Students at New Design Middle School in Manhattan participating in a TechRow Fund after-school program.CreditCreditAdelya Aksanova

In late 2015, The New York Times released the NYT VR app and published the Magazine cover story “Displaced,” a multimedia journey in text, photographs and virtual reality that tells the stories of three child refugees.

Since then, The Times has published dozens of films that use V.R. technology on topics including exploring Antarctica and Pluto, civil rights issues and the Hiroshima bombing. The Times has also begun experimenting with A.R., augmented reality, which doesn’t require the app.

To help us provide teachers with practical teaching strategies on using NYT VR in the classroom, we’ve teamed up with Travis Feldler, founder of TechRow Fund, a nonprofit organization that explores how to leverage immersive technology inside schools to improve learning outcomes. This post is part of a series of guest lessons we occasionally publish featuring partnerships with outside organizations who make especially good use of New York Times materials in their programming and curriculums.


Virtual reality journalism, a medium that enables journalists to tell stories through an immersive, 360-degree audiovisual experience, can serve as a powerful educational tool to grab students’ attention and get them excited about a range of complex subjects. The V.R. experiences created by The New York Times combine the power of immersion with compelling first-person narratives and storytelling to allow users to explore a range of scientific, cultural and global themes. After students don their headsets, they enter a new environment — from Ethiopia and Mecca to a March for Our Lives protest and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider — in which their senses of sight and sound are totally engaged.

From a practical standpoint, what’s also useful about NYT VR is that the films are typically no longer than 10 minutes, so they are easy to fit into a normal class period and not overwhelm students.

Below, we introduce four NYT VR experiences that TechRow Fund has used with students in New York City schools. Plus, we suggest tips for getting started with V.R. journalism in your own classroom.

Note: To experience any of these films in virtual reality, you’ll need to wear a V.R. headset while using the NYT VR app. You can find all the V.R. experiences mentioned in this teaching resource, as well as dozens of others, on the app as well.

Explore Pluto

“Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart” is a stereoscopic V.R. experience that brings viewers to Pluto to watch the New Horizons spacecraft travel through space over bright plains and rugged mountains, where the user can stand on Pluto’s unique surface while watching its largest moon hover over the horizon.

For seventh-grade students studying space in class, we designed a mission-to-Pluto activity using this film. Before leaving Earth, they practiced research skills by running searches on Pluto and its satellite, Charon. Then they were required to document their journey to this dwarf planet and report back to the space command center. The experience pushed students to think creatively about the abstract nature of space, and the journaling activities helped them own the experience.

Not only were students improving digital literacy, critical thinking and writing skills, but they also were synthesizing those skills with a scientific theme.

Journey to the Hottest Place on Earth

Visit the hottest place on Earth, where camel caravans move salt across the vast plains, and active geothermal zones turn into a landscape of psychedelic colors.CreditCreditAndrea Frazzetta/Institute for The New York Times

We led another session with fifth graders on surfaces of the Earth and incorporated NYT VR’s “Land of Salt and Fire.” This V.R. experience transports the viewer to Dallol, Ethiopia, the hottest place on Earth, where you travel with camel caravans that move salt across the vast plains and active geothermal zones of the Afar region. The colors from the topography of Dallol are absolutely stunning and make this V.R. experience highly engaging for students from elementary on up.

We invited students to go on an anthropological expedition to document life in Dallol. Working in pairs, they did a basic web search on the word “anthropology” and described what they saw when they did an image search on the words “deserts,” “salt trade” and “Dallol.” We also asked students to identify Dallol on a map. This initial work exposed students to the diversity of Earth’s topography and prepared them for what they would encounter in the virtual reality experience.

After taking their V.R. journey, students were expected to journal their experiences using a method called “If I were there.” This is an activity that encourages personal reflection by leading with the five senses. Students journal:

1. If I were there, I would touch …
2. If I were there I would see …
3. If I were there, I would hear …
4. If I were there, I would smell …
5. If I were there I would taste …

Following their expedition to the desert, they shared their findings with classmates and reflected on how different environments can influence ways of life.

Decode the Secret Language of Dolphins

Another NYT VR experience, “The Click Effect,” takes the viewer on a free-dive with two marine scientists as they capture the secret “click” communication of dolphins and sperm whales. It is a great way for students to learn about marine biology and echolocation.

In this experience, we let middle school students play the role of marine scientists investigating the secret language of dolphins. After students came up with an original name for their respective labs, they ran an online search on fish, dolphins, whales and other cetaceans through a combination of Google images and online sources. In the following order, they researched:

A. Sharks, skates and cartilaginous fish
B. Bony fish
C. Are dolphins fish?
D. What is a cetacean?
E. Cetaceans and intelligence
F. Dolphin clicks and screeches

The student research created a runway to speak about echolocation. We asked students to demonstrate hearing as a spatial sense by making sounds in different parts of the room while another student tried to locate the sound with eyes closed, pointing in the direction of the sound. As another example, we asked them to click their tongues with their eyes closed.

Taking their knowledge of marine life and echolocation, students were ready for their V.R. mission to explore the secret language of dolphins. After completing their mission, they journaled about their expedition in writing or in sketches and then they reported back their findings to the lab for group discussions. By the end of the activity, students had a much better understanding about how dolphins use sound waves to navigate underwater.

Meet Three Children Displaced by War and Persecution

Nearly 60 million people are currently displaced from their homes by war and persecution. Half are children. This virtual reality film tells the stories of three of them.CreditCreditLynsey Addario for The New York Times

The Displaced” is a virtual reality experience that recognizes the nearly 60 million people who are currently displaced from their homes by war and persecution. Half are children. This NYT VR multimedia journey tells the stories of three children from eastern Ukraine, Syria and Sudan.

After watching, students selected one child from the film to focus on for the activity. To prepare, we asked them to consider the following:

• What is your character’s name? Which country is he or she from?
• What was your character’s life like before she or he was displaced? Did he go to school? Who was his family members? What did he do for fun?
• What was it like being displaced? How does your character feel about leaving home? What was the journey like?
• What kind of life is your character living now? Is she going to school? Does she have friends? What is her new home like?

Then, in pairs, they prepared a short skit in which they told the child’s life story while pretending to be that character. They performed their story first in front of another pair and eventually in front of the class.

This was a particularly meaningful activity because displacement and homelessness were real issues for students in the New York City district in which we were working. While perhaps a different texture of displacement, the activity was an opportunity to identify and relate to a tragedy that is not only local in nature, but also a global phenomenon. And in a different context, we’ve also seen this V.R. experience being used with students who had experienced displacement from war. Creating a space where students and peers participate in an immersive activity together created a cultural bridge that encouraged a great deal of empathy and understanding.

In February 2016, the photographer Luca Locatelli traveled to Mecca during umrah, a minor pilgrimage that can be made for much of the year. He received permission from the Saudi Arabian authorities to document the trip.CreditCreditLuca Locatelli

Virtual reality is not a technology that should replace other teaching resources; instead, it should serve as a complementary tool that can enhance learning across disciplines. As with any new technology being introduced into the classroom, success depends on expectations, an effective strategy and the practical details of how it is being used. Here are some suggestions:

1. Roles and Goals: By having focused objectives, teachers provide students with an intellectual mission to decode their experiences.

2. V.R. Partners: We love pairing students. It creates a community of trust, develops empathy and deepens experience sharing. Ensure that each partner has a role in the activity.

3. Safety! Safety! Safety! We always recommend sitting when participating in V.R. experiences. Pairs create an additional safety measure because the partner who is observing the user in experience is ensuring that his or her partner is safely experiencing the content. Go over a list of dos and don’ts. Some of our personal favorites include: a) No standing up; b) If you are starting to feel dizzy, take the headset off; and c) Do not flail hands or legs around to avoid causing potential accidents.

To get started, you’ll also need some basic technology. Here are some general requirements:

1. Internet: V.R. experiences can be downloaded or streamed. We recommend downloading the experience to the device so that streaming issues are avoided.

2. Headset: Choose a headset that makes the most sense for the mobile devices that you are using. There are mobile device-agnostic headsets that could work with a variety of phones. Prices range from under $10 for a simple cardboard viewer and go up from there. Most headsets also come with compatibility specs, so that you can be better informed on how to pair accurately.

3. Mobile Device: Smartphones are essential to powering these experiences.

4. Headphones: Headphones allow the user to be more immersed and reduce the disruption to the experience that could arise from using speakers.

5. App Store: The NYT VR app can be downloaded to both Android and iOS devices.

The novelty and engagement potential of V.R. makes it a powerful tool for learning. When used thoughtfully, V.R. can, for a brief moment, transport students out of the classroom to a new and unfamiliar world. Not only can it help students develop their English language arts skills through journaling and research, but it can also help improve and develop a range of competencies such as empathy, critical thinking and digital literacy — as well as enhance content instruction.

Additional Resources

Reader Idea | New York Times Virtual Reality in the Classroom

How Excited Are You About the Possibilities of Virtual Reality?

Recent Posts