Sunday, January 3, 2016

Can Virtual Reality Be a Reality in Schools?

On December 31, 2015 I had the honor of being on the panel for the "2015 EdTech Year in Review" Google Hangout/Podcast with the amazing Dr. Wesley Fryer, Jason Neiffer,  and Dr. Eric Langhorst. We discussed a broad array of edtech topics during the hour and twenty minute broadcast, including Google Cardboard, virtual reality, and its viability in the school setting beyond just a cool gadget in the makerspace.

As Google Cardboard and other virtual reality devices currently stand I feel the ability for schools to embrace and fully utilize this technology is weak for two main reasons; funding and education related content.

Funding, funding, funding.  Schools have extremely limited resources. Many schools that jumped on the iPad bandwagon are now finding themselves needing to replace all of the iPads previously purchased as newer technologies simply will not work with the older iPad versions.  I ran into this issue when setting up the JCHS Library MakerSpace this year, mistakenly thinking I could use the existing school iPads for our robots.  Additionally, computer labs/computer carts are all on rotating cycles for upgrades.  While Google Cardboard itself is relatively cheap (depending on the version purchased) with some units as low as $6, the expense comes in to play with the device needed to access the virtual reality apps.  

SIDE NOTE: Google Cardboard is cheap ($6) because it is CARDBOARD.  After a week of use in the JCHS Library MakerSpace my cardboard was falling to pieces, not to mention the inability to wipe greasy forehead marks off the cardboard.  I "solved" this "problem" using decorative duct tape from our arts and crafts area and have been pleased with the results.   
Just a few days ago I learned about Virtual Reality Goggles that are basically Google Cardboard without the cardboard.  Of course I had to buy a pair and will most likely add one or two to our makerspace.

Google Cardboard needs a smartphone to work.  I simply can't see schools investing in smartphones, even a class set of 30, for Google Cardboard.  Perhaps a dedicated teacher in a high school BYOD school, willing to forge a new educational frontier could corral their students to all download virtual reality apps to their devices for a class lesson, but this will not work for most teachers...or students.

First, BYOD doesn't ensure that the device each student has is a smartphone. It could be a tablet or laptop.  Second, the majority of elementary and middle school students (from my personal experience) don't have personal smartphones that they carry with them to school.  Third, parents, even of my high school kids, have put parental restrictions on their children's smartphones to prevent downloading apps without their permission.  Fourth, students often do not have space on their smartphones to download the virtual reality apps and do not want to delete their music, photos, and videos to make room for the necessary apps.  Lastly, school wifi stinks when it comes to downloading apps.  Just image a whole class trying to download a virtual reality app all at the same time using your school wifi.... UGH!

Educational content.  Google is working on the educational content forefront with their Google Expeditions Pioneer Program.  If chosen, your school will receive “kits” containing everything a teacher needs to run a virtual trip for their class:ASUS smartphones, a tablet for the teacher to direct the tour, a router that allows Expeditions to run without an Internet connection, and Google Cardboard viewers or Mattel View-Masters that turn phones into virtual reality headsets.  

Starr Sackstein, a teacher at the World Journalism Preparatory School in Flushing, NY, was one of the the few lucky classes to be chosen to pilot a Google Expeditions Pioneer Program.  She wrote detailed blog post for Education Week about using Google Expeditions with her students.  Touted mostly as a cost effective alternative to field trips, Ms. Sackstein also shares other possible educational uses for Google Cardboard:
  • Science classes can now explore the world around them in 360 degree panoramas. Teachers can talk students through space and other points of interest to deepen understanding of classroom learning. From underwater, to high into the air, there are many options.
  • Travel is also possible in expedition. So if we want students to see the world of the texts or history we are studying, they can walk through the places we speak of. Imagine being able to actually transport students to literary London during a class period and talk about the specific sites that Dickens and other English authors discuss.
  • Historical events come to life as well as students can explore different aspects of the many wars throughout history.
  • For journalism the possibilities are limitless. This technology will give reporters the opportunity to amp up their stories by bringing readers to the actual location they are writing about. The New York Times capitalized on this recently, giving away the cardboard viewer to experience one of their stories. There is an app associated with it, where readers are now viewers of news adding another sense to the learning experience.
All of this sounds really great, but after the Pioneer Program ends how will Google offer schools the Google Expeditions "kit"?  Will they give it away or offer something "affordable" for the average school?  This remains to be seen.

I'm not quite willing to say yet that Google Cardboard will go the way of Google Glass.  I would love to see our BioMed students explore its uses.  Just last week Dr. Redmond Burke used Google Cardboard to virtual practice an extremely delicate heart surgery, ultimately saving a life.

I am also in love with Vrse, the New York Times virtual reality app that brings news stories to life. The applications for current event classes is obvious.

This is a technology I will keep my eye on.

Cross your fingers that my request to be part of the Google Expeditions Pioneer Program will come through this year!  James Clemens High School is ready to run with this program!

*YouTube also offers 360 videos to be viewed with Google Cardboard.

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