From School Hall to Safari: Creating VR Experiences for Children with Special Educational Needs

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When the UK entered its first lockdown last spring, most schools abruptly closed. As students, teachers, and families adjusted, one school kept its doors open for some of its most vulnerable. Children at Henry Tyndale, a Community Special School catering to pupils of all academic ages with complex learning difficulties, required alternative options to remote learning. This includes students with physical disabilities, language difficulties or autism spectrum disorder – aspects that prevent them from experiencing life in the same way as children in mainstream education.

With the help of Lenovo volunteers and virtual reality headsets, technology was able to play a special role in providing a safe, immersive experience to these students.

“The technology gave them the opportunity to encounter something they would never have been able to experience before, in a completely safe environment,” says Mehal Shah, Henry Tyndale’s headteacher.

Reinventing community outreach

The pandemic disrupted countless community projects supporting people in need, including Lenovo’s own Global Month of Service, a key annual volunteering moment in the Lenovo philanthropic calendar. In 2020, many of our plans for the event were re-engineered for a virtual landscape, from online volunteering to digital learning and virtual mentorship projects.

The challenge of creating a volunteer project in alignment with local law, human resources guidance, and as much risk mitigation as possible was an incredible demand for our volunteer project leaders. However, it was a challenge that Kate FitzGerald, Lenovo Sales Operations Manager, was passionate about overcoming.

FitzGerald is no stranger to running local initiatives. Two years ago, she spearheaded a project at the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre, where a team of Lenovo volunteers spent the day beautifying the centre with painting, cleaning and landscaping projects.

In 2020, while many educational institutions, workplaces, restaurants and shops closed their doors entirely, schools for children with special educational needs (SEN) remained open in order to provide their students with essential support and care. So, for this Global Month of Service, FitzGerald had a clear proposition: to help students get out of the day-to-day limitations of COVID-19 by bringing Lenovo’s VR Classroom 2 immersive learning solution to children at Henry Tyndale School.

Young child reaching forward while wearing a VR headset. Image focuses on the hand, with the child's face blurred in the background

A technology-led initiative

In October, prior to the second UK lockdown, FitzGerald planned for six Lenovo employees to visit the school, including herself, armed with Lenovo Mirage VR S3 headsets. With an existing connection to the school, she knew that its supportive parent community would be on board for increasing their use of technology in education, having made investments in the past.

“For this Global Month of Service, I wanted to do something that required more hands-on involvement and maximised the capabilities of technology,” says FitzGerald. “Lenovo was very supportive, helping me to pool resources and acquire the most effective equipment for the school.”

FitzGerald and the volunteers were also joined by Chris McQuade, Operations Manager at PCS Systems, which has supported Lenovo over the past few years in delivering free VR experiences to over 1,500 students across the UK.

“As humans, we are generally not the best analytical learners, yet our education system is built on an analytical framework,” explains McQuade. “We are much better audio-visual learners, which is why we soak up so much information from our TVs, radios, social media, and so on. VR is a technology that delivers the perfect audio-visual environment wherever you are in a way that people can’t forget about it, because they experience it. So, it’s the perfect tool for education. But I couldn’t have predicted how even more magical it would be for SEN children.”

Virtual visits to a whole new world

The project was overseen in an interactive but simple set-up in the school hall and involved around 40 pupils with a range of needs. Each Lenovo employee sat one-on-one with a student, hooking them up with a Mirage VR headset and The Wild Immersion app, which allowed children to select experiences from safaris in Africa, Asia or Amazonia and embark on a virtual journey into the wild. Employees were primed for the experience, with each volunteer self-isolating for two weeks in advance of the event to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Wild Immersion is endorsed by renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, introduced as a project intended to raise awareness of the natural world with the power of VR. The videos were recorded in wildlife reserves around the globe, using 360-degree cameras to see the animals up close in their own environments. Armed with a headset, students could fly alongside flamingos, sit in a tree with giant pandas and sloths, wallow in the mud with buffalo, and even almost touch noses with a giraffe.

The experience elicited a range of reactions.

“Some kids went straight in; others were a bit more sensitive,” comments FitzGerald. “There were many shocked reactions to seeing the animals, but by the end of the session, most were pulling the headsets towards them to experience more. The smiles on their faces were incredible.”

Headteacher Shah was similarly impressed. “Many of our students have physical disabilities, but you could see their eyes and bodies reacting to the new, exciting things they were seeing,” she says. “A number of these children have to be sheltered from day-to-day life because they’re vulnerable. So, some were scared. A couple of them even threw the headsets across the room at first! But they were then inquisitive; they wanted to pick them up and take another look.”

From excitement to fear, emotions ran high for everyone involved.

“One student asked me if I could show him his favourite animal: a zebra,” McQuade recalls from a similar school visit. “He explained that his mum couldn’t afford to take him to the zoo but had been saving to visit. I took him on a virtual safari and showed him a herd of zebras on the African planes. He removed his headset, crying, and thanked me. The teachers were crying; I shed a tear. He told us he would tell his mum about it and let her know she could stop saving.”

The future potential of VR

VR offers the opportunity for any schools to create new ways to engage their pupils. And for these children, it provided an even richer sensory experience. With the headsets given to Henry Tyndale to keep after the day, the school is now looking into how the technology can enrich the curriculum and offer new capabilities for its students.

Using its own 360-degree camera, the school is hoping to focus on students with autism in particular, providing them with experiences of daily activities that they may find difficult to access. For instance, recording the process of visiting a post box, and allowing for students to experience the exercise in a safe environment with teachers overseeing and talking them through it. Many children with autism can find change, or even the suggestion of change, unsettling. With VR, teachers can show them the environment to support them through the transition and improve comprehension, because they will have already lived the experience.

“Not only that, but we’re looking at whether it’s possible to use the headsets to support the kids in re-entering normal public life once lockdown restrictions are eased,” comments Shah. “That will be tough enough for all of us, but even tougher for SEN children.

“We are putting development plans in place and gauging what’s possible to achieve. But this experience really has shown us the power of technology in bringing accessibility to all, and the potential it has to make a tangible difference to people’s lives.”

“This project truly demonstrates the impact technology can have on education, enriching the lives of these children with experiences they will remember forever,” adds Santiago Mendez Galvis, Head of Philanthropy at Lenovo EMEA. “We’re extremely proud of Kate’s work, the way she overcame challenges to hold a safe event, and the overall success of the day at Henry Tyndale. With the help of PCS, we’re excited to see what the future holds and how we can push the capabilities of VR to the maximum.”

The Lenovo Foundation provides Smarter Technology for All by empowering under-represented communities with access to technology and STEM education. Our approach to philanthropy harnesses our employee experience, global diversity, and product innovation to create a stronger impact in the communities where we live and work. Global Month of Service (GMOS) is an annual grassroots effort that champions volunteering to align with Lenovo Foundation’s mission. In 2020, we saw 132 unique projects conducted by 3,120 employee volunteers for GMOS, including Kate FitzGerald’s initiative with Henry Tyndale.

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