Thursday, September 22, 2016

Embedding Google Expeditions in teaching

tl;dr summary  

  • Interface and technology:  Excellent
  • Content: Very good
  • Educational design: Could do better.
  • Worth investigating: Yes


Google launched expeditions for iOS this week (announcement of release).  This is important as previously expeditions was only available for Android devices and, being made available for both of the main platforms, removes a serious hurdle for schools in using it.  In the UK, they have also promised to produce lesson plans which goes some way to answering a criticism I raised previously, that they are passive ‘Cook’s tours’ and need to be more active.  So while my dearly beloved watched some TV last night I geeked out looking at the expeditions currently available.  I concentrated on the biology models, the natural history museums and the geography expeditions.  Here are some thoughts on those expeditions:


Just like street view before it (my post on educational ideas on how to use streetview in teaching) there is some fantastic content available for teachers to use in teaching Earth sciences.  It's totally free.  You don't even need the cardboard, you could plug a tablet into a projector to show students the content.

Slick interface and no problems combining platforms:

I experimented using two devices, one following (student), one leading (teacher).  No problems mixing iPhone, iPad and Android devices in all sorts of combinations.  The ‘show and tell’ interface worked slickly and intuitively, you can direct student's attention to where they should be looking and see where students are looking to check they're keeping up.  Nice work.

I'm told that it throws up some errors being used on schools' wifi systems.  Having your own WLAN (about £30) gets around this.


You can download the data to the teacher's device and then from there, over a WLAN (wireless local area network, think wifi not necessarily connected to internet) it streams to all the student's devices - no need to download the same data to everyone's device.  It also means if you have the technical chops you could set up a WLAN in a study centre in the middle of nowhere without access to the internet and run expeditions with students.  I'm thinking this will also be very useful in schools with dodgy internet.

Not the right media for the Biology Models

There are a number of human biology expeditions including the heart, the skeleton etc.  I'm not convinced they work because they consist of a static, 360 degree view of a the model where you can only see one side.  With this type of media you can't see the context e.g, considering the heart:

  • Where is it in relation to the lungs/ribs/diaphragm?  
  • How does the heart fit in with the circulation system?
IMHO a much better media to use in this context is what I call a 'build animation': video with audio where layers of graphic information are revealed one by one.  See Khan Academy's content and compare it with the heart expedition:

One of the photospheres in the ear model expedition is particularly poor:  it shows a model of an ear from the outside.  Much better to get students to look at the real thing, and, you know what?   There are lots of great examples attached to other students' heads all around them.

Museum Expeditions - hmmmm.

I also think the museum expeditions are pushing the format too far.  A museum is intrinsically designed around a 'skim view' and 'zoom in' viewing model* - you walk around the hall looking about you generally (skimming), you then see something that interests you so you zoom in: you walk towards it and read the information at the kiosk or exhibit.  Presenting materials formatted in this way in an expedition is preventing the zooming in part - you are 'stuck' to one point on the floor without the ability to walk up to an exhibit and access the detail.  

However, when the museum is impressing us with scale, e.g. discussing the dinosaur skeleton in the Natural History museum (see image), then an expedition becomes more effective because the museum experience is all about staying at the 'zoomed out' view.

Scale in Geography Expeditions:

If there are no familiar items in view (people, houses, etc. etc.) it's impossible to tell the scale of the view: 

Any idea how big those icebergs are?  A scale comparison needs to be provided, this could be the human drone operator as a Point of Interest (POI) or providing a POI showing a 100m line.

Geography Expeditions need maps:

I also think that the Geography expeditions really need to use maps.  Combining what I call the 'avatar view' (human scale view, as in expeditions) with the map view (views from altitude setting the place in context geographically) is a very powerful narrative tool and I haven't seen any examples of this being done in the expeditions.  I'll tackle that in a separate blog post.

Teaching tool:

Google are going to publish lesson plans about how to use expeditions in teaching.  Good, but I don't think that's enough.  IMHO expeditions need to be more customisable, in effect becoming a simple content creation tool.  Teachers need to be able to easily:
- Add polls with their own questions.
- Add their own POIs - there are many teaching reasons you may want to show students a jungle in an expedition, e.g. environmental science, biology, geography or tourism.  Having only one set of POIs available per expedition is limiting.
- Add traditional PowerPoint slides between the photospheres, e.g. maps putting the location in geographical context (see 'expeditions need maps' above) or showing a zoomed in view of a dinosaur tooth with annotations in the dinosaur example discussed earlier. 

Watch the journey into a glacier expedition, its done by Jamie Buchan-Dunlop (of Digital Explorer fame) and, as usual, he does it really well.  My favourite was the Mt Everest expedition, lovely example of taking students to a place that they will never probably go. 

*I'm sure there's some literature about this, do comment and let me know if there are some proper terms I should be using.