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Technology in the Classroom: Google’s Virtual Field Trips

Jordan Catapano

When was the last time you took your class on a field trip to the Great Barrier Reef, Aztec Ruins, or the Taj Mahal? Until recently, bringing students these sites was nearly impossible. We relied on video clips or static pictures to show these sites to students. But today, we are one step closer to using technology in the classroom to bring students to the amazing places of the world – through virtual reality. This summer Google formally announced the roll out of its newest technology in the classroom virtual reality app: Google Expeditions. Expeditions promises, according to Google, to allow teachers to use technology in the classroom to “Take students on immersive, virtual journeys … from Machu Picchu to the International Space Station.”

From the comfort of the classroom, students can now take virtual tours of “Virtually anywhere,” using just a few of Google’s newest toys. Google Expeditions is built to work with Google Cardboard, which is an inexpensive cardboard frame engineered to fit common mobile devices. Students can then look at their device through eyeholes that give a VR experience.

Google has been testing Expeditions for nearly a year, claiming to have more than a million students from 11 different countries take virtual tours. This summer, Google unrolled the availability of the app to everyone via Android devices. Google is also developing an iOS version, which will likely be available later this year.

Technology in the Classroom: The Benefits of VR

When we show something new to students, we’re often limited to a video documentary or a series of photographs. These can be pretty cool, but students view these passively: They sit at their desks and look strictly at what the image shows them.

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Virtual reality offers a more interactive, immersive experience. Instead of sitting passively, students stand up. Instead of looking at one aspect of an image, they literally turn their heads and move their eyes to view angles of an image. Instead of remaining aware of their classroom environment, they are immersed inside of a virtual reality setting.

Google product manager Ben Schrom points out that most worthwhile fieldtrips are too expensive, distant, or dangerous, but virtual reality can “Make at least bite-sized moments of experiential learning a much, much more regular occurrence at schools.” Schrom puts the role Expeditions can play in excellent perspective: It’s not going to radically alter learning, but it will help teachers use VR to make impressionable learning moments.

Expeditions promises to bring students to places they could never go otherwise. Although Google boasts Expeditions offers fieldtrips to “Virtually anywhere,” it only has a little more than 200 expeditions. That might not seem like a lot, but that’s more than 200 places students would likely never visit otherwise. Here is a list of the expeditions it currently has available, and this list is certain to grow as Google has partnered with Getty Images, Associated Press, Pearson, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

You can see a short on-stage demonstration of Expeditions, where a teacher leads a small group of children through a virtual field trip. Note how the students are standing up, looking around, and pointing as though they are literally in a new environment.

The Virtual Reality Society comments on VR in the classroom, pointing out the benefits of VR include active learning, immersive experiences, memorable learning moments, and engaging activities. VR may seem like something of a toy now, but can serve as a powerful learning tool when implemented well by teachers.

Still Heavy on the Tech

Google’s technology doubtlessly offers an impressive, groundbreaking opportunity for students to explore the world in an experiential way. However, there’s still a minimum amount of technology a classroom needs to have before it can take its first expedition.

At a minimum, your classroom can take a field trip on Google Expeditions with a class set of mobile devices and an Internet connection. For now, the mobile devices need to be Androids, though iOS compatibility will come down the road. Once everyone downloads the Expeditions app from Google Play, they can begin the expedition with the teacher as guide and students as participants. Students can view the expedition in full-screen mode without a VR viewer.

Of course, the real fun begins with the virtual reality, which requires the Google Cardboard viewer. Google Cardboard costs about $15 per device, though many other compatible options exist.

When you ask to “Get a Kit,” Google links you to Best Buy, whose education program has partnered with Google in providing kits. In addition to a classroom set of devices, a kit also includes Google Cardboard frames (or in this kit, Mattel View-Masters), chargers, a teacher device, a router, and a case for all the equipment. You may not need most of this if your classroom is already one-to-one.

Is This Right for You?

Virtual reality offers an entirely new, immersive experience to enhance student learning. But is Google Expeditions the right way for a classroom to invest its time and money?

If your classroom is already one-to-one, then there’s no risk in downloading the Android app (or you’ll have to wait if you have an iOS device) and leading expeditions without the VR. Google Expeditions provides helpful supplements, like annotated facts and sites for the teacher to reference. Individual expeditions do not have to take a long time, and can serve as a healthy means to boost engagement and understanding without hogging all the attention.

Of course, just looking at an image on a screen is nothing new. If your classroom can afford the cost of the Google Cardboard sets, then it might be worth it to purchase enough for your students and take advantage of the benefits of virtual reality. Remember that Google Cardboard or other VR viewers can be used for a variety of learning experiences, not just this one Google app. If you are thinking about embracing VR as a regular learning tool in your classroom, the purchase is more than worth it.

Like any tech tool, Expeditions is not the single solution to education. It’s a tool that, in the hands of a skillful teacher, can make a difference in the quality of education students enjoy. If you’re looking for new ways to leverage technology to make engaging, memorable experiences for your students, then Google Expeditions just might be the next step for you.

Does Google Expeditions sound like something you’re going to use? Tell our TeachHUB.com community what you think in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.

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