• Geography teacher in remote communities in British Columbia

    Isabella MacQuarrie, pictured here with her horse Jewel in 100 Mile House, B.C., lives and works in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region of central British Columbia. (Photo: Isabella MacQuarrie)

With experience in teaching everything from English to physical education for a variety of grade levels, Isabella MacQuarrie has a well-rounded background that lends itself well to the kind of work she has been doing for the past several years in remote and rural schools, mainly in First Nations communities, in the Cariboo-Chilcotin school district of British Columbia. MacQuarrie provides learning support, building individualized education programs and coming up with resources for students with special needs. More recently, her focus has shifted to ways in which technology, such as virtual reality (VR), can be used to better support students in the classroom.

On bringing VR into the classroom

I wanted to see how I could use virtual reality in rural schools to broaden kids’ perspectives on a global level, taking these kids that often don’t get past their own communities and having them explore the world in a virtual environment. I got a grant for a Google Expeditions kit with a variety of headsets and phones and we spent a year exploring that. I’ve always been a big proponent of kids creating with technology, as opposed to just consuming. At the end of that year, Google came out with Tour Builder, which lets kids build virtual tours, so last year, we started a project called Chilcotin 360, where we have our kids build virtual tours of their communities and share them on the platform. We built two tours and the kids really jumped into it, they were really excited about the pictures and the process. A part of it is teaching students writing and organizational skills — what pictures do we want to take, where are we going to go, what story are we going to tell? Initial interest was huge because the kids were able to tell their own stories and take pride in their communities, making them feel like they’re part of something bigger.

On the opportunities offered by VR

One project I was focused on a couple years ago was around endangered and disappearing languages. We’re really hoping we can build that into this project so that we can connect to some of our community members who are the last speakers of their languages, and to have some audio built into the tours. 

Another part of it is opening kids’ minds to the fact that they have these tools and that doors will open for them if they understand how they can use this technology to build their personal skill sets. Trying to help kids understand how to use social media from a context of learning and building social networks is huge. I think that this project is an authentic way to show students how they can use technology to connect them to a broader community that has shared goals and interests.

On the challenges of integrating technology into the classroom

Students are savvy in getting the information that they need, but they’re not savvy in terms of how they use technology to learn. They don’t understand how to do targeted searches on Google or how to use technology to support basic skills like reading and writing. They don’t understand how to use social media to build a positive presence or their own personal learning network. Part of this is teaching kids good online behaviour and modeling acceptable behaviour.

Teachers who aren’t super comfortable with technology can be intimidated and somewhat reluctant to go down that path, especially around social media use. There’s that perception of kids being online too much and that all online time is equal, and it’s not. So it’s about broadening perspectives about how we can leverage these tools to support kids’ learning. And then there are technical challenges that we face in rural, remote communities, such as making sure that our Wi-Fi is good, and our technology is up to date, so that we’re not stumbling over those things.

On the impact of the Chilcotin 360 project

It broadens their perspective on the world and gives them an opportunity to present their communities in a positive light. One of the trips we took was up to Kappan Mountain above Anahim Lake. There are no Google images of Kappan Mountain except for the ones that we created and put up on Street View. It’s such a concrete way to show kids how they can have an impact, how what they do can have a broader reach. Now anyone in the world can search Kappan Mountain and our pictures are the ones that will show up. It’s about literally putting these communities on the map and doing it in an authentic way where kids are the ones who are being heard and it’s not coming from an outside perspective.