By guest blogger Leo Doran
If Google manages to deliver on its promises, folded cardboard and a smartphone are now all educators need to transport students from the depths of the oceans to the outer reaches of space in a matter of seconds.
On Monday, the tech giant announced the formation of the Expeditions Pioneer Program, an effort in which teams armed with virtual reality kits will be visiting schools across Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States throughout the 2015-16 academic year.
Expeditions, the new education-focused immersive experience app, will allow educators to choose from over 100 “destinations” and to guide the “expeditions” from a connected tablet.
The virtual reality system will be compatible both with Cardboard, Google’s open-source, low-budget response to Facebook’s Oculus Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus, and will also work on Android or i-Pad tablets that schools have often already invested in.
Currently, consumers can buy a pre-folded Cardboard for between $20 and $40. The design allows users to slip in their smartphone while running specially programmed apps, effectively creating a cheap introductory virtual reality headset. Users can also fold their own cardboard headset by following Google’s instructions here.
Jen Holland, the project’s program manager at Google, who oversaw an extensive pilot program that began in March, summed up the project’s reason for being in an interview: “teachers are looking for that magical moment.”
The system allows teachers to point out objects of interest within the student’s field of vision, and to pull up customizable notes that reinforce the lesson plan.
The expectation is that the immersive experiences will get students more excited and engaged in learning about the world than they would from reading a textbook.
Holland says that the program’s potential applications extend beyond taking students to physical spaces. Her team is studying ways to “bring abstract concepts to life” such as allowing students to experience graphing equations on the Cartesian plane in three dimensions.
In addition, Holland’s team is also partnering with groups like Soledad Obrien’s Starfish Foundation, among others, to give at-risk youth the new tool to help encourage them to explore potential careers?
While room is limited on the list of schools that will be visited in person by Google representatives as part of the Expeditions Pioneer Program, Holland said the company plans to release an app for free sometime this fall, making it available to all students and teachers.
Aaron Walsh, director of the Immersive Education Initiative at Boston College, is an expert in Virtual Reality, having built one of the first personal VR platforms during 1990’s.
He has seen first-hand how excited students get when they first put on a headset, although he cautions that teachers need to know how to regain control of a classroom abuzz with technology by making sure digital devices are being used to improve instruction.
Getting students to pay attention in class can be challenging in normal circumstances, but the headsets and exciting immersive environments pose the challenges of removing eye-contact and adding a myriad of distractions to the equation.
However, Walsh also cautions that as the headsets get more sophisticated and as people spend more time inside them, the specter of what he terms “immersive illness” is raised, pointing out that “nobody knows exactly what impact insanely realistic, media-rich Virtual Reality will have on society.”
In essence, people, including students, who spend too much time in Virtual Reality may have trouble getting back out into the everyday world—an important development to watch closely in a generation that is already more deeply plugged in than any in history.
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