Friday, May 11, 2018

Google have just released 'VR tour creator'.  Excellent!

This allows anyone to:
  • Identify a series of streetview photospheres
  • Add 'points of interest' to them with text or photos
  • Publish to the world

Which is essentially a way of authoring a Google Expedition.

This is a great tool for education projects, I've seen examples done already with other tools (sorry, can't find link) but Google make it very easy for students with this cloud offering.

Hello World tour (translation: my first tryout)
I've already had a play, creating a tour using photos of my work place:  the Open University campus at Milton Keynes (the OU is 100% distance learning so the campus isn't somewhere the majority of our students ever visit).  As with most recent Google tools, the usability and interface was well thought out and designed so I had no real problems.

The embedded iframe above won't work on certain machines, fire up the post on a recent laptop to see it.

Example activity - comparing town and city shopping.
If it would help get your creative juices flowing, here's an an example student activity I thought up: compare town shopping and city shopping.  I live in Leighton Buzzard, UK, a small town (streetview).  I work in Milton Keynes, a city with well developed shopping centres (malls)(streetview).  Students could be challenged with a field trip task:  Go and take photos to illustrate the differences of shopping in a small market town with a traditional UK high street vs shopping in Milton Keynes.  What you'd hope they'd identify:
  • City shops are all under cover with easy parking and lots of choice
  • Town shopping offers less choice, less service (e.g no cover or particularly good parking) but maybe more personal - you may get to know the people running the shops. 

The challenge for students would be to:
  • Identify photos to take
  • Identify photospheres (in streetview) to use
  • What points of interest to use and what text to put with them.

Solving these challenges is a great way of getting the students to explore the problem AND comes with the advantage that they can share their work with parents (school kids) or a link from their CV/resume (Uni students).

Educational advantages:
I happen to be writing up a paper on students creating map tours as an assignment, here's some thoughts expanding on the above (and the comments work for Esri story maps or Google Earth tour builder too):

Novelty:  Students react well to using a new medium provided they don't have to invest too much time learning to use it - i.e. It is highly usable.  Their feedback will say things like 'Creative', 'taught me new skills', 'fun', 'interesting', different'(based on studies I've read on student produced podcasts, story maps, films)

Interactivity:  Based just on the current study I'm doing, Students appreciate being able to create interactive resources with little effort.  They haven't created something a tour like this before, they've all seen interactive materials on the web so being able to create one for themselves adds lots of value.

Reflection:  Creating a tour like this can involve students in some really helpful thinking and reflection particularly if they are guided to:
  • Plan what they’ll do before starting (easy to do if it’s a field trip)
  • Think what they can do in the field (or what they're going to get done in class if its not a field trip)
  • Have a clear 'write up' phase where they collect their materials together in the tour and reflect on what they did and try and improve it. 
These distinct stages of processing can encourage deep learning of a subject if students engage properly.

Power of Photos:  Finally, deciding what photos to take, looking to see what they've taken and being able to link the photo in with the photosphere is very rewarding for students based on feedback from student created map tours I'm analysing (in Esri Story maps as it happens).

Educational disadvantages to a VR tour:
Problems to watch out for:

Techincal issues:  Is the equipment/software the students are going to use easy to operate and reliable?  Tour creator caused me no problems but I had trouble getting photos from my phone onto my laptop for editing.  Technical glitches like this can destroy the value of doing something adventurous like a VR tour for students.

Instructions:  Are students clear what they're doing?  They will obviously need more guidance than if they are just writing a report like they've done before and their excitement and enthusiasm will be seriously affected if they aren't clear about what they're doing.  For university students, this is related to having to take great care explaining how their work will be marked.

Versions:   There are advantages to cloud based software but one of the disadvantages is that there is no tutor control on versions used.  You have to use the latest version and Google are bound to change VR tour creator, this means annually instructions have to be changed and adapted to the tool.  With PC based software, the educator can choose whether to update or stay with an old version.

Some thoughts on what could be added
There is enough power in the tool as it is to develop some really interesting student activities.  However, there are limitations and any activity needs to be designed to avoid a situation where the limitations create problems.  Here are some of my thoughts on this:

No map 'spine' possible:  The 'spine' refers to where the narrative sits, so for this blog post, the spine is web text and you can follow links off the spine to streetview, other web pages etc.  The spine in VR tour creator is a web page which links you to the photospheres.  This design can work very well in cases where the relative location on the earth of the photosphere photos is not interesting, e.g. the international space station expedition:  the interest is what it looks like on the inside rather than the spatial spread of the photospheres.  However, some situations cry out for a map which illustrates the spatial relationship.  E.g. if you were looking at vegetation in West Wales (a favourite holiday destination of mine), Photospheres of grass with no trees are found in exposed locations out in the strong wind coming straight off the Atlantic.  In protected deep valleys out of the wind, woodland predominates in the mild, wet climate.  To explain this situation in an expedition it really helps to use a map to point out exposed and unexposed locations.  So IMHO, a good addition to the tool would be the option to have a map as the spine.

Can't easily add your own photospheres:  To create a photosphere for use in this tool you'd need to do it in advance and upload it to Google Maps.  I'm not clear if doing this guarantees it will be available to use for students.  This prevents some nice possible activities such as a geology field trip to a quarry which isn't on a public road and doesn't have a photosphere - you can currently only use locations in streetview.

Can't add links or videos:  The only media that can be added currently is text or photos.  This is limiting, often a video is much more meaningful.

BUT, its worth repeating, this is a great free tool which opens up lots of opportunities for use, I'd love to see what activities educators create with it!