Virtual Reality Looks Cool, But Can It Actually Help Schools Teach Math? (Opinion)

Virtual reality sounds cool but is it practically useful in schools? Prisms of Reality thinks the answer is decidedly “yes.” Prisms, launched in 2019, works to integrate virtual reality into algebra for partners like the New York City Department of Education and the KIPP charter schools. I recently spoke with Anurupa Ganguly, the founder and CEO of Prisms, to learn about her take on virtual reality and its potential impact on math education.


Rick: OK, so tell me a bit a bit about Prisms.

Anurupa: Prisms is the first spatial learning platform for math education. Backed by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, we’re using virtual reality to scale a new way of learning core math and science concepts that build confidence in the math classroom. We do this by fully immersing students in relevant problems. For example, students take on the role of an air traffic controller and construct linear equations to model two flight paths destined for collision, or they step into the shoes of an urban planner to experience the impacts of urbanization and create a quadratic equation to design a greenspace of maximum size for a city. By solving these, they gain foundational STEM skills in grades 7 to 11 and exposure to the many applications of math modeling today. Our learning solution has four key components; learning modules, a data dashboard for teachers to monitor student progress, curriculum with offline activities, and continuous professional development. This school year we launched two courses on Prisms: Algebra 1 and geometry.

Rick: The technology can get pretty intimidating. Can you walk me through what students and teachers actually do when using Prisms?

Anurupa: When students put on their headsets, they step into the shoes of a practitioner—this could be a glaciologist, a real estate developer, a small business owner—and are tasked with a mission. For example, in our module on exponential functions, students work to create a mathematical model to determine when a city’s hospitals will run out of available rooms after responding to incoming patients exposed to a virus. They experience a virus spreading from person to person in a food hall and then go to the Prisms lab to create tables, graphs, and finally equations to solve the problem and contain the virus. Meanwhile, teachers can monitor students’ progress on a web-based analytics dashboard and provide real-time feedback to support students at critical junctures while they’re using the virtual reality headset. This allows the teacher to continue to coach and mentor each student as they work at their own learning pace.

Rick: How does virtual reality help when it comes to math education?

Anurupa: Think back to how you learned about exponential growth in your high school algebra class. This is likely to trigger memories of writing down equations over and over again without a meaningful understanding of a function’s structure. VR helps to disrupt this proceduralization by centering math education around a real-life problem. Students can then learn to create mathematical models in a 3D space which includes touch, sound, movement, and rich visualizations. The top indicators of success in STEM are your ability to reason spatially and your ability to create abstract models of real-world situations. VR is uniquely positioned to develop these competencies. As one of our students put it, “doing math” in this new way made her want to do even more math and helped her to gain the confidence needed to more actively participate in class, get involved in the engineering club and with Girls Who Code, and change her career path to pursue a future in STEM.

Rick: How did you get into this work?

Anurupa: I studied electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and observed first-hand the mindsets and skills needed to be successful in the mathematical sciences, particularly in historically underserved communities. Upon graduation, I became a high school physics and math teacher to better understand what was happening at the K-12 math and science level that was helping equalize the playing field in engineering and the mathematical sciences for students experiencing poverty. Since then, I’ve served in a number of STEM district leadership roles across the largest educational systems in the U.S. including the NYC Department of Education, Boston Public Schools, and Success Academy Charter Schools. Through my experience as a district and charter administrator, I found that there was a huge divergence between what learning science tells us about how we learn best and the tools teachers and kids have in their hands. So I founded Prisms to build a learning solution for math that represents everything we know about how people learn this discipline best.

Rick: What’s the cost of Prisms to schools?

Anurupa: The software license costs $12 per student a year, which includes access to all of our virtual reality learning modules, synchronous teacher dashboard, curriculum and activities, and implementation support from our Customer Success Team. Each class set of VR headsets and charging stations costs between $13,500 and $21,000 and can be shared across multiple classrooms and teachers, as VR is not a learning tool for every day of the school year. School district leaders or teachers can submit a contact form on our website to access our learning platform. For all at-home learners and parents, we will be launching our content libraries and sandbox in the Oculus store this month.

Rick: So how many students are you currently serving?

Anurupa: We’re currently serving over 20,000 students in more than 55 school districts across the country and will be growing to 100,000 students this fall. Our middle school math and Algebra 2 courses will be released at the end of the 2022 calendar year and science courses will be released July 2023.

Rick: Is there evidence that this approach works?

Anurupa: We conducted an early efficacy study during our National Science Foundation Phase I research. The study found that, on average, there was a double-digit learning gain in students upon completion of Prisms’ exponential functions module in Algebra 1, relative to standard-aligned benchmarks. These findings acted as a springboard for other studies led by WestEd, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research agency. The classroom feasibility study conducted in spring 2022 showed that not only is Prisms VR feasible in the formal math classroom—with more than 80 percent of students reporting that VR lessons helped them understand math concepts better and faster—but that the impact on student engagement and confidence, efficiencies in learning abstract ideas, and improvement in standards-based proficiency are significant. Our randomized controlled trial across 36 school districts began in August. The results for all three studies will be available winter 2022.

Rick: If you had to offer one piece of advice to educators who are interested in the possibilities of VR, what would it be?

Anurupa: Now is the time for VR in education. Hardware and software techniques have evolved immensely, which have created fertile soil for high quality content. The advancing technology coupled with the hardware being accessible at lower costs has opened up a window of opportunity for teachers looking for effective ways to re-engage students and address learning loss stemming from the pandemic. It’s an incredible opportunity to accelerate learning in core areas that have been the center of endless remediation cycles due to inadequate tools thus far.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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