Last week I had the privilege of a visit from the Google Expeditions team to our school. In case you’re not familiar with it, Google Expeditions is a Virtual Reality (VR) app which enables students to be placed in a growing number of locations – some of these are real word places, some historical recreations and some virtual worlds. In all my years of teaching, I have never seen such a big ‘wow’ moment as when the children experienced it for the first time.
In practical terms, it’s a very easy day to set up. You simply need to visit the Google Expeditions website, provide them with details of your school and they will respond with dates and availability. They can facilitate workshops in most places – as well as fixed teams in Manchester, Birmingham and London, they have a mobile team who can get to other UK locations. Once your session is confirmed, they ask you to choose which expedition you would like to go on – don’t get hung up on this, once you can get started you can choose any of them.
On The Day
The day itself is also easy to manage. As a school you need literally nothing other than a room. Google bring all the phones, VR headsets and even their own router so you don’t need to worry if your wireless network is not state of the art. The day begins with a teacher briefing so that classroom teachers can lead the sessions rather than the Google trainer and then progresses into 30 minute sessions for each class. They have 60 headsets and two routers so they can run two sessions concurrently.
After a short introduction, 30 minutes is long enough to take the children on two or three expeditions. I tended to lead with something related to their current topic or area of learning and then let the children decide where to go after that. There are teacher notes for each expedition, but mostly it was a case of letting the children explore and find things for themselves. With a few carefully chosen questions you can bring out some great learning points.
The most popular expeditions we looked at were, in no particular order, The Antarctic, World timeline (exploring the formation of Earth through to the Jurassic era), a variety of underwater scenes and the Earth and the moon. All of these provided children with the opportunity to visit places they have never and probably will never visit. The Burj Khalifa was also very popular, with some children able to relate their own experiences.
Using Google Expeditions in the classroom
The app itself enables is free to download for IOS or Android. To run an expedition yourself you need a leader, with a device and students need to device on which to follow. This can be a smartphone in a VR headset, or a tablet. If you use the latter, the experience is not as immersive, however the larger screen means images are sharper and more detailed. If you can get hold of some cheap or second hand smartphones, you could achieve the full immersive experience at relatively low cost. It’s advisable to have a router, separate from your school network, which can broadcast at 5 GHz. Most school networks will broadcast at 2.4 GHz and even if 5 GHz is available most school lines will not provide the necessary ports and will not have sufficient bandwidth for a good experience. Don’t be put off by this, most domestic routers are dual band, and even of you can’t get hold of a second hand one, they can be picked up new for next to nothing.
Once your technically up and running, as a teacher you launch a leader session on your device, then the children will be able to follow you. All the resources are indexed and searchable or you can simply browse through the various expeditions.
There are a couple of great features within the app – as a teacher you can mark a particular point on the image, once you do that an arrow appears on the children’s screens which directs them to that location. You can see on your screen when the children follow the point as they are represented by an icon which moves around as they look at different locations. There are plans for you to be able to individually identify children with this feature, which would be a great addition. There are also teacher notes for each expedition, which are very useful and link directly to the images in each expedition.
Taking it Further
If you would like to take things further, Google offers a fully resourced online training session and options to become training partners. I am hoping to show Expeditions at a Teachmeet in the near future as they offer the opportunity for sets to be used in teacher training sessions.