Using Virtual Reality to Teach Algebra with Anurupa Ganguly


Mike welcomes Anurupa Ganguly, Founder and CEO of Prisms of Reality, a Virtual Reality solution for teaching K-12 algebra. As a student, teacher, and administrator, Anurupa was consistently frustrated by students’ lack of deep conceptual understanding of math and science. Find out how she’s leveraging the cutting-edge technology of VR to deepen and accelerate math learning in middle school.

Anurupa describes what’s involved in creating compelling VR experiences to provide emotional resonance and conceptual depth as she describes her vision for the future for Prisms. It takes a cross-disciplinary team of game designers, developers, UX, product, and content stakeholders to build experiences like their beta launch for Algebra which is now available.

It’s an imaginative conversation about how emerging VR capabilities can really make a difference in Math and STEM education that you won’t want to miss.

If you like what you’re hearing, subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts and check us out at TrendinginEducation.com

Show Notes

Mike welcomes Anurupa Ganguly, founder and CEO of Prisms of Reality, a VR solution of K-12 algebra.  Anurupa tells Mike of her STEM education at MIT, and how historically underserved students “dropped off” as she moved forward in her studies.  This led her to ask what might be wrong with K-12 education in math and science.

[00:02:57] Anurupa first taught for Teach for America in Boston.  She noted the disconnect between the level and type of educational experience teachers are asked to give, and the tools and procedures they are provided.  She then went to India to support Teach for India, where there were even fewer resources, but she found that you can build things from the ground up.  Returning to the U.S., she worked as an administrator in Boston and then as Dean of STEM at Success Academy, a charter network in New York City.

[00:06:07] Despite the resource of Success, she discovered that students were still not understanding mathematics in a way that would allow for success at the collegiate level.  She wanted to build their conceptual understanding.  One key to this is the ability to rotate 3D objects in your mind.  Another is the ability to abstract mathematics from everyday experience.  She started to explore pedagogies which would facilitate such understanding.  Immersive VR seemed a promising medium, allowing students to use various tools to manipulate the environment.  

[00:09:57] Anurupa enumerates three recent changes that encourage the use of VR:  The price for headsets has dropped, software techniques and graphics have improved, and learning design for the medium has come of age.  She notes that research and iteration are key to building satisfying experiences in VR.

[00:12:37] Anurupa explains that this is not simply “math in VR”, that she and her team have a “theory of change”.  She believes that not only can VR be an effective mode of learning, but that the deeper understanding it provides can accelerate learning.  Mike notes the importance of relevance to learners; Anurupa talks about how her product places students in a pandemic situation, and rather than providing too many clues on how to deal with it, shows them what each action precipitates.  They “feel” the reality of exponential growth.  Armed with this deeper knowledge, they then can navigate from their 3D experience down to a 1D experience afforded by an equation.

[00:17:04] Mike and Anurupa discuss some of the data that proves the effectiveness of such experiences. Anurupa talks about working with a variety of cohorts to get valid data. She talks about how students respond to Prisms with a genuine sense of its value. She also explains how instructors follow up on the lessons learned. 

[00:22:55] Anurupa talks about where Prisms will go from here: after algebra, they will ensure that they have a strong teacher dashboard.  From there, geometry, then middle school math and science, then high school physics and chemistry.  From there maybe into higher education.

[00:24:48] Mike and Anurupa discuss the myriad skilled practitioners required for creating these experiences: content developers and instructional developers first, to develop a story-based, problem-based module.  Game developers to help build the compulsion loops that drive student engagement.  And finally, VR designers to provide a polished experience.  She talks about the challenges of bringing this all together.

[00:28:08] Mike and Anurupa discuss the broader market of VR in education.  They note skills training for the workforce, with the focus on the procedural.  They also single out social intelligence training in the corporate setting.  They then discuss whether the cost of headsets is a real barrier in K-12, or if districts will focus on the ROI rather than simply price.
[00:32:06] Anurupa wraps up by talking about the sheer quantity of information that VR creates, and how that might be profitably used by AI.  How VR allows for a much broader view of a student’s capabilities and how they approach problems.


Mike Palmer:  Welcome to Trending and Education. Mike Palmer here. Very happy to be joined today by Anurupa Ganguly, the CEO and founder of Prisms of Reality, which is a really interesting VR solution for K-12 algebra. They have a new beta module that has just been released. It’s very cutting edge stuff, very interesting launch that Anurupa is behind.  But before we get into that, I’d love to just welcome  Anurupa to Trending in Education. Welcome to the show. 

Anurupa Ganguly: Hey Mike, so good to be here. Thank you for having me.

Mike Palmer:   You’re doing some really interesting work. I’ve gotten a chance to poke around and immerse myself a bit in a virtual reality experience that’s designed to teach me algebra.  That’s quite a sentence, and you and team have done a lot of work to get us to that point. 

We’re going to dive into all that in a bit, but before we get there, I always begin my shows by asking our guests to tell us their origin story. What got you to this point in your professional life.  It sounds like you have a really interesting background, so I’d love to have you share that with our listeners. 

Anurupa Ganguly: Thanks for that, Mike. So yeah, my origin. I always wonder where I ought to begin, but I’m going to start with  my love affair with STEM education and STEM education reform. 

I studied electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. I completed my undergraduate and my graduate work there. And what I found was that, from my freshman year to my senior year, I saw this really interesting, but very zeitgeisty phenomenon of these drop-offs of historically underserved students.  When I went in as a freshman, about 12% of my class in electrical engineering and  computer science were women. About 25% of us graduated with our degrees. 

By the time I got to my  first year of grad school, it was really difficult to find students of color and other minority groups. So I really started my inquiry into  what causes these drops. These are students who are ostensibly highly dedicated, highly committed, wanting to be there, wanting to learn and contribute. And yet when their understandings were pressure-tested in this environment, they were falling apart.

And so it started by questioning  what’s happening in K-12 math and science that’s telling us, test scores are high. The assessment mechanism is telling us we got it, we’re good. And they’re getting to college and it’s falling apart.

They were coming in with math and science, foundational knowledge that when they were required to apply it and build something and create new knowledge, they were unable to given what they were equipped with.

Mike Palmer: Right. So in some ways they were missing the relevance and the conceptual understanding, even though they were able to check all the boxes, get all the test scores they needed to get admitted.  And then from there you moved on to become an educator. Is that right?  

Anurupa Ganguly: Yeah.  Once I finished grad school, I joined the Teach for America program to become a high school math and physics teacher in the Boston public schools.  And that was a life- altering experience for me in that there were a couple of things that I got to see up close and personal. 

One was that the professionalism of teachers was so low. I very rarely had clear deliverables. I rarely had feedback on those deliverables. I had really low quality tools.  And as a manager now of a company, I realize just how crazy that sounds. 

And second, their curriculum  was not matched to the pedagogy that I was being told to implement. The expectation was that you have a discussion- oriented class, student-centered learning. You have these really rich learning experiences for your students, but then the materials I had were textbooks and videos. So there was a huge mismatch between what I was expected to produce, and the tools that I had in my hand.

And that was the first time where I really began to see just how impossible the role of a teacher is.  We’ve put wiffle bats in their hands. And then we’re very upset when there’s this huge gap between our input and our educational outcomes. I was really compelled by what the Teach for America model afforded. It just allowed this very broad scan of leadership  and thoughts and ideas into the field of education.

Mike Palmer:  Teach for America was a great place to start, but then from there you helped with the expansion into  Teach for India.  

Anurupa Ganguly:  I went to India to support the Teach for India program  in its early years. I sold my car, my house, and I left Boston. I moved out to Bombay and felt like I was going to change the world, traveled around the country, really got a chance to see what schooling models look like in the developing context. 

It was very humbling, Mike, because India is, given the developing context, there’s far less resources. But what’s interesting on the flip side, is that because the public education system is in its nascent stages of development, you can actually create things from the ground up. Whereas in the U. S. I was more accustomed to doing a little bit more patchwork and bandage work. 

I came back to the States, really excited, really humble. I felt just the amount of resources and the research  that exists today, we can really solve this problem.When I came back to the States, I’ve served in a few different capacities that have very much shaped my prisms today. Boston’s a medium sized district. We had 125 schools, and I was charged with managing teaching and learning across the 125 schools for all things secondary math.  

Mike Palmer: Then from there similar roles in New York and then ultimately landing at Success Academy, and then leveraging some of that experience and insights across this full run to ultimately found Prisms of Reality. Can you get us to that phase of your career? 

Anurupa Ganguly: I  did similar work in New York City. And most recently, served as the Dean of STEM for Success Academy. If you’re not familiar with Success Academy, it is a charter network here in New York city with about 47 schools across four boroughs. At Success, I was hired to build a grades 9 to 12 problem and project-based constructivist curriculum for math, physics, computer science, and engineering. 

And what was interesting at Success Academy was that  this is an educational utopia in many ways. We had this really rich curriculum that we were building. There’s a really great culture of teacher intellectual preparation. Great application, use of data to really inform instructional practice. Round the clock support and tutoring for kids, a variety of support mechanisms. Teacher management is really strong: the intellectual preparation process, the lesson study, the data study that informs instructional practice. Kids have one-on-one tutoring around the clock.  There’s never really a student who’s sitting there unproductively struggling for too long.

And I found that despite all of these affordances and despite all of these resources, kids were still not understanding mathematics in a way that was going to allow them to succeed in college. And it really hearkened me back to my own experience in college of, we can get these students pass the AP, we’re getting them past the SATs, the numbers tell us we’re doing everything right.

I was up for something much bigger. Yes, I want you to do well on these exams that are tied to opportunity. That’s important. But what I care about is the next generation of thinkers, entrepreneurs, and innovators. And if we want to really change that and move the diversity and change the composition of who goes on to be leaders in math and science, we need to be developing a whole different set of competencies. 

If you really sit down and talk to students, their conceptual understandings are so weak. Like I knew what was going to happen the moment they walked through the doors and college.  As I looked more deeply into why this was happening, or, what are the root causes of this fragile understanding that I keep talking about, I found that there are two key indicators of success in post-secondary STEM. The Russians figured this out in the 1970s. We’ve actually known this in the U S for  quite some time. It was the basis of our new math program in the 1980s, which never quite got off. 

The top two indicators going back to what I was saying was: spatial reasoning. So the ability to rotate 3D objects in your mind. And second, the ability to abstract from everyday experiences. The trope of Newton, where he’s sitting under the tree, an apple falls, and he has the mathematical sense-making capabilities to mathematize it, use it and do something with it. So he went from physicality to a mathematical model from which you could make decisions, built of a whole kind of century of work and inquiry that’s come out of that.

I realized that those two skills are woefully underrepresented in our curriculum. How often do students really have the opportunity to map their environment and think spatially? How often do they  have that perceptual scaffolding from an experience? Not from a problem, not from a computer, not from a textbook.

So I started to look at, okay what sort of modalities, what sort of mediums of learning will allow that pedagogy? So we’ve always known this works. Every great educator or learning scientist has always said, we learn experientially, we learn through movement. But what really affords that? 

And so I started looking into immersive virtual reality. And  for anyone who’s not as versed with what that means is, you are fully immersed  in a world that is virtual,  and you have different interactive tools where you can really manipulate your environment and use movement and tactile tools to think through problems.

And this was initially really compelling to me like, “Oh my gosh, we’re sitting on gold.” Here’s this pedagogy I’ve been trying to actualize my whole life. And here are the tools to do it. And then I looked into the market and I was like, “Whoa, there’s nothing out there.”  I’m a district leader, I’m an administrator. I want to teach in this way, but I don’t have any tools. 

Mike Palmer:  Historically, I think a lot of folks have felt that technology wasn’t quite here yet. But even just in terms of this past Christmas season, I saw more virtual reality that consumer electronics show, like it’s becoming much more front and center. And then also in light of the pandemic, it’s become much more something that’s capturing the collective imagination.  It does seem like there have been some breakthroughs recently that are allowing this technology to be more fully realized in the classroom.

Anurupa Ganguly:  I think that  there are three big things that have happened recently. One is the one that we all know about, which is price points are coming down, that they’re becoming increasingly more affordable, especially with hardware, like the Oculus quest too, which is now $299 for our headset. 

You also have just the advances in software techniques and the high fidelity and the graphics, and a much more natural and authentic environment for a student to truly suspend disbelief. Versus some of the environments that just always felt a little bit too cartoony to feel real or take seriously from a student’s perspective.

And then–you got to this in what you were saying–which was that learning design. The researcher is quite nascent in how to modulate the different affordances of virtual reality. You have so much to play with now, right? Immersive soundscape. You have all the movement, you have the tactile design, you have the visual design and all of these things in concert work together to deliver this pedagogy that I’m talking about, where you experience something. You have an emotional response. You then have a strategic sequence of tasks that help you connect  that physical experience to mathematical models.

And it’s not as simple as throwing you in the experience and then having you create a model, it’s much more nuanced than that. And it requires a lot of iteration and research and co-design with schools and districts and teacher input. And I feel like that work really hasn’t been able to take off until recently where you have content developers really focusing in on and saying, if we want to operationalize this medium in schools, we have to have a highly interdisciplinary team with really strong co-designed partnerships with school districts where every step of the way we’re really iterating and using feedback from kids to make this medium work.

Mike Palmer:  That was really what struck me about your origin story. And what you’re launching is that you were in some ways connecting the dots between the technology that’s emerging and the learning science and pedagogy that is also emerging. And that frequently, technology solutions that fail are almost disconnected from the embeddedness with the instructors and actually solving real problems. And then also designing with the emotional resonance that you’re talking about. The example that I think illustrates this quite nicely, and I know you’re releasing some of these betas. So if folks want to find any of this stuff, where should they go?

Anurupa Ganguly: You’ll be able to get all information about our beta on our website, prismsvr.com. But we are going to be launching our beta on the SideQuest and Steam platforms. And so we want to just make sure that there are many avenues to reach early users, to really give us feedback and build this burgeoning community of this is how you use VR to teach math.

I think there’s been a lot of work in science. There’s been a lot of work in the life sciences; because of the highly abstract visual nature of it, it’s immediately amenable, “Oh, this is how you can visualize elements of a cell.” But for math, people have been asking for a long time,  “Do you just go and do math problems and write in VR.”

And I think that we have a very specific theory of change. And we’re really after a root cause.  My conjecture is that we can achieve a great deal of compression.  Right now an algebra class is 10 months. A geometry class is 10 months. And 40% of that is reteaching. It’s like what you taught three weeks ago, the kids forget.” Okay. Another day of practice, guys.”  You get to the state exams, for six weeks of practice.

And the reality is they’re continuously practicing because they never really understood at the first place. And so one of the things that I’m super-excited about through the launch of this beta and through more research through external evaluation partners is not only what are the learning gains, but how does it impact how fast you can acquire this knowledge? You could spend your time on more interesting things like the applications and getting out there and doing more internships.  It really will open up a new world of thinking around that. Student time and the teacher role in the classroom as well.

Mike Palmer:  Yeah. It is interesting. And the example that I saw was connecting algebra concepts to how pandemic spread. I’m a big fan of Emotional Design. It’s a great book by Donald Norman, one of the founders of usability and user research. He talks about how you’re not just designing the functionality, you’re designing something that is connecting with the emotional experience of the user.

It also made me think of  the importance of relevance where learners don’t lean into algebra because there’s always the kid at the back of the class saying, “Do we really need to learn this? Why teacher, am I learning algebra?” And what I thought was really interesting about taking the pandemic example and then connecting that to this immersive experience, that seemed interesting. And it was capturing my attention without even understanding that it was teaching me algebra. And I think in some ways it can sneak up on a learner. 

Anurupa Ganguly:  As I mentioned, the pedagogical arc that we have is, experience the context first. Usually in math class, you learn some math and then the teacher will say, we’re not going to apply it.  We’re flipping that. We’re now saying go through something.

And so our students, when they first put the headset on they’re in a food hall. And there’s a mayor’s announcement and it’s, “Oh gosh, there’s a state of emergency. Our community is on lockdown.”  And I now get to experience what sort of everyday activities lead to that. So I’m not talking about any numbers. I’m not telling you, wear masks. I’m not telling you to use sanitizer. I’m just saying you’re in a food hall. When that person touched this person, when they walked over, when they did this, when you did this, these are the consequences of your actions. 

So what happens there, Mike is that you’re developing a really informal understanding of the mathematical pattern.

I want the students to feel exponential functions before they’ve learned that word. If there’s any jargon thrown at them, then once they have that kind of informal understanding of that growth, where they saw one person spread it to 10 people through these series of behaviors and actions,they didn’t go into this, high tech, virtual lab environment, which is also by design. 

I think that a lot of our students  have always told me, “Ms. Ganguly, everyone tells us and education is so important. And yet our schools look like prisons, right?”  So a big part of it is giving them a sense of professionalism being in a really advanced tech lab. And so they’re in there Mike, and what they do is they say, okay, I’m going to now take it. My experiences, look at some simulations, really begin to map what I saw: two growth patterns under different containment protocols, no precautions, social distancing while wearing masks. And then taking that and  slowly, moving to tables and then graphs.

So you go from that 3D to 2D. And then finally, when you have that intuition, you then go to 1D.  What our kids usually do is we jump them to the 1D, to the equation. And that equation is just divorced. Like, where’d it come from? Why did you choose it? There’s so many questions and what kids usually do is they just shut up because you’re in a 45 minute instructional episode–who has time for all of my questions? And so you get into this kneejerk of memorization. There is a focus within your team of experience over memorization and immersion over  just plugging and chugging against formulas.

Mike Palmer:  You have a few Medium pieces that I think are quite good that we’ll share out for our listeners to get a sense of what you’re talking about.  But it kind of walks through almost a visual expression of algebra, which is difficult to wrap your head around. But then when you contextualize it, it does bring me back to the idea that math was created based on reality. And that if you can maintain those connections, even if it winds up being virtual reality, it’s still, in some ways it gets back to the roots of the conceptual understanding of math. And that’s something that you’re passionate about, and there’s data that backs this up. 

Anurupa Ganguly: Yeah, absolutely. This  goes back to some of the research I was talking about around experiential learning.  there’s a lot of research that shows perceptual learning, i.e., really connecting across representations. I’m just talking about 2D. Even the mere act of really mapping across the diagrams and images to tables and graphs is really powerful in building that abstract reasoning. 

And with VR, we’re taking it one step further. We’re saying that it’s not just enough to macro cross-representations in 2D, but it’s important for a child  to be able to–from their 3D human existence–generate the mathematical knowledge.  It’s not these abstractions that are divorced from their body and what they feel and what they see. But yes, there’s a lot of research on the impact of perceptual and experiential learning. But I will say that the research has largely remained unactualized or unrealized because people didn’t know what tools they could use to implement that kind of pedagogy, especially at scale.

Mike Palmer:  I think in one of your posts you were talking about other companies like Prisms of Reality. Labster was one that you talked about, which is using virtual reality to help more with technical training and things that require access to machinery or going to a lab setting, which not everyone has the same access to. I think increasingly really throughout our lives, virtual reality will likely become more and more integrated into the different learning contexts that we’ll live through. Can you talk a bit about how you partner with teachers and school districts to get this off the ground and what the reaction has been like?

Anurupa Ganguly: I went into schools with a little bit of trepidation to be quite honest, because I do understand the real fear of a teacher being told, ” I’ve just learned how to do this, and I’m trying to do this well. And now you come in with this very aspirational that, and you tell me to do that, and you don’t have a lot of data behind you.” 

So I went in pretty scared. But I made it a point to make sure we were testing across urban districts here in New York, Kip in Massachusetts, schools in Oklahoma, just to make sure we had every student demographic and socioeconomic background represented. I think equity in our resources–it’s very easy to take something like VR

and have it  become localized to only a proportion of the population.  And so I’ve been very sensitive to that from the start of Prisms.  

But to your question, we’ve just been alarmed at just the joy where we have kids  saying, “I want to learn like this everyday.” This is not my first rodeo. I’ve been working with students and been testing EdTech products for a while. And and what’s been different this time is the student response wasn’t, “Miss Ganguly, this is exciting. This is fun. This is so cool.” Which is what I had seen with some of the other VR products that I was, testing and working with.

They were saying, “This helped me understand.”  That came up over and over again. 

There was this one great student testing cycle we had with the student. You took 24 minutes to do the pretest. He then went through our modules. And did the post-test and  four and a half minutes. And he looks up, looks us dead pan in the zoom camera. And he’s, “That was it? That’s all it took to understand exponential functions?” So that’s the kind of response we’ve been getting from kids of, this is effective. I see it. 

And the other thing is I had underestimated to what extent tactile manipulatives and tools are actually

relevant for adults too for secondary kids as well. Like you’ll find that in the K5 classroom, you have a lot of different manipulatives, a lot of different sense-making pathways alive and well. And as a student goes through her education,  the pathways of expression in the STEM classroom become narrower and narrower. 

Through our testing, we’ve realized that we validated that yes, even 16, 17,18-year olds, need that visualization. They need that movement. They need to build through the mathematical structure beyond, the paper, pencil modalities that we have. I think that  the big thing that’s come out  from the teacher perspective, is that Anurupa, this is great, super cool. 

But again, this is like one more thing that we have to do, and having managed teachers in a number of different districts, teachers have anywhere between 15 and 20 minutes a day to get prepped for their lesson. You often will have maybe a maximum 45 minute collaborative block per week. So we’ve been doing a lot of just paring down and getting to the bare bones of what does that implementation apparatus needs to look like to translate  the teacher glee that we’re seeing to a realistic implementation model. And part of that Is really about localizing what VR can do and what VR can achieve versus what do those offline conceptual practices and the offline work look like. 

Because a kid can have a great experience in a VR module,but if the following days don’t effectively take that knowledge and connect it to conventions, notations, and some of the test preparation skills that they’ll need on a pragmatic level, that puts the teacher in a really difficult bind. Because the teacher’s okay, this was fun for them and they liked it and they understood it better, but you’ve now left this difficult job for me to make sure that they’re ready for the test. And so what we do is we say that we are building the entire arc from the time you get in there to experience and understand the concept to getting that 85% or higher on benchmark proficiencies. 

Mike Palmer:  You’re launching with this algebra module. You’re relatively new too, is the other thing for folks to realize. You’re just hitting the ground running. So if you haven’t heard of it, Prisms of Reality, you will be hearing more of them. This is the beginning of a big thing. But where do you see it going? Are you going deeper into algebra or are you expanding into  other content domains? How are you thinking about your roadmap?

Anurupa Ganguly: We’re supported by the National Science Foundation; we will be continuing if all goes well to complete our full algebra library. And so this is one module and a library consists of learning modules that span all the topics at that course. This is on exponential functions, but we’ll be holding it out with statistics, linear functions, quadratic, so on and so forth. 

And after we finish algebra, we want to make sure that the synchronous teacher dashboard, the teacher toolkit, all those materials are really working in concert because that’s the full product, school-facing. It’s not just the learning modules. It’s our backend analytics and the hand architecture and the teacher dashboard, all the things that kind of go alongside to close and deliver the outcomes versus again, just that initial excitement. 

And then we’ll be moving to high school geometry, coming down to middle school to build out the middle school physical science.  Students have a lot of difficulty in physics and chemistry in high school.  No matter how much you try to remediate at the high school level, it’s coming from pretty weak foundations at the middle school level and a lack of a strong curriculum. So we want to pop down and make sure it’s  middle school, math and science students have a really strong introduction .

And then we’re going to pop back up and do physics, chemistry for high school. And the hope is at that time to begin to push into higher ed. This happens a lot where kids have these richer experiences in K-12 and then they go into college and their first two years, they’re just staring at and watching lectures, albeit there are  labs and there are other things that fortify the knowledge acquisition piece that happened in lectures. But we really want to become a K16 solution so that students are getting a chance to interact with these tactile environments throughout their educational career. 

Mike Palmer:  You’ve definitely thought about how this will expand, which is wonderful. What’s involved in actually creating these? How much of it is the technology, how much of it is design thinking, how much of it is, really good curricular chops? You mentioned an interdisciplinary team before which sounded spot on in terms of how new models of learning products will be hitting the market. Can you describe what will be involved in expanding this and going into different modules? What did it take to get the exponential algebra module built? Can you  describe a little bit about what’s involved with that? 

Anurupa Ganguly: We’ve been a pretty lean team so far. But in terms of  the functions and the form as you mentioned, we have our content developers and our instructional developers. These are folks who know  the high school algebra standards in and out, really understand the limitations of what’s on the market today. And know how to modulate these different affordances of VR To create a story-based, problem-based module. We’ve developed a pretty robust process for how we create story-driven modules in VR. And so we’ve been really making that process more efficient. 

The second key constituency are game developers. We’re building in unity and I think their expertise has been invaluable to us. When I think about gamification, I think about all of the ways that students have compulsion loops to really work towards a problem, for there to be a greater goal for why they’re doing what they’re doing. Some of them might be incentives built within the environment. 

So for us, it’s solving the pandemic problem. All the kids wanted to figure out how many weeks until our hospitals reached capacity and our city shuts down.  Believe it or not, they cared. And they weren’t doing it because I was sitting there or their teacher was there. As an educator, you begin to figure out when kids are BSing, and there was an authentic engagement there. Our game developers have been instrumental in really pushing our instructional team to bring in some of those tactics from game design. 

And then, of course, our VR designers. I think UI design, UX design is highly complex for VR and it’s been one of the impediments. Often VR can be so clunky to use and it takes so much time. Those are the key aspects of our internal team. But what’s been super important, as I mentioned before, has been our school partnerships. We test with kids every week,  they’re like, “We’re your product developers. We’re your product managers.” And they are, the kids are really shaped so much of our design. 

As we go into our NSF phase two, which is a kind of a larger grant in a larger pool of resources, we’re very much going to build out our design and development team and bring more educators on staff. As I mentioned, there’s a lot. There’s the voice actors.  And that the production quality is very different from building a computer app.  

It’s funny. I had spoken to someone quite high up in the AR/ VR community at Google. And I remember he had met me and he’s like, “Most people have not really been able to figure out VR and education because the chief executive has to be a chief integrator in a very different way than other companies. This is somebody who has to be able to bring in pedagogues, educators, understand all the impediments of a highly bureaucratic system, has to be able to interact with your 3D designers, your modelers, your game designers, or developers, your backend, or data scientists.”  

And he looked at me, he was lovely. He was like,”If you can do this, my gosh.” I think it’s been a really worthwhile challenge, but  it’s quite complicated. 

Mike Palmer: Yeah. one of the things that I wind up having lots of conversations about on this show is that our ears are generally coming down across the board. So it’s becoming easier to leverage new and emerging technologies.

I’d love to get a little bit of your perspective  maybe using Prisms of Reality as an example, but more broadly, what do you think about the larger trend around virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality? They’re all used somewhat interchangeably, even though I know they’re different. 

But do you have some perspective on its application, particularly in learning contexts and then also the level to which it can be adopted? Because it does seem like we’re at a bit of an inflection point that may have been accelerated due to the pandemic.  I’d really love to get your perspective as someone who’s deep into the industry.

Anurupa Ganguly:  You have the industry favorites right now. Johnson, who have started to develop surgical training platforms with remarkable accuracy and speed performance results. We’ve seen the studies coming out of Walmart who are using VR to train its associates and companies like striver in how they train athletes. So there’s a lot of foundational work to build on for K-12 education in higher education. 

I think what’s interesting is that a lot of the training so far in those settings have been more procedural.  You’re trying to get a certain type of muscle memory in.  Ao a lot of the VR design has been localized to those types of skills.

I think companies like Mursion, and a lot of corporate training in general, is now really expanding into soft and hard skills.  What we were talking about before,  building that emotional resonance and  some of the skills around empathy and deeper understanding of self and those around you.

And I think that just the amount of innovation that’s been done in corporate training, which has received a lot more funding and is  much farther along than K-12 is I think K-12 is so well primed to pull the learnings from corporate training. I think that the one thing that always remains the elephant in the room is hardware adoption. Companies have much more money for hardware options for their employees. For example, Oculus for business also has a particular stipulation that you cannot lease hardware to another company. So for example, if Prisms were to buy Oculus headsets, we can’t lease that to a district, so the district will have to purchase it directly.

I think  our job as content level developers right now is to give school districts a reason to buy the hardware. They don’t have a reason. There are a lot of companies creating XR content now for math and science. That’s my domain, so that’s what I know a little bit more about. And the more and more the amount of content repositories just expand, the hardware will become more valuable from a school’s perspective. 

I interviewed close to 150 superintendents and district leaders through one of the customer discoveries that I did recently. And not a single district leader told me the hardware adoption or the money is the issue. They’re like, “Yeah, it’s going to hurt a bit. I’m not looking forward to finding which budget lines and which title one, two, three, or four I want to pull.”  

But they’ve consistently certainly said it’s a value proposition issue. Is it delivering the value that I need? I have an algebra one problem: 67% of my kids are not proficient. Can you solve that problem? Because you know what, if you can, I’m not going to split hairs with you about VR or AR or computer software. I have a problem, and I know this sounds very elementary and juvenile, but it really is that simple. How do you really make sure that you are delivering those outcomes? 

Because that’s when we’re going to stop having conversations about the hardware, and  we’re going to  start  having more interesting conversations, which is implementation and what is it going to take? But I think that it’s been a cop-out conversation so far. People talk about hardware costs when they don’t want to say the real thing, which is it’s not valuable. 

Mike Palmer: And I think you have to experience it and see the results, which is why I’m excited to track what’s happening with Prisms. As the algebra thing rolls out, you’re doing a lot of research. The NSF is going to hold you accountable to your results, and then you’re going to continue to rise. So it’s definitely an organization to track and Anurupa Ganguly is someone to keep an eye on for our listeners.

As we’re wrapping Anurupa, we always love to ask our guests, what else is happening in the world around us? It sounds like you’ve gone deep into the VR wormhole, which is a fascinating place to develop some expertise. But you also strike me as someone who’s playing with her head up. So what else are you noticing in the world around us? What do you see on the horizon for us in the years ahead?

Anurupa Ganguly: The sheer diversity and volume of data that multimodal VR is going to offer ushers  in a really exciting time in personalized learning. So I think gone will be the days where the feedback you’ve received  will be based on right or wrong answers, or where you clicked and what video you watched.

We’re going to begin to build much richer profiles of student thinking and the student journey.  I think that AI and education has been a bit of a buzzword for some time now. And the benefits are yet to be reaped. My teachers would often say I want data around how they think not on, not around what they got wrong. Do they choose the multiple choice options? See like, okay,  But, in VR you guys don’t get to know is that I got that wrong, but then I looked here and I pulled this 3D object and I manipulated it. And I went back and did this, and you have such a richer profile of how someone thinks through a problem and when they struggle, what do they do?

And so one thing to really look out for now is as we have more nuances, and richer information about student learning, how do we then use that and apply the machine learning instruments that have come so far?  But we didn’t really know to what end we were utilizing data and what were the questions we’re going to utilize data towards.

And so I think that the intersection of machine learning and the data  that VR affords is going to be a really intellectually rich question in the coming years. 

Mike Palmer: Wow. You’ve got my wheels turning. I’m not watching them in virtual reality, but my wheels are turning.

Hopefully, our listeners’ wheels are turning as well. Keep an eye on Prisms of Reality. Anurupa Ganguly is the CEO and founder, a really interesting follow. Also her medium articles are definitely worth checking out.  Anurupa, thanks so much for joining us.

Anurupa Ganguly: Thank you so much, Mike. It was a pleasure. 

Mike Palmer: And for our listeners, hopefully you’re enjoying what you’re hearing. If you like it, tell a friend, share us. We’ll be back again soon. This is Trending in Education.