I have an admission to make: After a chance to experiment with Google Expeditions in class this week, I am FINALLY convinced that virtual reality applications have a place in schools.
For those of you just hearing about Google Expeditions, it is a new app that uses Google Cardboard and stunning panoramic photography to take students on virtual reality tours of tons of interesting places. Here’s a short video from Google introducing the product:
The app hasn’t been officially released yet, but Google Expedition Team Members are traveling around the country bringing the technology to schools to get feedback from teachers and students before it goes live. Our school was chosen for a visit this week — and I had the chance to bring two classes of kids down to kick the tires on the tool.
I went into the experience more than a little skeptical.
I’ve always seen virtual reality as a fringe technology that wouldn’t make teaching and learning any better and virtual reality fanboys as people who cared more about technology than they did teaching and learning. In fact, if you asked me last week, I would have told you that virtual reality tools and trends would have had little to no chance of making their way into the #edtech mainstream.
But twenty minutes into my first Google Expeditions enhanced lesson had me convinced enough to start putting the squeeze on my principal to buy a set of Cardboards and teacher tablets for our grade level.
Google has created literally THOUSANDS of different Expedition experiences that you can immerse your students in.
I chose to take my students to Antarctica, where we looked at penguin colonies, leopard seals, and Ernest Shackleton’s explorations. We also traveled to the Rain forest and coral reefs. The Expeditions catalog also includes TONS of other interesting destinations, ranging from Mars to the Moon to Gettysburg, the Ann Frank House and the Great Wall of China.
Each expedition includes background information for teachers taking students on tours.
As my students looked through Google Cardboards at the virtual worlds that I took them to, I was using a tablet to guide their experiences — and my view of each virtual world included interesting content flags that I could click on, learn more about, and then introduce to my students. If I clicked on a content flag, students saw an arrow on their VR screens that pointed them to the location that I wanted them to see.
That made the Expeditions experience equal parts self exploration and teacher direction. My kids discovered things that they wanted to study and learn more about all by themselves while working through the virtual world they’d entered AND I was able to point them to things that I wanted them to notice because they were tied to our required curriculum.
The entire experience was easy and the technology worked flawlessly.
Outside of a 20-minute introduction to the teacher tablets and Google Cardboards, I had no professional development at all on using Expeditions and my students had no previous experience with VR in a school setting, yet we had NO troubles trying to figure things out at all. Pulling up new destinations, finding content tags and pointing students to interesting content within a VR tour was incredibly intuitive and fluid for me — and working with the Cardboards to explore was second-nature to my students. In many ways, it’s hard to believe that Expeditions is still in Beta given how smooth the experience was.
But most importantly, Google Expeditions gave me the chance to literally immerse my students in places that are a part of our required curriculum.
For the past few weeks, we’ve been studying biomes in class. As a part of that study, we did a simple research project. Students chose a biome and then used books and the web to answer research questions about that biome. While researching, they saw pictures of the biome, watched videos about the biome, and read tons of text about the biome.
Google Expeditions, however, made all of that research come alive for my kids. They felt like they were standing in the middle of the Savannah or the Tundra or the Taiga instead of just reading about it. “Collecting facts” and “answering questions” became an exploration and observation game — and kids DIG exploration and observation. Learning through VR became a lesson in discovery as kids had to figure out what they were looking at and what it could teach them about the biome that they were standing in.
Long story short: Google Expeditions is going to be amazing.
Knowing that I can genuinely surround my kids with the content and places that we are studying using nothing more than a free app, Google Cardboards and some cheap Android tablets/devices brings new meaning to the notion of “breaking down the walls of our classrooms.”
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