This is the VR-enabled future of classroom learning, as imagined by Google’s Expeditions Pioneer Program. The premise is simple: “What if we came up with an app that could take students to places where school buses can’t go?” says Jen Holland, who leads Google Apps for Education. The Expeditions Pioneer Program simulates visiting Philadelphia. Or the Great Barrier Reef. Or, possibly, anywhere Google has mapped, which is pretty much everywhere.
Google launched Expeditions in September, and since then, Holland’s team has created more than 200 expeditions and shown them to one million students in 11 countries. Those all happened through Google-led visits; today, now that Google has released the Expeditions app, the program is free to download for anyone with an Android device. All you need is a Cardboard headset, which you can buy from the Google Store.
Unlike the Google Cardboard headsets that arrived with the Sunday Times a few months ago, the headsets for students in the Pioneer program have line drawings of fish, planets, and famous landmarks—cartoon reminders that these headsets belong here, among the gold stars and colored paper signs hanging on the wall. Holland and her team popped Android phones into them, then handed them out. The teacher, whom I can’t name because of city Department of Education rules, started her lesson.
“So, we just finished studying the American Revolution …” She pauses to snap the children, clearly more interested in the headsets, back to attention. “… So we are going to take a look today at historic Philadelphia. The images you see are from today, but they’re all places they used way back then.” She is reading from a tablet that lets her control the headsets. “You ready?” she asks, turning them on.
“Look at that—”
The kids are giddy—more so, I can’t help but think, than they would be standing in Independence Square. What’s more, these kids have taken Expeditions trips before. This isn’t new for them, but the magic is still there.
Immersive and Social
Expeditions overcomes the great drawback of VR: It’s typically experienced in isolation. This is partly due to the low-fidelity build of Cardboard, which does little more than fold and Velcro around a smartphone. There are light leaks, and no hands-free head bands. It’s not high-tech enough for real escapism.
The Google Expeditions interface is also built around a teacher’s need to communicate with her class, making it inherently social. Teachers run the program with a tablet, which ensures students see the same thing (the system uses a near-field peer to peer network, not Wi-Fi.) And like real field trips, Expeditions are made in groups.
To create excursions, Holland’s team draws on the massive database of 360-degree imagery that Google has collected through Street View. It also has used Jump, Google’s 16-GoPro camera rig, to create trips through the Entrance Hall and Green Room at the White House. And they’ve created virtual tours of 50-odd colleges for high school students who can’t visit them in person.