By January 26, 2016

Bringing ‘Whoa!’ to the Classroom

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By Nadine Shaalan–

Those who subscribe to the New York Times have already experienced the newest consumer version of virtual reality (VR). The old Gray Lady partnered with Google to distribute more than one million “Cardboard” VR viewers last November. Subscribers were instructed to download a free app to their smartphone, slip the phone into the View-Master-like device, and immerse themselves in… “Whoa!” —invariably the first (and oft-repeated) reaction when looking into Cardboard. Peer in any direction and the 3D-view moves correspondingly.

But Times subscribers are generally an older bunch—some of whom enlist the support of grandchildren to change the settings on their phone. Give the grandchildren—who were born with a tablet in their hands—a Cardboard VR experience and they are likely to be indifferent. Right?

Judging by the reaction of the 25 or so fourth graders at Sonoran Foothills School, Google Cardboard’s VR experience is indeed brand new and awesome and cool and… Whoa! “It made me surprised,” said 9-year old Katelyn Lambeth, who felt like she could move around in the virtual world better than she could in the real world. “You were like an animal,” she said.

It’s this reaction that makes VR so valuable as a teaching tool in the classroom, and is likely instrumental in the development of “Google Expeditions.” Combining a cardboard viewer with educational VR, Expeditions allows teachers to guide students on field trips around the world.

Now in beta with the Expeditions Pioneer Program, the concept is being introduced to select schools around the world, including three in Deer Valley Unified School District.

How Expeditions Works

On Jan. 14, a Google rep brought Expeditions kits to Sonoran Foothills and let teachers and kids have at it. Each student was equipped with a Cardboard VR viewer holding a smartphone. The Expeditions VR app on the smartphone was controlled by a teacher’s tablet so students visited the same destination at once.

Students, though, controlled what they saw by moving her head in any direction. “Oh, wow! I see a shark!” The teacher’s tablet monitors what each student is looking at and can point out specific items of interest using a circular cursor. “What did we put the circle on?” asks the teacher. “A big whale shark,” a boy replied without hesitation.

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Fourth grade teacher Sharon Millett (left) and gifted specialist Robbie Rose guide their students through a VR adventure using a tablet.

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Teachers are prompted with relevant information that can be edited to help guide the lesson. “Can anyone see a small fish near the whale shark?” The joy of discovery ripples audibly around the room as students each detect the little fish, leading to a discussion of their symbiotic relationship.

Google Expeditions is designed to inspire students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“It provides a unique opportunity for supplemental learning by giving students new ways of exploring the concepts and places they are studying,” said Jen Holland, program manager for Google Expeditions. We’ve been thrilled to see teachers use Expeditions to bring abstract concepts to life and provide students with a deeper understanding of the world beyond the classroom, infusing learning with excitement and fun.”

Teachers are just as excited. “As long as you have the right guiding questions you can lead them right where you want them to go. It was incredible,” said third grade teacher Rachel Mata. “…It will take you the same amount [of classroom time] as a book lesson… but this, they really feel it,” she said.

The viewer not only helps students “feel it,” it gives students more control over the experience, making learning much more interactive than traditional classroom media such as books and slideshows.

The Expeditions Pioneer program took Sonoran Foothills students to the ocean, the Grand Canyon and Egypt. When asked where they would go if they had more time:

“Antarctica.”

“The jungle.”

“France.”  

With Google Expeditions VR, these and other field trips might soon be very real. Google plans to make the Expeditions app available for free this fall. Expeditions kits will eventually be made available for sale, but timing and details are not yet available.

Not Just for the Classroom…

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  1. Buy a Viewer  Made of sturdy cardboard, the viewer is essentially a case to hold two bi-convex lenses with a 40 mm focal length about 40 mm away from your phone screen. It can be had for $6-$20 or more, and fits phones up to 6 inches.

Get a Cardboard VR viewer

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     2. Download Apps Plenty of free VR apps are available for download including:

 

  • Discovery VR will take you mountain biking, scuba diving and freeboarding.
  • “Valravn,” an exhilarating ride on Cedar Point’s newest roller coaster.
  • Multiple productions from the New York Times, including “The Displaced,” a look at the story of three children displaced from their home by war, and “Vigils in Paris,” on the candlelight vigils following the recent terrorist attacks.
  • Paul McCartney performing “Live and Let Die.

Download a VR app and you will be asked to choose to view via Google Cardboard (in which case you will get a stereo display), or your smartphone- not nearly as cool. For best effect, wear headphones.

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3. Insert Your Phone and secure it with a velcro closure. A button on the device allows for touchscreen selections when needed.

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4. Look Around… But go slowly as the experience can cause nausea in some. Resist the urge to walk around; It feels like your in the wide open desert… until you run into that coffee table.

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