A sound not typically heard during a lesson on the U.S. founding fathers was uttered in unison on a recent morning by fourth-graders at Guilford Elementary School.
They got to be beta testers for Google Expedition Pioneer Program, which allows classrooms of students to explore world landmarks virtually. And when teacher Dana Trombly turned on the program to pull up a 3D tour of James Madison’s house, the students made their excitement known.
“You have to try this,” fourth-grader Ricky Gonzalez said to this reporter. “It’s crazy cool.”
A smart phone, loaded with the Google Expedition Pioneer app, is placed in what’s called Google Cardboard, which acts as 3D goggles that the users hold up to their faces. If users are virtually exploring the Louvre, Barcelona or Montpelier, they can walk through and explore the scene just as if they were there in person.
From a tablet, a teacher can click on an object within the scene—like a painting of George Washington or bust of Benjamin Franklin—and an arrow will appear on the students’ screens to indicate where they should be looking. A bubble with information about the item will pop up to provide students with a mini lesson.
“It is really amazing,” Robert Rauch, Guilford Elementary’s technology resource teacher, said as he explained Google Expedition’s possibilities.
Getting the program in the hands of students at the Sterling school has been a longtime goal of his. He first applied to be a part of the Google Expedition pilot last May and continued to apply over the next several months until he finally received an emailed response last month saying the school had been one of a handful on the East Coast chosen to test drive the program.
“I learned about it at a tech conference and was blown away,” he said. “It could be a game-changer.”
For example, Guilford Elementary students’ fieldtrip to Jamestown in November made for a 12-hour day, and it took weeks of maneuvering to reserve a bus for the day, Rauch said. “With this, they can tour Montpelier in 20 minutes.”
Google representative Kristen Thomas spent Wednesday debuting the platform at Guilford Elementary and another day showing it off at Eagle Ridge Middle School in Ashburn. She said it might soon be the go-to vehicle for school field trips.
“It’s an inexpensive way for students who may not come from a family where they get to travel a lot to see the world. They can walk through Paris or go on a snorkeling expedition,” she said.
Google has not yet announced when the product will be available for purchase, but Thomas expects it will be soon.
The timing might be just right for Loudoun County. The public school system has cut back on funding for activity buses and field trips in recent years, while it’s pumped millions more into technology. Last year, it dedicated $13 million to expand bandwidth capabilities and make room for a division-wide BYOT (bring your own technology) program.
Richard Contartesi, assistant superintendent for Technology Services, said the school system will have progressed from a bandwidth of 300 megabytes per second in 2013 to 10 gigabytes per second in the past six months, which means the Internet connection is fast enough and able to serve more devices.
“We’re smoking now,” Contartesi said.
To continue steps toward the multi-year roll out of the BYOT program, Superintendent Eric Williams has reallocated funds in his proposed budget for next fiscal year to provide every teacher with a mobile device. He has said that the initiative is not mandated but it is intended to untie the hands of educators who want to use more technology in the classroom.