With Free Headsets, Nearpod Enticing Schools to Try Virtual Reality

Education is often mentioned as one of the many future uses of virtual reality technology, though most observers predict that gamers will dominate VR’s early years.

But edtech startup Nearpod saw VR’s potential for instruction, and decided, why wait?

The company, whose core business is a course-creation platform for teachers, developed an inexpensive way to get a basic 3D experience into classrooms by ordering its own branded version of a VR headset from vendors who also make Google Cardboard viewers.

Nearpod teamed up with 360 Cities to provide content: a set of 25 panoramic “tours” of famous places a kid would want to explore, including an active volcano, the Roman Coliseum, and the surface of Mars. Results of a beta test begun in October showed that children didn’t need a high-end Oculus Rift headset to be captivated by VR, Nearpod CEO Guido Kovalskys says.

“We realized the entry level could be much simpler,” Kovalskys says.

Nearpod is now preparing to launch students into virtual worlds at the Gordon J. Lau Elementary School in San Francisco—the first beneficiary of a grant program to supply the technology free to schools that can’t afford to pay for it. The school will receive a kit of 30 headsets, training for the first teachers who will use them in the classroom, and access to the lesson plans that go along with the VR tours. Next up for the free headsets is the Polk County Public Schools in North Carolina.

For other needy schools that want to test-drive VR, Nearpod’s application process is open until March 31. The grant program won support from donors including The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff; and Krillion Ventures. The initial funding round will place Nearpod VR headsets in 20 to 40 schools, but Kovalskys says he’s hoping more donors will contribute, so their local schools can also be served.

In addition to the VR assets, the schools chosen will receive Nearpod’s full line of services, which cost paying customers $1,500 per school site per year. That includes a toolkit for teachers who want to design their own interactive courses or learning modules; a content store where teachers can download ready-made lessons free or for a modest fee; and a control panel for administrators managing the school’s educational technology resources.

Nearpod is also using VR as an inducement to attract more paying schools and districts. Those who set up a new paid account during a current promotional period will get a kit of 25 or more headsets, depending on average class sizes. Kovalskys says Nearpod already has contracts with more than 2,000 schools, and 300,000 students have access to its programs. Of those students, 75 percent are involved with Nearpod because their teacher or school is using a free version of the company’s offerings.

“We value the free users as much as we do the paid users,” Kovalskys says.

Nearpod, founded in 2012, has its headquarters in Miami. But Kovalskys, and a staff contingent including educational content designers, are based in San Francisco. Nearpod has raised more than $6.7 million to date from investors including Reach Capital, Rothenberg Ventures, Storm Ventures, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Krillion Ventures, Stanford-StartX Fund, angel investor Deborah Quazzo, and Zynga.org.

The edtech company is using VR as just one of its means of engaging the interest of students who are used to receiving most of their information through smartphones, tablets, and other devices. Other companies such as Google are developing more sophisticated VR systems and demonstrating them in classrooms, but teachers can’t get their hands on them yet, Kovalskys says. The Nearpod VR headset is what Kovalskys calls a “minimal viable product” whose virtue is that it’s affordable, available, and easy for teachers to implement.

The Nearpod VR experience wouldn’t rival a digital game in virtual reality, but it’s dimensional. Each VR field trip to a famous spot is based on a 360-degree still photograph of the site. Users insert a smartphone or iPod Touch into the Nearpod VR headset and choose a place to explore. The technology gives viewers the illusion that they are moving inside the location.

Nearpod plans to create a second version of the headset this year, Kovalskys says. It would allow students to take pictures during their virtual travels, to hear sounds, and also participate in learning activities, such as a hunt for things inside the place they’re visiting.

The company plans to release content in the coming year that goes beyond exploring cities and landmarks. Nearpod is looking at science education modules, such as a VR-rendered version of the human body.

“You can go inside the skeleton,” Kovalskys says.

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