Students from Wauwatosa West High School traveled to the Taj Mahal in India, Machu Picchu in Peru and the Colosseum in Rome last week — all while never leaving their seats.
The global travel was made possible by Google Expeditions, a virtual reality platform built for the classroom. The technology, which contains phones and cardboard viewers for the students and a tablet for the teacher, could be the new wave of complementary instruction in the classroom, said Chris Lazarski, a social studies and journalism teacher at the school who helped orchestrate the event.
"Technology can be an effective way to engage students in the learning process," he said.
Teachers across the school were invited to bring their classrooms to a center near the library and take students on a virtual reality tour. One teacher was expected to bring her students on an ocean expedition, which aligned with what her class was studying at the time. Another teacher hoped to take her students through Jerusalem as her class was in the middle of a unit on southwest Asia, Lazarski said.
One by one on the morning of April 14, Lazarski's students picked up a cardboard viewfinder from a table near the center of the room. They were invited to place the viewers on their faces, similar to wearing a pair of goggles, minus the straps. A digital screen inserted into the viewer contained images of different destinations. If a student turned his or her head to the left or right, the viewer would swivel accordingly.
Students remained in their seats as walking forward or backward was ineffective; the viewer remained in one position the entire time and operated on a 360-degree swivel. The students turned in their seats, engrossed by the technology.
"It's beautiful," said one boy of the Taj Mahal. "I have to go there someday."
Lazarski operated a tablet. Using graphics that synced to each of the students' viewers, he would point to interesting spots or circle things he wished to discuss. The teacher gave mini lessons about each of the destinations the class visited.
Students reflect on technology
Back in their regular classroom, the students offered feedback on the new technology.
"I thought it was going to be gimmicky," said Aidan Gabriel, 18, a senior, of the images shown in the viewfinder. "But there was more detail that I expected."
Zoe Stack, also a senior, said introducing that sort of technology into society could have its downfalls; more and more people could explore the world through the comforts of their own communities, without ever having to travel.
But Kenna Gallegos, 17, said it could be a useful tool to those are unable to travel, perhaps because of a disability.
"It gives people the opportunity to go somewhere."
Regardless, Lazarski said Google Expeditions is a highly engaging tool teachers can use to help pupils learn how to make meaning of their world. He added he could easily use the technology several times a month for 15 or 20 minute blocks of time.