At King’s Ely, we have been working to develop the quality of questions that students ask, as well as answer, in order to think geographically.
The Open University is already in the process of establishing a research basis to support the idea that the quality of student questioning is boosted when they have ‘seen’, in an immersive way, the place they are studying. Professor Shailey Minocha and Dr. Ana-Despina Tudor from the Open University, who are researching the value of VR technology in education, had previously demonstrated the technology at a Geographical Association meeting I had attended.
For this reason, I was keen to explore how a visit from the Google Expeditions team might be received by my students. Perhaps they would begin to make new connections as the narrative of the Expedition develops.
We identified four groups of Year 7 and 8 students who would all experience the same expeditions, based on coral reef exploration and the problem of coral bleaching. These tours were developed from work originally carried out by the Catlin Seaview Survey on the Great Barrier Reef and other locations where warm water corals have developed.
The learning objectives were to explore the types of questions that exposure to the tours prompted, and whether the students thought that ‘seeing’ the corals in this way, along with listening to the prepared script, provided them with the stimulus to come up with ‘better’ geographical questions.
The lesson outcomes related to coral bleaching, understanding that corals are fragile ecosystems threatened by environmental change and understanding that, as oceans get warmer, this may become a greater problem for those areas of the ocean where corals are found.
Does the technology work?
The students were immediately engaged with Google’s technology and the Expeditions. There were lots of ‘wows’ and swivelling heads as I talked them through the story of the corals and used the tour leader functionality in the tours to take them between the points of interest, guided by the arrow that appeared in their view. Some students lay on the floor to view the tours.
I was able to press pause to turn the screens on student devices dark, so that I could bring their attention back to me. I could follow where they were looking by a sea of smiley faces, which ‘swam’ between each point of interest on the screen as I progressed through the tour.
The Google Expeditions team brought all the necessary headsets and technology to facilitate a day of virtual exploration. A dedicated wireless router was used and the tours were pre-loaded onto both the tablet I used to guide the tours and the smartphones used by students to view the tour. A school Wi-Fi network could also be used if it was reliable and fast enough.
The cardboard headsets themselves are reasonably robust, but may not cope with repeated heavy handling by students. Some students wanted to ‘move’ through the tours by moving their own bodies, which is not yet possible at this price level, but can be done using the expensive new HTC Vive set-up and similar high-spec VR platforms such as Oculus Rift.
How practical is VR to implement?
For most schools, using Google Expeditions on this scale would require an investment which would need to be justified across the curriculum.
You would need training to ensure teachers are comfortable running an entire experience based on VR headsets, and there would also need to be a class set of equipment for the tour to work as envisaged, along with network manager support. A certain amount of preparation is also required to ensure that tours are downloaded and available when required.
Care may need to be taken over the use of tours during any school day, so that students aren’t spending too much time exposed to this sort of imagery. There were a few students who found viewing the images in the headsets a little dizzying.
Can VR find its place in the classroom?
Tom Bennett, the government’s school behaviour tsar and co-founder of ResearchED, has recently written about the need to ‘drain the swamp’ of teaching gimmicks, with respect to the use of games such as Minecraft. Could VR be seen as a gimmick?
For me, the Expedition created a high level of engagement and interest. This was partly generated by the presence of outside visitors and a change to the usual routine, but it was also thanks to the experience of a new tool for learning. Several students, for example, later obtained their own headsets so they could use their own devices to access tours. If we can continue to facilitate independent learning in this way, it can only be a good thing.
Depending on the availability of supporting curriculum materials, I could see this finding a place at intervals in our Geography curriculum, particularly when teaching about distant locations, or features whose scale we need to get across to students.
I would also like to have access to a simple scripting tool, where I would be able to use my own 360 images (or those taken by others) and merge them to form a bespoke tour for the lessons that we teach at King’s Ely. This idea of moving from content consumption to production, especially when it’s produced by students, is a key benefit of classroom technology.
Moving forwards, we’ll also need a broader range of Expeditions written by subject specialists, where a range of learning objectives can be linked to specific geographical locations. I understand that further materials for Geography are currently being written.
Although Google Expeditions is still in the early stages of educational use, it has shown real potential as a tool to engage students and broaden their range of questioning. I hope to be involved in shaping some of the curriculum opportunities created by VR within the field of Geography.
Alan Parkinson is an award-winning teacher, geography consultant and author. He has previously worked as Secondary Curriculum Leader for the Geographical Association. He is a Chartered Geographer and Fellow of the RGS and RSGS
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