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What Google’s virtual field trips look like in the classroom

Google Expeditions are field trips with a virtual reality twist

google-expeditions Last spring, Hector Camacho guided his high school economics class on comprehensive tours of the New York Stock Exchange, Federal Reserve banks, and the Treasury Building. Students swept their eyes up countless Neoclassical columns before heading inside for a detailed look — all without leaving the library of their Mountain View, California school.

The catch? Students were plugged into Google’s latest virtual reality creation — Expeditions, which creates immersive, 360-degree tours out of a cardboard viewer and a smartphone.

“The best thing about it that we can’t physically go to these faraway places,” Camacho said. “At the high school level, time is really precious. For field trips, you have to worry about buses, lunches, permission slips. If you can remove all those obstacles, still take them to a very faraway place, and give them a similar experience, that’s powerful.”

Next page: How Expeditions works

When Google got in touch with Camacho’s school, St. Francis High School, they laid down some specific parameters. Camacho and  history and biology colleagues were responsible for all the prep work behind the virtual field trips. Teachers picked the locations and sent their geographical coordinates to Google, who compiled the tours based on streetview and still images. Google provided the cardboard viewers and smartphones, but asked that teachers let the kids figure out how to use everything themselves.

“It was an easy thing for the kids to figure it out,” he said. “Look in the drawer and everyone got a cardboard. There were the handheld devices and they each got one of those and then there was a tablet for me — that accessibility and ease of use was important to them and my kids figured it out right away. They just had to figure out how to put the device into their cardboard.” Before long, he said, they were walking and turning around and reaching out as if to touch what they were seeing. “You could hear the level of awe. This is something you don’t really hear from 17, 18 year old’s anymore.”

Camacho previously had taught U.S. history, a subject he said lends itself more readily to a tool like Expeditions than economics. “This was more of a challenge for me as an econ teacher, because it’s not much of a place-based subject, it’s more concept based. So I had to think about where would an econ teacher take his or her students.”

Ultimately, he decided on a tour of the Great Recession, a concept he could convey in class but anchored by a visual look at the banks and federal buildings where much of the action took place. He started by showing each building’s facade and then, by clicking “next” on his tablet, students were transported for various looks inside. (At launch, it will come loaded with a handful of existing tours, but teachers will eventually be able to create their own).

“I used this as kind of a hook lesson,” Camacho said about his use of Expeditions. “Then they had a point of reference for when we were doing the rest of the lesson piece. That’s what’s really missing from education today, that whole relevance and context component. Kids are looking for something to connect to, and when I start the lesson with something they can visualize and almost touch, those are the kinds of things they’re looking for because now they have buy in to what we’re talking about.”

As far as modern technology goes, the cost is far from ruinous: the cardboard viewers are dirt cheap and Google expects all sorts of smartphones will eventually be compatible. Recently, a rep at the ISTE Google lounge even floated the possibility of providing schools with cheap devices not connected to any data plan. And no one’s suggesting a one-to-one ratio.

“One of the things that came out of the conversation was that this is not necessarily something you would use every class,” Camacho said. “Maybe there’s a virtual field trip space where you could launch an Expedition, with one or two sets per school. In a way, it brings the library to life. The kids are getting excited about going to the library.”

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