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The Good, the Bad and the Instructional of VR in the classroom

May 31, 2017


Heidi Bernasconi

Clarkstown High School North

Biology and Marine Biology Teacher

Google Certified Educator



Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are both trending topics not just in the consumer market, but in education as well.  In fact, it could be the first example of coevolution of EdTech.  Whether you are riding the Superman Roller Coaster at Six Flags using Oculus or training to become a nurse with Pearson’s Mix Reality Hololens, wearing a VR headset may become our new norm.


How does this look in Education? Is it realistic to run a classroom where 30 students are wearing VR headsets? The answer is yes, and there are many classrooms around the Globe who are already embracing this new technology.


Google Expeditions was one of the first educational apps built just around giving students an experience you can not accomplish with a 2D picture. And with its perfect price point, it is the best start to integrating VR into your classroom.


In 2015, I was privileged enough to be apart of the alpha and beta testing of Google Expeditions.  The database of 360 imagery was relativity new and thin. We worked together to build just over 100 expeditions that would be interdisciplinary and could be used across all grade levels.  Fast forward to today, there are now hundreds of expeditions, and Google has partnered with some of the best graphic design companies, such as Vida Systems, that has made this Biology teacher’s dream come true; field trips inside the human body.  I truly feel like today’s Mrs. Frizzle when I get to take my students into the Circulatory System!


So why should teachers embrace this technology? What are the benefits? Are there initial set back and tradeoffs? What does a lesson look like with VR in it?  


The Good of Google Expeditions and VR in the Classroom


1. Take your students where you can not normally go


As a Marine Biology teacher, it would be a dream to take my students (well, maybe a select few) on a scuba diving trip to the coral reefs. We could witness Biodiversity, Ocean Acidification and Coral Bleaching first hand. It would be an emotional experience that my students would not forget.  


However, due to time, expenses and the sheer fact I made a pact with myself I would never do overnights with high school kids, this field trip becomes quickly unrealistic.


Google Expeditions offers many underwater Expeditions that go all over the world. I can take my students to different spots around our globe within one class period.  Partners such as Caitlin Sea Survey, have provided incredible HD 360 images that has allowed for such realistic Expeditions to be built.  The first year my class piloted Expeditions, one student, who is an avid scuba diver, told the class and the engineers that the images are exactly what it looks like when he goes diving.


Expeditions allows me to compare the bleaching events in the Great Barrier Reef to what is happening with the acidification of the waters off the coast of Italy.   To sum up our lesson, we can discuss restoration projects such as the Coral Restoration Foundation in the Florida Keys. This can all happen in a few periods, in class, no passports or overnights required.



2. Student Ownership of Exploration


When you give students anything new, you have to give them time to play around. When I start any expedition, I give around 30 seconds for students to just look around and explore. Then I’ll start asking my content-specific questions. However, those 30 seconds are where students look and explore. They are looking at what is on the forefront, but also what is in the background.  During the Pregnancy Expedition (highly recommended FYI), my students asked so many questions about the background (which are the blood vessels and tissue of the uterus), it lead to great conversation about where and how a placenta forms and the role of the circulatory system in the development of a fetus.


During Expeditions, I have found that students will ask “What is that?” I could count on one hand that has no fingers how many students asked that question about something they saw in a 2D image or even a Youtube video. Not one...ever.


“What is that?” Asked no student ever when looking at 2D handouts. 




3.  Give Students an Immersive Experience that is new and fun


Google Expeditions and other VR is a technology that is new for many students. When I surveyed my students about what they liked about VR, these were the adjectives used:

  • Cool

  • Fun

  • Immersive

  • Realistic

  • Hands-on

  • Comprehensive

  • Interesting

  • Social

  • Really There


If you gave your students a survey of how they thought your tradition lesson went, how many of the above list would they use?


The Bad of VR in Education


So why do teachers hesitate with this technology? What are the tradeoffs or set backs when using this technology?


I remember the year where I piloted Chromebooks (then CR-48s) in my classroom. A 1:1 classroom was not common, especially for me. Giving up control of knowing what was on my student’s screen gave me anxiety.  Anxiety that I later got over, but it still gave me enough hesitation that I needed a little push to give some control to my students.


With anything, there are tradeoffs. Here is a list of my tradeoffs of VR in the classroom.


1.  Money


Even though the Google Expeditions app is free for both Android and iOS, devices to use this technology can come with a price. Best Buy is selling Expedition kits that range from $4000-$10,000 depending on how many devices you want.  This seems to be the only option for class sets for Middle School and Elementary classrooms.  However, working in a High School, I have found a cheaper solution: use the student’s personal devices.  


Here is what you need to make your own kit:

  1. A tablet (can be Android or iOS, you just need the app)

  2. Student devices (if you are using their phones, have them download the app in advance)

  3. A router that can have a 5G/ AC connection. *Note: running the devices on a router will eliminate the need to all be running on the same wifi connection. This speeds up connections to Expeditions tremendously and also keeps kids from being kicked off the expedition.

  4. Viewfinders. This would be your “big” investment. I have a class set that I bought on Amazon that cost around $400 to have. This could be cheaper, too, if you just buy the cardboard versions. I bought a blend of cardboard and plastic viewfinders.  If you are going to buy plastic ones, make sure you check the phone size that they fit. As phones get bigger, you want to make sure you can accommodate these.


Google Expeditions apps are free to use, which makes it the most accessible to use with students. With Hololens selling for $3,000 a piece, it is very unlikely that this AR will be entering my classroom...yet.



2.  Time of Lessons


It should be no mystery that lessons with VR are going to take longer than the traditional “chalk and talk” lesson style.  I have found that my VR lessons take ½-1 full period longer to complete. Part of that is having the students gather supplies and log onto my router.  However, the other additional time is conversational about what they are experiencing. Since VR is immersive, students naturally start to look all around. They don’t want to miss anything in the picture.  A good teacher would nurture this curiosity which obviously will add (valuable) time to your lessons.


3.  Dizzy/Blurry

The number one “bad” adjective my students gave during their survey was that they get dizzy after a while. My rule of thumb is to not let students on the VR headsets for more than 2 minutes at a time. They los