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Virtual reality project takes on biased discipline in public schools

The Eugene-based initiative aims to solve a serious problem facing K-12 schools. 

A  virtual reality project takes aim at key problem in Oregon public schools: the fact that students of color are disciplined more often than white students.  

Educational technology consulting firm Treadwell Ventures and the Center for Equity Promotion at the University of Oregon will launch a pilot this spring. A Mozilla Foundation Grant provided $16,500 in funding and another $10,000 came from US Ignite, Inc., a nonprofit that promotes smart communities. The project has signed up 20 teachers, who collectively teach 4,500 students.

The instructors will don goggles designed by Eugene-based Glimmer Technology and enter a simulation of a rowdy, middle-school classroom.

Computer-generated students will release a torrent of paper airplanes and insults. If the teacher tries classroom management techniques, the computer will ignore them.

“The goal is to have the stress level be pretty high,” says Treadwell Ventures CEO Wendy Morgan, a former K-12 educator heading up the project.

vr screenshotA screenshot of the virtual reality simulation. Courtesy Glimmer Technology

When teachers are stressed, hungry or overworked, they make subconscious judgements about minority students and give them harsher penalties than white students. This phenomenon is known as implicit bias.

Nationwide, Department of Education statistics show, black students are almost four times as likely as white students to be suspended, and twice as likely to be expelled. “When they do the same thing white children do they get a disproportionate punishment,” says Heather McClure, associate director of the center for equity promotion. “That erodes a student’s trust in teachers and in the school.”

“When they do the same thing white children do they get a disproportionate punishment,” McClure says. “That erodes a student’s trust in teachers and in the school.”

Students who get disciplined more, research shows, drop out at higher rates.  In Oregon, Latino, black and Native American students drop out at nearly twice the rate of whites. McClure says. “The demographics of student dropouts reflect completely the demographics of discipline.”

The VR project aims to recalibrate teachers' responses. Participating teachers can review missteps, then practice tools for countering snap judgements.

Those techniques include diaphragmatic breathing and watching their heart rate (a technique that’s proven useful for PTSD survivors) and rehearsing mental questions like “what does this student need from me right now?” 

Using data from the pilot, Morgan hopes to apply for two $1.4 million grants this summer, one from the National Education Association. That money will help expand the program to high school teachers. 

“By giving the teachers the tools to see students for who they really are they will set an example,” Morgan says. “When students of different ethnicities are not being disciplined other students perceptions will change.”

If the technology proves useful in schools, Morgan will offer it to police departments to help combat racial bias when officers confront suspects.

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