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Is Using Google Cardboard for the Classroom Anything More Than a Gimmick?

04/06/2015 09:00 | Updated 03 June 2016

The future of Augmented Reality (AR) in the classroom is being pushed to the fore not by one of the many iPad or smart phone apps available but by wearing what looks a lot like a cardboard box on your head. Google Cardboard is a 'simple, fun and affordable way to experience AR,' that is targeting schools with their Expeditions software.

Google Cardboard itself is (as the names suggests) a pair of of cardboard glasses into which you insert a smart phone, in a gap in the front visor, so that when the glasses are donned you can experience AR. The idea being that by wearing the viewer, students are offered an immersive educational experience, which cannot be paralleled by looking at a photograph or video - you can see what they had in mind here.

Seeing children this excited about something to do with school is lovely. It warms my heart, but I am not sure if I could say in all honesty that they were learning anything more than they might from using other multimedia resources. Teachers often talk about a 'hook' for learning, that is something to draw the children in and get them interested in the topic. Google Cardboard is a fantastic hook for learning. I think that children in both primary and secondary settings would find using the glasses an engaging way of encountering a topic - but for me the real potential for success lies in the learning that would take place after the viewers have been used. This of course would be down to individual teachers to plan, but really is using AR glasses anything more than a gimmick?

Take the Expeditions software as an example. I appreciate the value in children 'experiencing' a foreign landscape to help them understand differences. It could inspire some impressive creative or academic content if used as a writing prompt. However, how much of the experience of these other places is really accessible to the children? Certainly they can see it, but the other senses, so powerful in forming memory and learning, are totally isolated. Seeing the Great Wall of China appears initially powerful, but is sadly limited in terms of providing an appreciation of socio-cultural differences. Seeing children engaged in awe and wonder is lovely, but that is not especially quantifiable in terms of measuring the progress they have made in that lesson or topic.

The mantra 'go places a school bus can't,' is an admirable one. Many schools are unable to provide pupils with the kind of life enriching school trips that they need to mature into well rounded adults. There is an opportunity to broaden horizons here, but in many ways it emphasises the distance away from these magical places, rather than revealing what children would need to do to have greater social mobility and experience them in the real world. This is the magic of a real trip. Taking children to a museum, or an outward bound centre is not just about what they can see. It is about them interacting with the people they meet there and being inspired about the directions their lives might take.

Also worth noting is the 'pixel screen' effect you get when using AR visors. This occurs because of the way VR headsets use lenses - the space in between pixels on the display is accentuated, and prolonged use can leave your eyes in a bit of a funny state, as described by Lee Ars. Many parents are already concerned with how much time children spend in front of screens, and I am not sure that I can really make the case that Google Cardboard is necessary for their learning, especially if there could be a potential impact on their vision with prolonged use. Plus, can you imagine what would happen if a child got motion sickness from using them?!

Certainly the visors themselves are cost effective, especially when compared to the other big hitters in the field like Gear VR and Oculus Rift. I might suggest that they are more suited to a primary school environment - all well and good until you consider that very few primary school children have the smart phones required for this technology to work. In terms of secondary education, I suspect that after the novelty has worn off, this would be a way of engaging pupils, but that in the long term there are more effective strategies. Take for example another tool, The Google Cultural Institute. This is free to access and can be done on desktop machines that the vast majority of schools already have. This uses Google maps and offers pupils the ability to walk round sites all over the world. Amazing stuff. Or Google Tour Builder, which lets pupils create their own global tours by adding academic information.

Perhaps the real problem with Google Cardboard isn't that that children can only use them to see, but that it makes the children passive consumers of media. As a teacher I would much rather see them creating digital content in order to advance their learning.