Virtual school tours take students to the moon and back

Schools are getting to test Google Expeditions, a virtual reality tool that allows students to ‘visit’ far-flung places such as Machu Picchu and outer space

Students at Mount Sackville, Chapelizod, taking part in the Google Expeditions pilot project

Students at Mount Sackville, Chapelizod, taking part in the Google Expeditions pilot project

 

‘So, girls, we’re going to the moon this morning,” says Fiona McKeever, a science teacher at Mount Sackville secondary school in Dublin. There’s silence in the class. Within moments there is a chorus of excited whispers and the occasional shriek of excitement.

“Take a look around. There’s no air or atmosphere. The craters you’re looking at are millions of years old. And it does wonders for your weight: it’s just one-sixth of normal gravity.”

These students are taking part in a virtual field trip using cardboard headsets, smartphones and a teacher-operated tablet. The Google Expeditions programme gives students the chance to experience 360-degree views of places inaccessible to your average school bus trip.

The moon is one of just 100 journeys, which range from the dizzying heights of Machu Picchu in Peru to some of the deepest caves in the world in Slovakia.

There is a special kind of magic when you enter into the immersive world of each location. The moon feels bleak and exposed. You get a sense of how isolating it must have been for astronauts looking back towards the distant blue sphere of Earth.

In the upper reaches of Machu Picchu, the steep inclines feel stomach-churning as you look down towards the distant foothills.

The Expeditions programme is in a pilot phase and has been introduced in a number of countries, including the US, Mexico, Canada, Sweden and now Ireland.

It is part of wider trend of offering schools immersive ways of experiencing history, biology or geography, without leaving the school building (see panel).

Instead of reaching for dusty history books , for example, students can now get a taste of the cramped and mud-spattered lives of people living in medieval Dublin in a new online learning plaform.

The free resource, developed by Dublinia.ie in association with Dublin City Council, contains audio-visual animations and interactive information about Viking and Anglo-Normans sites around the capital. Among the most impressive features is an interactive map with a time- travelling scroll bar that allows users to see how the Dublin landscape transformed from AD 800 to today.

Many primary schools students are using the site for projects and it has been optimised for teacher- led learning via a classroom interactive whiteboard.

Nick Davern, a fifth-class teacher in St Audoen’s School on Cook Street in Dublin, says the website fits in neatly with the primary curriculum and is firing the imagination of students in new ways.

“There are also interactive newspaper articles from this time,” he says. “This is a fictionalised newspaper, which uses Horrid Henry-style humour to get across the interesting and unusual facts of the time.”

The end of school tours?

Although many of these developments are impressive, some teachers and educationalist fret that technology will spell the end of the traditional school field trip.

Children – the argument goes – are already consumed with digital devices and risk being drawn ever-deeper into virtual reality rather than the physical world around them. Google, however, is quick to point out that its Expeditions programme is not a replacement for the traditional school trip.

Rather, it says, it is an opportunity to take a class where they would never otherwise be able to go.

There will doubtless be concerns about cost implications, too. Surely using high-tech kit means only affluent schools will be able to afford these experiences?

Google says its pilot phase is taking place without any cost to schools. Assuming it is rolled out in future, schools would be expected to pay for the cardboard headsets (about €18 each), which use a standard Android smartphone

After testing the kit with her students, Karen Stronge, a religion and English teacher at Mount Sackville, feels it could play a valuable role in engaging students.

“It’s a great hook to get them interested. If you’re studying Romeo and Juliet, you can look around Verona. Or if you’re teaching geography, students can get a feel for different ecosystems,” she says.

“Reading can be passive and hard to engage students with. But this really captures their attention. It’s not a replacement for teaching, by any means, but it’s a good hook to grab students with.”

An immersive approach

Some might be tempted dismiss it as just a classroom gimmick to capture the ever-shortening attention span of students,

On the contrary, says Google, there is real science behind the programme. Although some students struggle with traditional teaching approaches, the immersive approach is highly effective for visual learners.

It’s also reasonably structured. Using a tablet as a guided tour interface, teachers can point out important features in each scene. Students can then head off to explore the environments independently.

The real verdict, however, lies with the students. After a morning road-testing the new kit, the students of Mount Sackville are uniformly impressed. Aoife Bartley, a fifth-year student, is buzzing after visiting Machu Picchu. “You get a real sense of it,” she says. “I could feel as if I was up there, looking all the way down. You do get a lot out of it. It has a real impact.”

Similarly, Tara Nolan was impressed at visiting the moon. After all, it’s not every day you get to go to outer space and back before lunch break.

“Chances are none of us will get a chance to see space in real life,” she says. “But with this, you can move around and interact. It’s the next-best thing.”

VIRTUAL FIELD TRIPS WHERE TO TAKE YOUR CLASS

  • Google Expeditions: A new product by Google that allows teachers to take their classes on virtual trips using a cardboard virtual reality viewer that holds a smartphone inside. It expects to open the programme to schools and the wider public. In the meantime, schools can sign up to take part in the pilot phase. google.ie/edu/expeditions/
  • Dublinia: A new learning platform is helping to unlock the city’s medieval and Viking past for primary-school students. It was developed by Dublinia in partnership with Dublin City Council, and in association with the Heritage Council/Irish Walled Towns Network, Scoilnet and NoHo. dublinia.ie/online-learning/
  • Dublin Rising 1916-2016 A virtual tour narrated by Colin Farrell that brings viewers to parts of Dublin synonymous with the Easter Rising. The interactive Google street view tour offers access to historical and cultural resource material. Visitors can stop at city-centre locations as they are today, hear what happened there and click to explore photos, stories and witness statements from Dublin 1916. dublinrising.withgoogle.com/ welcome/
  • A History of Ireland in 100 Objects The Department of Education has supported the Royal Irish Academy in developing lesson plans based on objects featured in the Irish Times/RIA series “A History of Ireland in 100 Objects”, by Fintan O’Toole. 100objects.ie
  • Archaeology in the Classroom A website with abundant resources for primary pupils and secondary students. Primary teachers can download a 12-module resource pack and pupils can find interesting facts, games and activities. itsabouttime.ie
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