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Google Expeditions: Lesson Ideas & Support for Schools

Jonathan is a certified teacher who has taught in the UK and in the US. He now works as a digital learning consultant.


The Case for Virtual Field Trips

Technology in schools is at its absolute best when it enhances and improves upon traditional classroom lessons. Virtual field trips are a great example of this. They give students an opportunity to explore a variety of amazing environments that they may never have the chance to visit in person, and it can be done at almost no cost to the school. Virtual field trips are here to stay, and they are getting better all the time.

What is Google Expeditions?

Google Expeditions is a unique classroom experience lets teachers take their students on guided virtual field trips. There are over 200 Expeditions available for schools and more are being added all the time. Everything from the Great Barrier Reef, to Buckingham Palace, and even outer space are available as destinations for your students. Each Expedition is a 360-degree experience that lets students explore some incredible locations while being guided by a teacher who highlights important features on the tour and asks probing questions to help students think more about the environment they are in.

Discover how one Iowa school experienced Google Expeditions

Getting Started With Google Expeditions

In order for you to take a virtual field trip with Google Expeditions, you need some hardware. In the US, you can buy Google Expeditions kits for your classroom from Best Buy Education. They are not cheap, but they come with everything you need including virtual reality headsets, Android smartphones, a tablet for the teacher, a router to connect your devices, and all the necessary charging cables. Each device comes preloaded with the Expeditions app. Currently, these classroom packs are available in sets of 10, 20 or 30, but you can also build a custom kit with only the components you need.

An alternative option is to create your own set. Many parents (and teachers) have old smartphones sitting unused in a drawer at home. These devices could potentially be used to help create your own Google Expeditions kit because there is an Expeditions app for Android as well as an app for iOS. If you can get enough device donations to create a class set, or are willing to let students use their own smartphones, then all that remains is to purchase VR headsets for the phones.

If you already have a cart of iPad or Android tablets at your school, you could, in theory, use those to take part in a Google Expedition. Devices like these won't fit in a VR headset, but they will still give students a similar experience when used with the Expedition app.

Google Cardboard is a Cheap & Accessible VR Headset

Planning & Preparing for Virtual Field Trips

Google Expeditions are designed to be a unique, engaging educational experience. Yes they are cool, and a lot of fun, but to get the most of this technology, teachers need to think about how to move beyond the novelty factor. That process begins with good lesson design. How does the Expedition you chose fit with the curriculum goals for your classroom? What are the key questions that you would like students to consider while experiencing the tour? How will this virtual field trip make your existing lesson better?

With questions like this in mind, Google has put together some resources for teachers to help them plan and build content around how best to use Google Expeditions in the classroom. Check out the links and the video below for ideas on how to get started:

Lesson Planning Ideas for Expeditions from Classroom Teachers

Starting a Google Expedition With Students

When you are ready to get started, there are a number of things to check before you begin. After a while, this checklist will become second nature, but it is a good thing to keep handy the first few times you do this, or when you are introducing Expeditions to teachers who may not be very familiar with how it works. Here's what you need to know.

  1. Power on all devices
  2. Ensure that the student devices and the teacher devices are connected to the same WiFi network, or to the Expeditions router. Students on a different network will not be able to take part in the tour.
  3. Launch the Expedition app on the student and teacher devices.
  4. If prompted, students should choose to be an explorer and tap the Follow button. Teachers should choose to be a guide and tap the Lead button.
  5. Insert student devices into the VR headsets and ensure that they are orientated the correct way with the word Ready written in green letters on the screen.
  6. On the teacher device, find the Expedition you want to show your students and tap it to download. Once downloaded, the tour will be saved to the device for future use.
  7. Select the scene you want to begin with by sliding the cards left and right at the bottom of your screen. When you find the one you want, tap Play.
  8. To direct student attention to a specific part of an image, scroll down and tap on the targets that are located beneath the teacher script.
  9. To move to a new scene, swipe left or right on the cards to select a new location.
  10. To exit the tour, tap the X in the top left-hand corner.
A view of the teacher's screen while leading a Google Expedition

A view of the teacher's screen while leading a Google Expedition

3 Top Tips for Leading A Google Expedition

The first time you begin an Expedition with students, the excitement level will be hard to contain. Their emotions will be high and the chances of them paying much attention to curricular level applications will be slim. So, plan accordingly. Pick a tour that is fun and something that will introduce them to all that they will experience on a Google Expedition. Let them explore, ask questions, and soak in all that it has to offer. Once they are done, explain how you hope to use these virtual field trips to enhance future lessons.

When you are in a tour, look out for the smiley face icons on your teacher device. These are the indicators that show you where your students are looking. There is one face for each student. When you ask your students to look at a specific part of the scene, the smiley faces will give you a good idea of how many students are looking where you asked them to look. Unfortunately, there is no way of telling exactly who is looking and who is not, but this is still a useful feature for seeing how many students are on task, and how many are not.

Each tour comes with a teacher script that can be read aloud while students are engaged in a virtual tour. However, that doesn't mean you have to read the script verbatim. Read it ahead of time and pick out the things that you think will be most relevant for your students. Be prepared for questions from the kids about things they see that are not on your script. Have your key questions about the Expedition ready and take some time to let the students experience the Expedition before you dive in with additional information.

Reflecting on Google Expeditions Field Trips

It is important to take some time with students to reflect on the Expedition after it has ended. How did the virtual field trip experience add to or enhance student understanding of this topic? What questions do they still have? Was there anything that they wanted to see, but couldn't see? These can be good questions to ask, and can help cement some of the learning that took place during the whole class event.

Have students share in pairs or small groups to vocalize how effective the Expedition was as a way to learn more about the topic you are studying. Afterwards, give students time to express some of what they experienced in a blog post, journal entry, or as a video response. This can be a valuable record of learning and, over time, could be an ideal way to reflect on the impact that Google Expeditions has on your classroom.

The Future of Field Trips

Google Expeditions may not replace traditional field trips any time soon, but as a way to take students to places that they may never have the chance to visit, it is hard to beat. The platform is relatively new, but with a low barrier of entry, and an instant wow factor, the ability for teachers to transform learning with Google Classroom is a very real possibility when married with good lesson design and intentional curricular use.

© 2016 Jonathan Wylie