From a technology innovator’s perspective, the goal of innovation is not getting some new technology into the classroom. No, my goal as an innovator is to think outside the box and offer teachers technology ideas that work in the classroom. No creative idea will get past the tech savvy teachers and reach the overall staff if it’s not easy to implement, can be integrated into the curriculum and impacts the learning. These three pillars are what I focused on as our Google Expeditions project grew from a few devices into the district wide initiative it is today.
If you’re not familiar, and many are not, Google Expeditions is a virtual reality system created for classroom use. It brings to the table ease of use, a variety of integration ideas and most importantly, classroom management. Conceptually, you have up to 30 devices connected to the same WiFi and when all have the Google Expeditions app installed the system is ready to go. One device leads by selected locations to explore, such as Mount Everest or the respiratory system, and the others connect as following devices. From the main device, the teacher can point out things on screen to direct the students towards, read premade material included in the app or pause the event entirely if the class is getting out of hand. What I have described is literally all there is to Google Expeditions. Think of it like The Magic School bus, without the bus.
Because the system is extremely easy to use, we have seen teachers look at the available locations they can explore with their students (Google Expeditions List) and then use that as a tool to enhance the lessons they are already planning for. Our students have seen the Moon in the first person during a space unit in elementary and middle school students have been inside a plant cell to see photosynthesis at the molecular level. That being said, virtual reality is not meant to be a separate event in the classroom or replace any of the tools a teacher uses throughout the year. Using VR in the classroom is simply another tool that teachers can transparently integrate into their curriculum and it’s been an overwhelming success (Google Expeditions Feedback Survey). This coming year, our district will use the concept we created to grow Expeditions from one kit in the Technology Department into having one kit for every school. At this scale, every teacher in the district has the option to integrate virtual reality into their lessons.
Most importantly, throughout all of this, the impact it has on the learning has been incredible. For example, in a class with special needs students we hosted a VR session that went from low Earth orbit to the Moon on our way to Mars. During this event the excitement was palpable and every student was friends with every other student and not a single one was special needs anymore. Virtual reality in the learning leveled the playing field and everyone was on the same adventure together. There have been students who recalled content that was explored nearly five months earlier and still had that same engaged look in their eye when they explained it. However, seeing the impact on staff has been profound. During an expedition to the Liberty Bell with fourth graders, a staff member began crying. According to her, she has spent her entire life wanting to see the Liberty Bell in person and this is the closest she had ever been and she was overwhelmed. Google Expeditions made her dream a reality and it doesn’t get any more real than that.
Written by Paul Zimmerman, a technology innovator in the Blaine County School District. He focuses on the transparent integration of technology in the classroom. He can be reached via email [email protected] or on Twitter: @paulkzimm