The 2017-18 academic year has just finished for me and it’s been a huge one for VR at JESS Dubai with countless projects taking place with students from pretty much every teaching stage. There was one very special project towards the end of the year though, the biggest and most ambitious project I’ve coordinated at JESS – Ramadan VR.
Living in a Muslim country like the UAE means that the Holy Month of Ramadan has special significance. It’s a time of celebration as much as a time for reflection in the Muslim community and as educators in an international school, our job is both to help both Muslim and non-Muslims students develop a better understanding of Ramadan. This year, with the help of some of our amazing Arabic and Islamic team, I decided to use some VR to enrich the learning. One thing lead to another and the project quickly snowballed into something quite unique. In the end I coordinated 7 projects using 7 different types of VR technology with 7 different age-groups of students – from Early Years to Sixth Form.
I’ll let you watch the final compilation and then break down some of the logistics, the tech choices and more for each piece of the project.
FS1 – Virtual Mosque Visits
App: Sites in VR
This was the original project, coordinated with the wonderful Selina Turner as a part of a series of sessions with FS1 and FS2 throughout Ramadan. She spoke to the classes first and then brought them out to a wonderful cardboard mosque she had constructed, teaching them about mosque etiquette along the way.
We use the Viewmaster headsets for this project as we usually do with our Primary students. It’s still my number one choice for VR with younger students since it’s so robust, easy to use and non-threatening in style. The lack of headstrap also means that students can take it away from their own face whenever they want to – an important detail when introducing VR to younger students. The app we went with is a free app called Sites in VR. This is a vast collection of 360 panoramas from mosques, castles and other sites of historical and cultural significance. It’s well worth a look.
Yr2 – Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Tour
App: Google Expeditions
Headset: Google Cardboard
This project was carried out with some of our younger Muslim students during an Islamic Studies lesson. Using the Expeditions app, their teachers were able to guide them on a tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi – the largest mosque in the UAE. It was great to listen as the ladies lead the tour, adding their own highlights and even some unique trivia along the way.
As for the headsets, rather than using the usual ViewMasters, I remembered that we had a small set of cardboard headsets that I had been given by Dr Sana Farid. Sana’s company VRX One are the only official Google Expeditions partner in the Middle East and as such the headsets had the app logo emblazoned on them! I’ll admit that it was a bit of an aesthetic choice but it just seemed so apt!
Yr5 – Building the Kaaba Stone
App: VR Cube
Headset: Vive Focus
This one was special as it was the first time I’d used my shiny new Vive Focus with students. I was eager to find a way to integrate the Focus into the project but as it’s still only available in China, the platform lacks apps (that are in English) right now. Fortunately just a week before Ramadan began, the VR Cube app was released and I found my opportunity. This simple cube building app is actually a great way to introduce students into true, wireless “world-scale” VR as can move around their creation freely, viewing and editing it from any angle. Hence we hosted these sessions in a PE Studio so the boys had plenty of space!
You can read more about my thoughts on the Vive Focus in education here.
Yr6 – Mosque Design
App: Blocks by Google
Headset: Acer WMR
I’ve really enjoyed testing the Acer WMR headset over the last few months and will be writing a lengthy piece about it in the coming weeks. For me, it’s a better choice in terms of room-scale VR integration in primary schools than the Rift or the Vive. It’s significantly lighter, requires much less setup and the Acer headset in particular (compared to the other WMR headsets) has a bright blue design which gives it a very non-threatening, child-friendly vibe.
Blocks was an obvious choice to include in the project, empowering the students to create with VR. The girls from Year 6 designed a virtual mosque using a reference images of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque as a starting point. It was great to watch them collaborate on this project and refine their design as they learned how to use the app with greater confidence. Overall I was really impressed with what they produced in just two sessions.
Yr8 – Virtual Mecca Trip
Headset: Bobo Z4 VR
One of the first projects we coordinated for Ramadan, this was another one carried out with some of our Muslim students during an Islamic Studies lesson. These were Year 8 students and we used some 360 videos on YouTube to transport them to Mecca. This virtual Haj allowed them to learn more about the importance of Mecca in Muslim culture as well as to learn more about some of the people that travel there during Ramadan. The videos were accessed via a curated list of QR codes I had put together. This is something I have done several times for various departments this year, scouring the 360 content on YouTube to select the most appropriate experiences for the students.
The headset used for this experience is the Bobo Z4 VR which we pair with the students’ own phones in the Secondary school. I’ve spoken at length in the past about why we opted for this headset over various others and you can read my breakdown of the features I was looking for here.
Yr9 – Virtual Book Creation
App: Vive Paper
Headset: HTC Vive
This one was REALLY special as Vive Paper is essentially still in R+D. Luckily for me the wonderful Paola Paulino was kind enough to give me some whilst over for the BETT event. This was the first time I’d used it with students and probably one of the first times it’s ever been used with students outside of China. The girls from Year 9 created the artwork for their Ramadan book using Canva and then exported the pages as png files. These were designed to match the dimensions of the Vive Paper (shout out to Relic from the Vive Paper team for the supporting docs to guide us.)
Using the Vive Paper app they were able to composite their book and then embellish it with audio and video clips (NB time restraints on the filming meant that the videos they added weren’t captured in my final film unfortunately.) Using the Vive headset they were then able to hold up the Vive Paper marker booklet and watch it become their book inside VR, with the camera on the headset tracking their hands as they turned “the pages” - amazing! Vive call this augmented-VR and the potential for this is huge in education. Students still get the kinaesthetic experience of holding a book – but that book could become EVERY book ever written!
Yr12 – Ramadan Art
App: Tilt Brush
Headset: HTC Vive
Having coordinated various Tilt Brush projects with our art department, it really was the icing on the cake of the Ramadan VR project to have our Head Girl in Year 12 produce a piece of art using this amazing tool. This piece of the project was inspired by Google’s own Qalam project which allowed Tilt Brush designs for Ramadan to be shared as digital greeting cards:
Aleena had two practice sessions using Tilt Brush and worked on her design on paper before beginning her final piece. She chose to produce an a floral henna-style design accompanied by the Arabic text for Ramadan Kareem (a traditional greeting which equates to happy/blessed Ramadan.) It was a beautiful piece of digital art and a fitting end to the project as a whole.