed to be well-regulated upon return. His parents are also excited about the possibilities this may present for more accessible sensory regulation!

About The Authors:

The author, Charley Suter, is a state-licensed Digital Learning Specialist working at Spaulding Academy & Family Services, where he’s been for the past 7 years. Prior to his time in education, he served as Knowledge Coordinator at the International Association of Privacy Professionals. He’s a devoted educator, an advocate for equity and inclusion, a tech geek, a privacy proponent, and a lifelong guitar player!

Jen Benjamin, MS, OTR/L, has been an Occupational Therapist for over 20 years, and she has been at Spaulding for over 10 years, via Boothby Therapy Services. Jen loves how the field of OT constantly changes and expands! Jen’s specialty is working with children who have challenges with sensory processing, and she is thrilled to add Virtual Reality to the ever-growing tool box of strategies for self-regulation.

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