I was a bit disappointed and, yes, a lot jealous, when our school wasn’t chosen to try out the Google Expeditions VR program as it traveled to different cities around the U.S. I had tried Expeditions at some technology conferences and thought our students would enjoy the unique experience.
With virtual reality, students wear “Google Cardboard” goggles, which have phones inserted in the front. Once an Expedition is begun by the teacher, the students are basically immersed in the environment as the teacher leads them through a field trip of a place like a coral reef.
The VR experience is great, but most elementary classrooms do not have the equipment to make it a reality. Since only one student can use a pair of goggles at a time, and the goggles require a phone, the logistics are a bit tricky for the standard K-5 classroom.
Google has recently begun to beta test a new version of Expeditions, which is augmented reality instead of virtual reality. No VR goggles are required, and tablets can be used. The AR version is not available to the public, yet, but our school was fortunate this time to be chosen to try this version out. (If you are interested in seeing if your school can beta test Expeditions AR, go to this sign-up form.)
On the day of the beta test, all of the teachers who had signed up at our school attended a 30 minute training with the Google representative to learn how to use the equipment. (Google provides everything for the sessions that day, including routers so they don’t have to use the school wi-fi.) During each 30 minute session, groups of 3 students use Android phones that are on sticks (see the pics below) to scan QR codes that are on papers on the ground. The teacher, who has already chosen from a list of possible Expeditions, leads the students through different images, controlling it all on his/her device. All students see the same image at the same time.
When the first image appears, there are usually squeals of delight as the students realize that they are viewing a 3 dimensional version of a bee, or a dinosaur, or a volcano. They can walk around all sides of the image, and even, for some, go inside. A few students had some difficulty understanding the spatial dimensions, but most quickly caught on. The enthusiasm of the teachers (many who had never used augmented reality) and the students mounted throughout the 30 minutes as they investigated planets, tornadoes, and some human anatomy. Throughout the day, students in K-4 had a chance to try out the technology, and all seemed engaged.
Overall, this technology seems like it has potential for wide-spread use in elementary, since it will be available on tablets (iOS and Google Play) for free. The trick will be to make sure that teachers design pedagogically sound lessons to utilize it rather than depend on the novelty to lead learning. As augmented reality become more ubiquitous, the oohs and ahs will quickly subside if there is no other substance to the lesson. As someone who has been using AR in my classroom for years, I am well aware that it is more important to include technology when it supports the lesson than to depend on the technology to be the lesson.