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The VictoryXR Show: Dr. Phil Brownridge, Principal of Burlington Township High School, Talks About How He Integrated Virtual Reality Into His School

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April 10, 2024 | Steve Grubbs


  • The results (longitudinal studies) of the use of virtual reality
  • How AI can be used in education without compromising ethics
  • How leadership matters when motivating a team of teachers
  • What were the best use cases for virtual reality in the school

Watch at https://youtu.be/6wpcmq-rwO8?si=MrDNoxRAXoTclKMh

Steve Grubbs: Welcome to the VictoryXR show. I am Steve Grubbs your host. And today, if you are interested in the results of students learning in virtual reality, then this is the show for you. We have Dr. Phil Brownridge, who is the principal of Burlington Township High School and he has been one of the true pioneers of integrate immersive learning into education. And even more what I really am interested in is he has measured this in different ways. And so I think you’re going to find the results of what they’re doing at Burlington Township. Very interesting. Phil, thank you for joining us today. We appreciate it. Tell me a little bit about how you first discovered that learning in VR was a possibility.

Phil Brownridge: So first off, thank you so much for having me. It’s really exciting to be here. So, when I was finishing up my doctorate at Rowan University, I was working on dissertation topics. I stumbled upon the applications of virtual reality because my young daughter at the time was using VR to learn Spanish in a cartoon village where she was speaking Spanish to characters. I started to analyze whether or not virtual reality had practical applications for older students in a myriad of topics. I got permission to buy 60 virtual reality goggles, the Google Expedition goggles, from my superintendent where I put them into our US History one classes in a high school so that all of my freshmen could learn virtual reality or Thornton social studies through virtual reality applications. So all of them were taking us in through VR

Steve Grubbs: Wow, that’s awesome. and so let’s talk dive into learning history through VR. Can you break that down for us a little bit further? Why does it matter? What can they learn that way? And do they learn anything?

Phil Brownridge: So when I did my research, it really didn’t come as a surprise to me that social studies is voted the most boring class that kids have to take in high school. They think it’s dates and dead people and it doesn’t really capture their attention and learning about Westward Expansion or Europe or museums on chapter 4 isn’t really appealing to a lot of students nor can you travel around the world to experience the Battleground sites or these museums? So virtual reality really just fit perfectly in with making an immersive experience for our students. instead of reading about the Louvre.

Phil Brownridge: They put on goggles and they went to the Louvre and they saw the artwork. They went to Edison’s lab. They visited Westward Expansion. They can visit different countries, and what students learned, more than just the history, which they retained at a substantially higher rate, was also empathy for what was going on in that time period for the people. And to be able to teach high school students empathy and understanding of other cultures was really exciting as well. So they retain the knowledge at a significantly higher rate, but they also learned other things that we previously weren’t able to teach them.

Steve Grubbs: Okay, and so talk to me a little bit about the reaction from the students.

Phil Brownridge: So students were super excited. This generation loves everything technology if you can get them to put down their phone, that’s amazing because they want to use technology. And this is how they learn they learn through technology. So instead of asking to put down their phones to learn if you can make it part of the learning environment, that’s great. So I can’t tell you I went in the first class and I was like, all right, we’re gonna use Virtual Reality goggles to learn history and they were so exciting.

I’ve never seen kids excited to learn about Westward Expansion. I really haven’t. It’s just not a fun topic. But they were so excited. So they were put the glasses on they’re like, my God, I can see the Cowboys. I can see cows. And they were asking questions about something that they were seeing that normally they would never have asked. So the level of enthusiasm was amazing. The teachers were excited. They were able to give guided tours through the VR. But the kids were just so enamored with everything and they wanted to continue. Not often do kids want to stay after the bell, but these kids were can we stay 10 more minutes? We’ll skip part of lunch to stay because we want to see what’s on the next visit and it was really exciting to see

Steve Grubbs: So I love that. I have so many questions, but I’ll just give you a little background on myself. My father was a middle school and then High School social studies teacher and I actually had him as a teacher. So I was unusual but he was a good teacher. So I was fortunate so history in VR has been a passion project for me at VictoryXR. And so, I can’t do science. We have Wendy the science teacher that manages that and other experts that do chemistry and whatever, but I can do history. So we’ve done two different things first, we built these environments so you can walk across the bridge and Selma Alabama and listen to John Lewis talk about the 1965 Civil Rights march you can visit other really amazing historical locations.

Phil Brownridge: Right

Steve Grubbs: And so as you said it brings history to life, but the other thing that we’ve done taking our 360 cameras all around the world. So we take them to the beaches of Normandy and to the Lincoln Memorial and all over so students can stand in the spot where famous people from history stood, on the fields of Gettysburg and look around and better understand what they’re being taught. And so I love the History part of this and I know you’re doing much more than that, but before we talk about other areas what types of things are you measuring that really matter.

Phil Brownridge: There’s a couple of things. Number one: We’ve measured retention rate. We wanted to see how much students retained throughout the semester, we’re a semester school. So as we were taking assessments, I was doing longitudinal studies on retention rates compared to previous classes. So I had the control group which was traditional textbooks and then the new VR groups and I was able to discern that students were retaining about 30% more content for longer periods of time than in a traditional manner, and that’s a lot of learning to take place and in a short amount of time, but actually the growth was even greater for our special education. The fact that they could use more senses to learn, the fact that they could go at their own pace, and they work they didn’t feel like they were holding up the rest of the class because it was self-guided. They were actually able to spend more time on things that were interesting to them and do it at their pace which was outstanding for IEPs. What was really outstanding students with school anxiety and school phobia grew at a tremendous rate because they felt like they weren’t in a classroom with 25 people. They were on their own world. So the retention rate for those students was much higher as well. So we were able to chart all of these growth and in every possible way. It was actually positive for all of my subgroups.

Steve Grubbs: That’s awesome. I mean, it’s great to have somebody that’s actually measuring results. Have you written about these results or published anything about them?

Phil Brownridge: So I defended my dissertation December 2019 at Rowan University. I went very well Rowan contacted me shortly afterwards and they liked the Innovative topic and they asked me So my dissertation was published shortly afterwards. It’s been for sale on Amazon since then. It’s done, rather. So it is out there. It’s been on Amazon. I get a monthly report to see how many times it has been either downloaded or purchased which is always exciting for me. And I’m always curious who’s reading it because it wasn’t written to be entertaining or to be a book it is available on Amazon.

Steve Grubbs: So for all of our listeners or viewers, we will include a link to that in the description of this program so you can take a look at it if you want. What about subjects other than history? What else are you pursuing in your high school?

Phil Brownridge: So that’s a great question. There were some subjects that we just haven’t made a lot of inroads in. They are more of an abstract class. So doing math is really not appropriate. Science has applications. But at the time there were really a lot of great science applications for their own manipulatives that we needed. English was great. When our classes were doing Edgar Allan Poe, they were able to go visit Poe’s home town. They were able to visit some of the locations. So English has worked out really well. Sometimes World Language works out really well because we offer French in German and Spanish, so to be able to go to countries and visit the landmarks and the monuments and things that they’re reading about in the book that’s worked out really well. 

And then there’s been a couple opportunities for just social skills where our special education population. Maybe you don’t want to take them to a street because you don’t want to teach them to cross the road because that’s very dangerous. But you can do it in virtual reality. Or if you have a fear of public speaking you can go visit an Of AIP people and you can practice your public speaking at a very safe environment. So it’s been some of those opportunities also our class will go visit the Louvre or go visit special art, and then I’ll ask students to apply. So there’s been a lot of great opportunities for our kids and varying subjects.

Steve Grubbs: That’s great. So let me go back to science because at VictoryXR we’ve put a lot of time into biology and chemistry and animal dissection and all of those things. What is it that you would likely use the most in the fields of science? I know you’re not a science teacher, but you work with them. So you probably have some sense of what might be most useful because this medium so well,

Phil Brownridge: Yeah, I would love for there to be better biology. Anatomy would be great, quite often we talk about different parts of the body, but they don’t see where they are in the body. People know you have a kidney and a liver. But they don’t know where it is. So to have that opportunity where people could sort of delve into the derma layers and experience that kind of thing would be outstanding. I have students who want to be veterinarians, but we don’t really have the ability to show them inside of different animals. So those types of sciences would be really good. And then chemistry. Quite often kids are very curious about what to do, but it’s not safe to mix up chemicals to see what’s going to happen. But if they had a safe area where they could mix up chemicals in a VR world and if there’s an explosion VR, that’s okay, but they can be creative and explore without any dangers.

Steve Grubbs: That’s what great minds think alike. I think most of what you described there we have built so we will introduce that to you so you can see if it works for your team, but let’s move on to, what type of Hardware are you using?

Phil Brownridge: So we had purchased Google Expedition goggles. It comes in sets of 30. So we’re using that with the ethernet. That’s what we have right now.

Steve Grubbs: And have you looked at some of the more modern six degree of freedom headsets?

Phil Brownridge: Well number one cost is always an issue for schools. And number two, we’re sort of waiting until it gets to the level for some of the aspects that we needed when we bought the Google Expedition. I called it the black and white TV, a virtual reality where you can see it’s gonna be great, but it wasn’t there yet. And there were some issues that we had that we haven’t seen have been truly fixed yet. And furthermore, I was really curious to see if virtual reality or augmented reality or accommodation of the two where the future of this so we’re sort of just watching to see what happens because it’s ever changing field right now.

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, and obviously the challenge with Google Expeditions is to my knowledge. They don’t sell it anymore. 

Phil Brownridge: They don’t support it either.

Steve Grubbs: And that’s where we’ve been able to fulfill, Phil. Fill that void. Let’s talk a little bit about AI. I mean, I don’t know that you didn’t write a dissertation on AI, but you probably have a sense for it. What are your hopes and concerns about utilizing AI and education?

Phil Brownridge: So anytime a new technology comes out people are automatically like my God kids can cheat. They don’t have to write papers anymore. You can simply type into ChatGPT: Write me a paper about whatever book they’re doing. And I think that’s always the fear with technology when the internet came out, it was my God, the kids can look up whatever they want. And that’s great because I remember having to go to library was open and he couldn’t always get a ride. So the internet was better. 

So I think as a society, we have to adapt to teach kids how to use the new technology not to be fearful of it and to make sure they understand the pros and the cons of it. It can’t replace what they’re doing, but it can definitely be a resource for what they’re doing, but it seems like sometimes the AI. It’s difficult to tell if it’s people and that’s where it starts to become difficult. We don’t want to lose the human connection. We don’t want AI making determinations for us without us thinking about logically so they’re just really has to be some line drawn as to what we expect from AI as a resource and tool for us and not as a replacement.

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, that’s exactly right and we hear a lot of concerns that students might use it inappropriately. Or we’ve created an AI teacher and an AI tutor and there’s an interesting Stanford study that talks about some of the problems that are solved by these conversational AI avatars and one of those is the fear of stupid questions. As we know, and even I’m an outgoing person, very confident, but there have been plenty of classes, especially in law school, where I hadn’t done my reading that day. I didn’t want to ask any questions because I was pretty sure it’d be a stupid question. And so there’s always that peer pressure. I suppose that you don’t want to be the stupid one. Now with AI conversational teachers, the teacher can teach which is really cool. And then as a student if you have a question, you can raise your hand and ask the question and the teacher, using generative AI, thinks about it, takes three to five seconds, and then they answer that question and I think that solves a big problem. What are your thoughts on that?

Phil Brownridge: So in a typical class, let’s say I have a college prep class. I’ll have 25 students in there. They’re not all the same level even though they’re in college prep. So some of them may want to go faster or go in a greater depth so they could ask AI instructors questions that they’re not going to cover in the class because of time restrictions. And then there are some students who assume that every other student in the room already knows the answer to that. So they’re not going to raise their hands. They’re shy, they’re intimidated. A lot of kids are intimidated to ask questions in front of their peers. They don’t want to raise their hand. They don’t want to draw attention to themselves. So having a safe way to get information. Is really important and I do that all the time. See if I got to be honest, I’m not handy. So to have AI so I can ask questions about things that probably other people know, I love having that opportunity to ask questions when I need the information, it’s a great personal to me.

Steve Grubbs: And that’s the great thing about learning today, people have all these criticisms of technology. But sometimes people can’t see the forest from the trees., I had to change a tire on a Kia. I have no idea. I don’t even know where the jack is and it’s got all the strange stuff. And so, I hit YouTube. Seconds later I had a video of how to do it. And so you can learn in the moment. Whereas previously learning in the moment wasn’t really an option. Like you said, either learning class or you have to travel to the library and hope somebody published a book on changing Kia tires, which of course the one. So yeah learning in the moment such a big deal. I want to talk a little bit about assessment because in the education world, assessment is such a challenging topic, a lot of crime like Ivy League schools got rid of the SAT.

Now some of them are bringing it back because assessment is controversial. One of the things that we have enjoyed doing, because I’ve got three curriculum specialists on our staff, is creating performative assessments. So that students instead of tell us about small engine repair, you can actually go in and do that. What are your thoughts on using virtual reality in the process of assessment?

Phil Brownridge: So I’m really glad you asked about assessments. We were one of the first high schools in New Jersey to get rid of most of our final exams. Asking kids, many of whom have anxiety issues and stress issues to cram for a test that accounts for 25% of their total grade after 90 days just didn’t seem like a great practice. So we went to something called digital portfolios. We wanted students to learn from their mistakes. Quite often on an assessment, you take a test you get back an 85 and you throw it away. You don’t really know idea why you got 15% off. You didn’t learn from your mistakes. You’re not even sure what you got, you got an 85 and you throw it away. So we went to digital portfolios because what that requires is for the entire semester students are revise meetings with their teachers to learn about their mistakes. So if you got an 80 on the paper the first time, you have to read the teacher’s comments. They’re not just there because the teacher had to do something.

So we went to digital portfolios. I don’t know, maybe nine years ago, to make students learn from their mistakes. So if you can incorporate more senses, it’s easier for kids to provide greater opportunities for things to include in your digital portfolio by using the virtual reality simulation. You can ask students to compare their experiences with maybe other first primary sources or secondary sources, it just creates a whole new world of opportunity for assessment.

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right and let me ask you about different types of learners and students who come from different types of home life. I grew up in the household of a school teacher. Like I said, so there’s a lot of emphasis on education in our household and grades really mattered, but at the same time I went to a school where my father taught that was a low-income school. And most of my classmates did not come from similarly situated homes. While you were teaching and learning about VR with students, what did you see as far as students that came from different types of backgrounds? Because I assume Burlington Township has some diversity.

Phil Brownridge: We are exceptionally diverse in every possible way. So what we saw before, and this especially goes to homework. So you had an educated father. He was a teacher. If you had homework, your father could help you with a lot of subjects. Today, if you have let’s say a single parent family, they’re working evening jobs or you’re taking a class. Your parents are unfamiliar with a lot of students who did not have to support you at home. Because apparently either aren’t home or don’t know the material and able to support. So with VR, with AI, these students level the playing field. You have an opportunity now to learn in other ways 

And I can tell you, last year my daughter took physics. I am not a physics person. I could not help her with physics. She took Spanish. I took French. So having virtual reality as an option and AI as an option. So when she has questions and I don’t know, she had other places to go for that information.

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, that’s very valuable. Let me ask a little bit of an off topic question. Have you read the book Good to Great. I can see it right there.

Phil Brownridge: It’s right behind me Yes.

Steve Grubbs: I would say for our listeners or viewers who aren’t familiar with Good to Great, a book written by Jim Collins. And I would say in the business world, it’s probably the single most influential management book operations book from the last years. And there are a lot of other great books, but Good to Great is the one that every business leader I know has read. But now I’m looking behind a school principal and you have it there as well. What, first of all, are there any particular lessons or principles from the book that you use in managing your school?

Phil Brownridge: I feel like if you can manage a school you would be exceptional in business because in business you have opportunities to entice people with raises and promotions, and I don’t. So getting creative with how to motivate teachers we’re going to make the same amount of money next year regardless of how well they do, and building relationships is key. So being a strong leader, I feel even more important in schools because we have less tools to motivate, but I work with an outstanding teaching crew. I’m very competitive. I’m never okay with good. I’ve been an athlete my entire life. So I want a great and I have this internal debate a long time. Steve how long can you be a leader in the same place? Because you run out of a bag of tricks. So you owe it to your corporation company school to either grow as a leader or to leave.

So I started reading books like Who Moved My Cheese and True North and Good to Great because I needed to learn from other people. So to in to motivate how to self-drive how to create opportunities for growth fear teachers because they will get stagnant also, so it’s about constantly creating opportunities for learning for myself and Teachers which then trickles down to the students. So those are some of the really important lessons I learned.

Steve Grubbs: That’s great. One more up off topic question. What was your best sport in high school? Soccer and…

Phil Brownridge: I was all state in soccer. Yeah.

Steve Grubbs: Okay as an adult, what’s your best sport?

Phil Brownridge: Probably still, I still like to play from time to time. I am taking up golf a little bit. But really my go-to now is after work I go to the gym I put headphones on and I decompress and try to stay in some shape, but I still enjoy playing soccer with my daughter.

Steve Grubbs: So in high school, I was a wrestler and a debater. As an adult in life now. I’m a basketball player and a simple debate carried through life.

Phil Brownridge: Okay.

Steve Grubbs: The interesting thing is 20 years ago. My elementary school went up for sale. And so my wife and I purchased it moved our company into the building and I had a gym. And so for 20 years, I’ve just been playing pickup twice a week, so it keeps me in shape. Occasionally injured, but mostly it’s been great. So thank you very much for joining us today. It’s been very enlightening. I’m going to make sure people find the link to the dissertation you wrote Because I think there’s a lot that we can learn from that and we will make sure that we look at it as well and that we learn from it. So any final thoughts are comments from our viewers and listeners.

Phil Brownridge: I love the fact that you guys are so involved with this. I love the opportunities you’re providing for students. It really levels the playing field with socioeconomic where some schools can take field trips to places and some can’t. So I think what you guys are doing is outstanding. When I saw this I was super excited. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you guys having me on today because you are opening up opportunities for kids that did not exist a couple of years ago. So the work you guys are doing is outstanding and I wish you well.Steve Grubbs: All I appreciate you being on the show and to our listeners and viewers. Thank you for joining us again. Today. We have amazing guests every week moving forward, please subscribe to our YouTube channel or to our podcast. We always appreciate that and we will see you next week.

Steve Grubbs is the CEO of VictoryXR, the global leader in immersive, spatial education. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s colleges of business and law and served in the Iowa Legislature as Chair of the House Education Committee in the early ‘90’s.