Going to Rome Before Recess

Kids around the world are getting as close as they possibly can to visiting the Great Wall of China and the ocean floor. The students are part of the pilot of a virtual field trip program from Google.

For many students, a history lesson on Ancient Rome is largely inaccessible. Understandably so: plenty of kids have seen only the architecture of their own cities, and the sights and sounds described in their textbooks couldn’t feel more distant from their daily lives.

For decades, teachers have sought to open the world to their students by scraping together funds to bus them to a nearby museum or the state capitol. But starting this fall, kids around the world are getting as close as they possibly can to visiting the Great Wall of China and the ocean floor.

Those students are part of the pilot of the Expeditions Pioneer Program, a virtual field trip program from Google. Expeditions kits, provided free to participating schools, include smartphones, Cardboard (Google’s virtual reality viewer), a tablet for the teacher, and an Internet router. The devices are loaded with software that uses Google Street View images to create 360-degree three-dimensional images of historical landmarks, natural settings, and other locations worldwide.

The program was launched in late September, with regions of the United States, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom eligible. Instead of shipping out the materials, Google sends employees to the schools so they can train the teachers to use the program.

So are these “field trips” that much better than the documentaries teachers have been showing for years? Or the images they project on large screens in front of their classrooms? In fact, the exploration is confined to those 360-degree views. But the novelty of the immersive device and three-dimensional images is sure to capture the students’ attention. Remember clicking through images in your View-Master as kid? Way more fun than a picture book.[pullquote]kids are getting as close as they possibly can to visiting the ocean floor.[/pullquote]

Expeditions joins an already competitive and, some say, saturated field of edtech options. But, as the New York Times points out, this product is one of the few designed with a classroom setting in mind. It does not erase the role of the teacher, who has an iPad app that allows him or her to give all the students a guided tour, pausing at will. (The adult involvement averts some of the problems that come with other 1:1 device programs in schools.) Plus, there are no technical difficulties or scarcity of resources because the materials are provided. At least for now.

Google hopes to turn Expeditions into a commercial product that schools can buy. Although the company says it will only do so if the cost is “accessible,” any cost could end up placing the devices in the same schools that can already afford field trips, or whose families already travel. Schools can now apply to take part in the pilot, but in the United States it is currently limited to institutions in California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Texas.

It is easy to see the directions in which Expeditions could—and will— expand. Already Google has included trips to museums, national parks, and even banks in its Expeditions line-up. Michelle Obama’s trip to the historically black university Howard is one of many virtual college tours Google hopes to provide. Also in the near future, users will likely be able to use GoPro technology to create their own virtual reality images. Youtube’s #360Video content is already viewable with Cardboard.

Still, there is one potential drawback of traditional field trips that Google has not managed to entirely prevent. Sure, there are no stuffy school buses traveling on winding roads to cause carsickness—but one tech blogger reports that the motion in Expeditions almost made her throw up.

Published October 28, 2015