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NEW YORK — I strap on a virtual reality headset. A screen appears and dramatic music pounds into my ears. I’m told there has been a nasty avalanche and that it’s my job to restore power to the grid.

The exercise is part of a new program that encourages learning middle school math through real world problem-solving, now in use in 190 school districts across 36 states.

The concept caught my attention during a demonstration at HolonIQ’s ‘Back to School’ summit in New York City earlier this month. The lesson seemed a lot more relevant than copying a row of equations from a chalkboard, which I remember from my own more traditional (and boring) math education so many years ago.

I was also intrigued because of the urgency of making math and science more meaningful for middle schoolers – these are the students who lost the most ground in math during the pandemic. It’s a little too early to know if VR lessons like this one will improve lagging test scores, but Anurupa Ganguly, founder and CEO of Prisms, the company behind the platform, is convinced it will.

“This is a whole new way of experiencing math instruction,” Ganguly, a former math and physics teacher, told me, pointing to promising early studies from the non-partisan research group WestEd, along with feedback from teachers and students on Prisms, which is hosted on the Meta Quest platform.

Instead of memorizing equations, students develop structural reasoning skills from solving real-life problems (such as a damaged power grid or limited hospital-bed capacity in a pandemic) with guidance from teachers trained in the purpose of the lessons.

Related: Inside the middle school math crisis

I sat through other new simulations at the summit as well, including Dreamscape Learn, something I’d heard and read about from a colleague who took a trip through its virtual Alien Zoo) and YouTube Player for Education, which is creating virtual lessons, content and assessments.

It’s never surprising to see and hear enormous enthusiasm for technology solutions at conferences: There are always a host of new apps and products on display that come and go. Entrepreneurs and investors packed Holon’s conference, eager to hear more about the global research and analytics platform’s latest survey results and reports on latest trends and ed tech for teaching and learning.

Naturally, that included lots of sessions on artificial intelligence, which many believe will be a bright spot for ed tech investing.

Instead of memorizing equations, students develop structural reasoning skills from solving real-life problems (such as a damaged power grid or limited hospital-bed capacity in a pandemic) with guidance from teachers trained in the purpose of the lessons.

Still, it’s impossible to ignore growing skepticism about the power of digital tools. Sweden moved away from tablets and technology this month in a return to more traditional ways of education – a backlash to its digital-heavy push that many in the country are blaming for student decline in basic skills. 

Sweden is instead embracing printed textbooks, teacher expertise, handwriting practice and quiet time. In addition, the recent UNESCO report entitled “An Ed-Tech Tragedy” documented vast inequality from pandemic-related reliance on technology during remote online learning, and concluded that lower-tech alternatives such as the distribution of schoolwork packets or delivering lessons via radio and televisionmight have been more equitable.

“The bright spots of the ed-tech experiences during the pandemic, while important and deserving of attention, were vastly eclipsed by failure,” the UNESCO researchers said in the report, which encourages schools to prioritize in-person learning and make sure that emerging technologies, including AI chatbots that many public schools are now banning, clearly benefit students before they are used.

Related: ‘We are going to have to be a little more nimble: how school districts are responding to AI

For her part, Ganguly is quick to note that Prisms is not an ed tech program, nor designed for remote learning: Once the VR headsets come off, teachers take over and guide students through the lessons. “Ninety percent of our resources are not in VR but in teacher training,” she told me.

I also raised questions about the use of ed-tech and screens during a session I moderated on early childhood education, where entrepreneur Joe Wolf, co-founder of the nonprofit Imagine Worldwide, described bringing solar-powered technology programs to remote areas in Africa, where few children have electricity and less than five percent have internet access; there’s also a dearth of trained teachers.

“There is no other technology in their lives,” Wolf noted, pointing to studies of a trial showing that children in Malawi not only loved using the program, they made significant gains in math and literacy using the program, despite pandemic disruption. Imagine Worldwide works with governments, communities, funders and other partners as it attempts to expand throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

“The bright spots of the ed-tech experiences during the pandemic, while important and deserving of attention, were vastly eclipsed by failure.”

UNESCO report, ‘An Ed-Tech Tragedy’

Ultimately, all of the problems both entrepreneurs and educators are trying to solve require a lot more research, noted Isabelle Hau of the Stanford Accelerator for Learning, who was also on the panel, a view endorsed by Kumar Garg, vice president of partnerships at Schmidt Futures.

Garg spoke about “learning engineering,” and noted that pushback against education technology is a direct result of how quickly these tools rolled out in the pandemic.

“A billion kids got sent overnight home and we tried on the fly to create an online learning system with very little scaffolding,” Garg said, noting that it was impossible to know how many students were unenrolled and never even got online. “The crisis came, and everyone was like, ‘What’s the answer?’ ”

I suspect there never was one, as our team at The Hechinger Report found during this unprecedented interruption of education worldwide. But there is one result that is absolutely worth paying attention to: Plenty of entrepreneurs, foundations, nonprofit outlets, foundations and investors are looking for answers, and have new ideas that might (or might not) make a difference.

Regardless, we are eager to listen.

This story about teaching with VR was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters.

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