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Virtual reality in the classroom just got affordable

By Maureen Yoder 11/27/2015

What could your students learn if you took them to the Great Wall of China? To the bottom of the ocean? To Mars? Or inside the human body?

With advancements in virtual reality (VR) technology, it’s not only possible to experience such places in precise 3D detail, it’s affordable too. Google Cardboard is a VR tool that lets you immerse your students in both real and imaginary worlds far from your own classroom.

What is Google Cardboard?

The device itself is no more than a corrugated cardboard box with Velcro, two lenses and a slot for your mobile phone. Using VR apps, you can experience virtual environments by viewing your phone screen through the lenses to get a stereoscopic image with a wide field of view.

On Nov. 8, every subscriber to the Sunday New York Times received a Google Cardboard kit with their Sunday paper. That’s 1.3 million! It was all part of an effort to unveil a new way to experience the news. Using the New York Times VR app, readers could watch a series about children displaced by war. The stories, which will capture your heart and possibly inspire a language arts or cultural studies writing assignment, demonstrate the power of VR as a storytelling device. 

 “This new filmmaking technology enables an uncanny feeling of connection with people whose lives are far from our own,” writes Jake Silverstein, editor of the NYT magazine.

But how can you use Google Cardboard to advance learning? Keep in mind that any
educational Google Cardboard activity involves three components: the device, the content and the lesson.

The device

For each student or student group, you’ll need a Google Cardboard kit and a smartphone. You or your students will need to provide the phones, but you can find Google Cardboard kits ranging in price, quality and size from a variety of manufacturers. (I have listed some important distinctions between Versions 1 and 2 below.)

What you get is premarked and cut cardboard that you fold into the shape of a viewer, two lenses and usually a link to a website with assembly instructions. You can purchase a kit for as little as $5 or as much as $85 for a metal and wood version, though the average price is about $12.  

The content

Start by downloading the Google Cardboard app from Google Play or iTunes. Next peruse the growing number of apps that offer rich content related to geography, history, art, science, music and more.

The lessons

In order for Google Cardboard to move beyond colorful and entertaining videos, however, it must offer thought-provoking curriculum-based experiences.

The most ambitious effort so far is the Expeditions Pioneer Program, created by Google itself. If you have at least six interested teachers, you can sign up to have an Expeditions team come to your school, with a complete kit, and train teachers on how to use the materials. The kit includes 30 headsets, a tablet for the teacher and more than 100 expeditions.

As more VR apps become available, it will be easy for teachers to create their own customized activities. One teacher can build a geography lesson around a VR trip to Barcelona while another can incorporate the same app into a Spanish language class. Likewise, a journey along the ocean floor could teach students about aquatic animals and plants in science class or be a prompt for a language arts activity about the preservation of our oceans.

Educational VR apps are sure to increase exponentially now that the inexpensive headsets are available. Before you begin your VR journey, keep these six tips in mind.

  1. Consider the phone you will be using. There are two versions of Google Cardboard. Version 1 will accommodate most Android phones and work with the Android OS. It has a magnetic button for input. Version 2 is larger and will accommodate the iPhone6 and the Nexus 6. It has a piece of conductive foam that acts as an input device. It is also easier to put together. Version 2 is fully compatible with iOS.

  2. Decide how much you want to pay. I put together five different Google Cardboard kits ranging from $6.50 to $16.99. The more expensive DSCOPEpro, EIGHTones and BrizTechVR kits are sturdier, labeled well, and have website support and links to apps. The supportive videos for the less expensive models are very useful, and the apps will work with them as well.

  3. Purchase one kit to try. Before you order a large quantity, order one to test-drive for ease of use and durability.

  4. Have backups. Purchase more kits than the number you think you’ll need. Cardboard is porous and flexible and will not hold up as well as stronger materials, especially if it gets wet. To keep germs from spreading, plan on having one per students. Cardboard is not easy to clean.

  5. Allow time to search for good apps. This is a young technology with a dearth of reviews, blogs or websites devoted to apps for classroom use. So take time to explore several possibilities before you decide to use an app in your classroom.  

  6. Remember that it is all about good teaching. It is up to you and other innovative teachers to create thought-provoking challenges for your students. An isolated VR experience may be engaging and entertaining, but it will not improve your lessons as much as a well thought out plan that aligns to the ISTE Standards.

Want to learn more about using virtual environments in the classroom? ISTE members can join the Virtual Environments Network. Not a member? Join us today.

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