Imagine yourself enveloped by the whisper of the South China Sea and the roaring of the waves hitting the breakwaters at the beautiful East Coast Park of Singapore while you turn your head around to choose where you want to direct your gaze. Now imagine you are doing this while standing in your high-school classroom. For those of us who received our geography lessons surrounded by those flat, rather abstract sketches of territories called maps, this would have sounded like a science-fiction scenario. Yet, this is what a geography lesson looks like in contemporary Singapore. And it is quite easy for us to grasp how the experience of a particular space delivered through VR goggles is much more compelling and interesting than looking at maps, pictures, or videos as we did when we were high-school students.
From VR Goggles to Close Proximity
Today, high-school students in Singapore prepare for a field trip by watching 360-degree videos of the breakwater area of the East Coast Park with their VR goggles. The process goes like this: first, using their own smartphones, they scan a QR code that takes them to a YouTube video especially produced by one of their teachers; once inside the YouTube video, they select the VR Option; then, the smartphones are placed in a compartment at the front of the goggles; finally, students connect wireless earbuds to their VR devices, which adds to the images of the coast the sense of the soundscape that surrounds the area.
While they explore this virtual environment at their will, they listen to the voice of their teacher offering them a first approach to the subjects that they will be learning throughout their lessons. But the experience in the virtual environment is not intended to substitute actual physical presence entirely. Rather, it is aimed at reinforcing and complementing other types of experiences that are also part of the learning process of a student. In fact, teachers believe that VR can ignite an interest in fieldwork much more effectively than pictures, videos, or maps were able to do.
After exploring the area with VR goggles, students are taken to the East Coast Park to continue their lessons. For teachers, being physically in the field is key to understanding how knowledge is not merely something emerging from books (or VR goggles) but something constructed by people. Also, students state that the opportunity to discuss and comment on what they learn near their classmates -something that was severely limited by the pandemic-, has also made them more passionate about the subjects of their lessons.
Technology and the challenge of climate change
There is still another key difference in how high-school students today experience geography lessons as compared to a few decades ago. While the regions and spaces described by our geography teachers and displayed on maps in our classrooms could sound distant, strange, and even somewhat abstract to us, kids today seem to have a much clear conscience of how everything is connected, how our planet works as a system, and how a certain event -no matter how far away from where we are it takes place-, may have an impact in our own life. Not surprisingly, an issue hovers constantly over today’s tech-filled geography lessons: the challenge of climate change and how organizations and governments are planning to tackle it.
Far from detaching students from reality, technology is being used to help them understand how their lessons are deeply connected to real-life issues. In this sense, geography teachers in Singapore try to make sure not only that their students learn the lesson but that they understand why they must do it. After all, in Singapore and all around the world, today’s high-school students will inherit the multiple issues caused by climate change. In particular, for Singapore, being a city-state surrounded by water, the rise of sea levels poses an existential threat that will demand the efforts of more than one generation. Luckily, VR and advanced technology features are giving high-school students of today the best possible tools they need to approach the biggest challenge ahead for our species.
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