On Thursday, March 10 Google Expeditions Pioneer Program came to our school and led classes in three divisions–Lower, Middle and Upper School–through a variety of virtual tours. Students explored underwater ecosystems in the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos Islands. They toured monuments in Mexico and Barcelona. They visited ruins in Egypt and Peru. The “Wow!” factor was real and its only competition on the excitement scale was “Where next?!” In my almost 20-year teaching career, this was by far the most excited I have ever seen teachers and students for the school portion of the last day of spring vacation.

I had examined Google Cardboard before, but this day was a significant step up. Google Expeditions promotional material states, “We worked with teachers and content partners from around the world to create more than 100 engaging journeys – making it easy to immerse students in entirely new experiences.” Having been through training and multiple class levels and expeditions, I can say this is accurate. Set-up was seamless, the interface was easy to navigate and the support was exceptional. The Google Cardboard viewers came preloaded with Asus phones, which worked off of the Asus routers they provided. This all meant that the emphasis of the day was directing students’ energy towards exploration.

Teachers launched the Expedition from a Nexus tablet. The teacher tablet allowed us to launch, pause, close and reset the expedition. We could also track the focal point of each student and highlight certain points in the 360 panorama. This latter function was a pleasant surprise for me. Instead of saying “Look at the smallish pyramid next to the larger one” I could just press and hold to indicate a point on the map, which gives each student an arrow that tracks to the focal point. Seeing their viewers snap to the circle was amazing! I was able to lead them through based on my understanding of the sites and, where that faltered, the notes/questions/prompts that came preloaded. I was surprised by how thorough those were, and I expect they will continue to improve from educators. I liked that I could pause the session, which I did if I needed a quick check-in for understanding or simply if kids a breather.

What followed was spectacular! Students were able to track 180 degrees to see the axial orientation of different structures in the Aztec and Mayan Ruins Expedition. We had spoken about the mythological and astronomical significance of this on numerous occasions, nevertheless, there were those who still didn’t understand it. Because this exercise allowed them to experience it, seeing the structures and turning their bodies 180 degrees, they walked away with an increased understanding. One of my students reported “It was really cool to put visual pictures to what we have been learning.” One of her classmates reported “It was actually really neat to compare different pyramids and temples that we had studied but be able to compare them in reality and almost side by side by being able to go back and forth.”

Students reacted physically and immediately to what they say. They reached out to touch things, ducked and turned. In one instance a student began his soccer training drills on the pitch at Camp Nou. (This made me think that VR could have huge application for athletic training–competing against superstars, racing in immersive environments, training in Camp Nou,  Fenway Park or Pebble Beach.)

Students also reported that they felt not disoriented but nauseous. The experiences are real and seamless, yet the frame refresh rate is such that it can make students feel nauseous. (A side benefit of the day was they all walked away knowing the word “mareado/a.”) This led me to believe that, at this stage, Expeditions may work best as targeted 10-15 activities. I expected that Expeditions would work best as summative experiences: study a lesson, talk about what they would see and then let them loose. This would and did work, in fact I chose the Aztec and Mayan Ruins Expedition because that is a topic we studied in the fall semester in Spanish 4. At the same time, I learned that Expeditions would also work as an amazing introduction to any topic. If pre-reading and pre-viewing a topic works as common practice, imagine how powerful this could be as a lead-in to any lesson. What do you see? Where have you seen this before? What are you seeing that you have never seen before? How do you feel?

So where does this get us in the real–not virtual–world? I think VR has a place alongside 2D and traditional methods to engage learners. This will necessary start with discrete modules that are teacher led. There are even ways to create immersive VR landscapes using Google Street View. As the platforms evolve, students will undoubtedly have more opportunities to interact with and even create environments. Minecraft-like interfaces could bridge real environments and student-generated ones.  I’m not sure what this means or how interoperability among platforms and environments will work, but I expect the process will lead to positive outcomes for students. If the technology evolves, the students can interact with the VR environments: tagging locations for future exploration, dropping pins, leaving field notes for others to study and build upon. This could revolutionize language learning–yet not in the way people expect. I have seen endless articles about VR in language learning as a sort of SimCity for the 21st century. This may work, but I saw an application I didn’t expect. I could draw their attention to something–the sky or a shark, for instance–and connect the verbal to the visual. Think of this as a 3D immersive flash card. The connection to vocabulary could be much deeper without “cross contamination” from English and with the VR prompt as a trigger.

This is just the beginning for VR voyages in the classroom. The Oculus Rift will be released soon, and with it, new applications. Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard are positions at opposite price-points–it will be interesting to see how these platforms impact learning at all levels.