I first saw a Google Expeditions demo when our district was lucky enough to be selected to have the Google Expeditions Pioneer Program visit three out of our four schools in the spring of 2016. The kids were incredibly engaged, and the staff were beaming with excitement as to how they could incorporate these virtual reality field trips into their lesson plans.
My tech team quickly got to work to see how we could either bring a kit, or price out a cheaper alternative to get Google Expeditions into our district. We quickly found that this was not an easy task. Gaining the physical Google Cardboard, and downloading the free Google Expedition app wasn’t the issue. We found that many companies that manufacture and sell the physical cardboard devices (even the ones not made out of cardboard) were happy to send us a few samples to test out. We then tried to ask parents to donate older used smart phones and iPod touch devices. We didn’t get many though as cell phone companies now have users turn in their old phones when they upgrade. The devices that were donated were too old and were not compatible with the app either. (Specs are listed on the Google Expeditions website and on the app description within the Google Play and Apple App Stores).
In the end, it was just easier to become an early adopter and purchase a 20 unit kit from BestBuy which was the only vendor at the time that would sell the entire kit to schools here in the United States. It came at a pretty good cost of $7,000, but we quickly found that it was well worth the price. The kit included 20 Asus Zen phones, 20 ViewMaster plastic viewers, an Android Teacher Tablet, a single Access Point already setup for it’s own Expeditions Network, quick charging bricks for all of the devices, and a rugged Pelican case on wheels for transportation.
During the summer of 2016, we had a planned tech equipment purchase fall through at our high school, so we had some money left in our budget and the team quickly agreed that the Google Expeditions Kit was a worthy purchase.
Fast forward a year, and we have learned a lot! At first, Google Expeditions was rolled out as an event. The Pioneer Program started this trend, by offering multiple sessions within one day that would access as many users as possible. We quickly realized that if we wanted this technology to become sustainable over time and get true buy in from teachers,(not just be the latest tech trend) that we would have to find a better way to integrate VR into the existing curriculum multiple times throughout the year.
The TES lesson resources website for teachers, proved to be an excellent resource to boost teacher acceptance and gain demand for the Google Expeditions kit throughout our district. By searching lessons with the #googleexpeditions, many teacher vetted lesson plans that incorporate these VR field trips were available at the click of a button. These lessons blended solid teaching with student observation activities and collaborative presentations lined up with the Google Expeditions. It wasn’t long before we had to create a Google Expeditions Kit sign out through Google Forms.
On our intranet page (an internal website only shared with staff within the district) we created a Google Form and a displayed calendar for when the Google Expeditions kit was being used. This way teachers could look at the page to gain information about the kit, find excellent resources for VR lesson plans, take a look at when the kit may be available and sign up to have the tech team bring the kit to their classroom and set it all up for the lesson. This proved to work very smoothly throughout the year here in York.
The tech team quickly found out that following up with the teacher about the lesson and curriculum became more of a necessity before the lesson than the tech involved. Truthfully the tech is really easy. Prior to the lesson we would plug in an access point within the classroom. This router does not effect our own wireless as it is not on the Internet at all. This is simply used to mirror the display, in this case the VR field trip(s) chosen by the teacher, from the teacher tablet to the phones that are within all of the ViewMaster goggles. We would also download the expedition(s) to the teacher tablet before connecting to the closed network and handing it off to the teacher. That was it! All of the phones when booted up would therefore see the broadcast from the access point we had just plugged in, so when the Google Expeditions app was opened on the student devices, they merely had to click follow and join the expedition. Then the teacher literally drives the lesson and controls the expedition.
I’m hugely excited about the new Google Expeditions updates with solo mode, teacher annotations and even augmented reality coming to the latest version. In fact, you can sign up now to see the Google Expeditions Augmented Reality version next year through their new Pioneer Program here.
Of course, this brings up a new budgetary obligation to think about. As Google updates this program, we will most likely need to update our equipment as well. Now, this isn’t a huge obstacle for those launching the Google Expeditions program at high schools and even most middle schools as students already have access to either smart phones or iPod touch devices, but for those elementary students this is something to look at over time.
Personally, if I were to start this adventure this year, I would purchase quality VR goggles, which you can now get at any leading department store or on Amazon relatively cheap. I’d ask the tech team to lend an old access point that broadcasts a password protected network, (remember they do not have to plugin to the network, just merely power it on), and purchase a cheap Android tablet for the teacher device, this program could be launched very cost effective at a high school or even middle school where students are allowed to use their own mobile devices.