To learn about geology, the students of Mary, Mother of the Redeemer Catholic School gather in a classroom. They put on the appropriate headwear. And then they go right into the gaping mouth of an active volcano.
Thanks to the virtual reality app, Google Expeditions, and the efforts of the school’s faculty, students can also join Paul Revere on his midnight ride. Or explore outer space, the ocean floor, and the organs of the human body. Ultimately, the students get to experience their lessons live and in person — no buses or brown paper bags required.
“The kids are ecstatic,” says Jonathan Fox, technology teacher and classroom coordinator. “Each time we go to a new location, as it loads into their headsets, there’s just this shocked noise across the room. ‘Whoa!’ ‘Cool!’ The room explodes with voices. Instead of just watching the content, they feel as though they’re a part of it.”
Google Expeditions is a free app that lets students explore virtual reality panoramas and 3D images of places around the world — and beyond. At Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, classes use virtual reality headsets that track their motions so students can look up, down, and all around in each location. Teachers guide and narrate the tours, using the technology to teach practical lessons across all subjects.
“The students don’t even realize they’re learning, because to them, it’s fun,” says Principal Denise Judge. “And that ties in to our mission to make it enjoyable, to make it meaningful, to make it real.”
Mary, Mother of the Redeemer adopted the program in the fall semester of 2016. Fox says one of the biggest draws of the technology is that it is fully adaptable. A virtual trip to the Great Wall of China, for instance, can be used to teach lessons on history, geography, architecture, and math. And the app can be used on a range of devices, from advanced headsets to more affordable Google Cardboard viewers. Younger students and students prone to motion sickness can view tours on everyday smartphones or tablets.
Teachers of all subjects work with Fox to guide their classes through relevant tours. The idea is to use the program as a tool in the larger lesson plan, allowing children to learn through experience and immersion.
“There aren’t always pictures in the textbook, but VR lets me see it,” says Gianna, a third grader at Mary, Mother of the Redeemer.
“It’s easier to understand because you can see it in front of you,” adds Sandra, a sixth grader.
Judge says the technology gives students a valuable point of reference. Students can write best about a topic when they’ve experienced it, and with the app? “You can do almost everything but smell it,” she says.
Judge is also quick to attribute the program’s success to the faculty’s willingness to constantly research, share, and evaluate the latest approaches. She says while the school doesn’t adopt every new technology, they stay open to new methods that offer substance as well as awe.
“I think we find ourselves in a world that most of us, as administrators, could not have seen, insofar as we are competing with technology and innovations that were unimaginable at one point,” Judge says.
“So rather than fight it, why can’t we just embrace it and make it work for us in the best educational way possible?”
Even the app itself has changed in the short time since the school adopted it. Google Expeditions has teamed up with partners like PBS and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to add a slew of new locations. Fox says while there were around 200 tours available last fall, now there are over 600.
With so many expeditions, the teachers have plenty of options for engaging students — and adults. Case in point: when teachers demonstrated the app to students’ parents and grandparents during Catholic Schools Week, the guests packed the classroom for a chance to see and try out the technology.
“The adults were the biggest kids in the room,” Judge says. “The grandparents were so overwhelmed — and so into it at the same time. I’ll tell you, it’s a feel-good experience.”
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