#539: Google Expeditions is Leading Innovation in the Future of Immersive Education

Jennifer-HollandGoogle’s mission to organize all of the world’s information, and so it’s a natural fit for Google to be one of the leading innovators for using VR for immersive education. Google Expeditions was born out of a hackathon soon after the Google Carboard launched at Google I/O 2014, and it’s since been shared with over 2 million students who have gone on virtual field trips. At Google I/O, they were showing Tango demos that showed me just how compelling augmented reality is going to be in the future of collaborative & embodied educational experiences.

I had a chance to catch up with Daydream’s Education Program Manager Jennifer Holland at Google I/O where we talked about the history of Expeditions, and how successful it’s been in creating new levels of immersion and engagement with students. She talks about how the Expedition experiences are designed to be agnostic to any specific age or subject matter, but also independent of specific teaching strategy or philosophy. Google has been rapidly iterating on creating useful tools that are immediately useful teachers to introduce immersive experiences into their lesson plan, and there’s a lot that is left up to the teacher to be able to guide and direct the interactions and group learning exercises. Holland talks about some of the tools that have been built into expeditions, as well as the feedback that is driving the future of immersive education towards shared augmented reality experiences with Tango-enabled devices.


One of Google’s biggest strengths in the VR community is cultivating mental presence by using open web technologies to fuse together information about our world so that we can experience it in a new way. Google Earth VR is a perfect example of fusing many different sources of data about our world, and providing an entirely new immersive experience of it in VR.

Right now, Google’s Expeditions team and their collaborators are the only ones who are creating educational experiences, but they’d like to eventually make it easier at some point for people to create their own Expeditions. The Google Expeditions team announced during their Google I/O session that they’ve been using Mozilla’s WebVR framework A-Frame in order to rapidly prototype Expeditions experiences in VR, and Unity to prototype experiences in AR.

I expect that WebVR and WebAR technologies will be a critical part of Google’s VR and AR strategies, as they’re helping to drive the standardization process with the work of WebVR primary spec author Brandon Jones. AR has the advantage over VR that the students faces aren’t occluded, and so there is a bit more collaborative learning and interaction between students, which you can see from this video of Expeditions AR:

My direct experience of seeing the Tango AR experiences at Google I/O is that the 6DoF inside out tracking is so good that it’s possible to feel a sense of virtual embodiment as you walk around virtual objects locked in space. I haven’t been able to experience this level of quality tracking in phone-based AR before, and so it was really surprising to feel how immersive it way. You’re able to completely walk around virtual objects, which triggers a deeper level of embodied cognition in being able to interact and make sense of the world by moving your body.

Embodied Cognition is the idea that we don’t just think with our minds, but that we use our entire bodies and environments to process information. I feel that the world-locking capabilities of the Tango-enable phones start to unlock the unique affordances of emobodied cognition that usually comes with 6DoF positional tracking, and it was a lot more compelling that I was expecting it to be. But after seeing the Tango demos, I feel confident in saying that AR is going to be a huge part of the future of education.

The Google Cardboard or Daydream hasn’t generated a lot of excitement from the larger VR community as they’re seen as the gateway immersive experiences to have higher-end, PC-driven experiences. But Google’s ethic of rapidly iterating and creating a minimum viable products that are highly scalable has given them over two years of direct experiences of innovating with immersive education. They’ve been able to reach over 2 million students, and they’ve also been doing a number of research pilot studies with these VR expeditions. Google researchers Matthew Kam and Jinghua Zhang presented some of their preliminary research at the IEEE VR Embodied Learning Workshop in March, and you see some of the highlights in this Twitter thread, including work that’s happening to create an immersive education primer for Circle Center.

I’m really excited to see how Google continues to innovate with immersive education, and you can look forward to seeing a solo version of Expeditions on Daydream that will be released soon that features guided tours, history lessons, and science explainers. What Google is finding is that Expeditions is not just for students, but also adults for casual and continuing education, enterprises for training applications, and even Major League Baseball have started to explore how to use immersive education experiences to engage audiences in a new way. At the end of the day, Google is showing that if you want to expand your mind and learn about the world, then Daydream & Expeditions are going to have some killer apps for you.

For more information on embodied cognition, then be sure to check these previous interviews:

You can watch the full Google Expeditions session from Google I/O here:

Subscribe on iTunes

Donate to the Voices of VR Podcast Patreon

Music: Fatality & Summer Trip

Support Voices of VR

Music: Fatality & Summer Trip

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So of all of the major virtual reality players that are out there, I think that Google tends to have some of the least amount of excitement when it comes to the hardware that they've produced so far. The software experiences that are coming out of Google from Google Earth and Tilt Brush and they've recently acquired Alchemy Labs and Sound Stage, they have some pretty amazing immersive experiences when it comes to the Vive. But in terms of the hardware that they've been putting out, I think the Google Cardboard as well as the Daydream tend to be at the bottom of the list of what people within the VR community tend to get the most excited about. And I think that's because it's just like a gateway drug of being able to see the minimum viable product of having an immersive experience. But when you start to look at what's possible with an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive or the PlayStation VR, if you have something that is much more immersive when it comes to embodied presence, where you have your body's being positionally tracked, you have six-degree-of-freedom controllers, and you might even have a room-scale experience. And so the depth of immersion of the higher-end VR is just so much more compelling for so many people. But Google wants to operate at scale, and they want to be able to reach the most people possible. They have an ambitious mission in order to capture and organize all of the world's information. But right now they're focusing on mental presence and education and teaching. So a lot of the YouTube videos that are out there that people are watching, it's a passive experience. And so that's a great experience for the Daydream. And I think that's probably one of the strongest applications that they've had so far on the Daydream is the YouTube application. But also coming out later this year is going to be the Chrome browser for Android, which is going to be enabling WebVR. So being able to cruise the metaverse when it comes to WebVR experiences with the 3DOF Daydream controller, I think is going to be a perfect fit for the strengths of Google, which is to essentially fuse information together into these immersive experiences. The other thing that Google has been doing for over two years now has been the Google Expeditions program, which they've been putting Google Cardboards into classrooms and rapidly iterating in the different processes and tools for teachers to be able to give students these virtual field trips. At this point, they've taken kids on over two million different expeditions so far. And at Google I.O., they were starting to show how in the future they're going to be bringing the Tango devices and having much more augmented reality experiences within education, which I think is where education is going to be one of the huge strengths of augmented reality is coming to bring in all this virtual information in a group context to allow students to have an embodied experience around virtual objects and to have eye contact and be able to look at each other and to allow the teacher to really guide and direct these experiences. So on today's episode, I'm going to feature the program manager for the Google Expeditions program, Jen Holland, who originally made the Google Expeditions as a part of a hackathon soon after the Google I.O. release of Google Cardboard back in 2014. So she's got a background as a teacher, and so she's trying to create these tools that are just helpful for teachers to be able to create these immersive experiences and to get a different level of engagement for their students. So we'll be covering all that and more on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. Today's episode is brought to you by the Voices of VR Patreon campaign. The Voices of VR is a gift to you and the rest of the VR community. It's part of my superpower to go to all of these different events, to have all the different experiences and talk to all the different people, to capture the latest and greatest innovations that's happening in the VR community and to share it with you so that you can be inspired to build the future that we all want to have with these new immersive technologies. So you can support me on this journey of capturing and sharing all this knowledge by providing your own gift. You can donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So this interview with Jennifer happened at the Google I.O. conference on Thursday, May 18th, 2017, and that was happening at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:04:29.332] Jennifer Holland: I'm Jennifer Holland and I'm the Education Program Manager on Daydream and I get the privilege of working with teachers and students to build an education VR app for teachers to be able to virtually take their students all over the world and then also bring the world into the classroom and that's through Tango and augmented reality.

[00:04:48.049] Kent Bye: The thing I find really fascinating about the Expeditions project is that it's been rapidly iterated on now for over two years. So maybe you could talk about the genesis of that and what you've been able to do and then where we're at today. But going back into the early days of Google Cardboard and VR and starting to get actual headsets into classrooms to see how you could start to use this for education.

[00:05:12.883] Jennifer Holland: Yeah, so my colleague Ben and I were on and still are on the education product team at Google, and we're working on a product called Classroom, which makes it really easy to use tools and G Suite for education in the classroom. And one of the things that we heard from teachers is that they were really wanting to find a way to engage and immerse their students and we had this upcoming hackathon where we like compete against our colleagues and it was like every six months and Cardboard had just been released at Google I.O. you know that previous May we said okay there's Cardboard which is now this like really cool platform that is supposed to be immersive and we have all this amazing imagery on Street View what if we put that together with a team that knows how to build and work with schools and teachers and students, an app that allowed teachers to virtually take their students to different places. You know, what would that look like? So we hacked something up, we came in third in our hackathon, but we were the only product to actually launch. And we basically started working, we brought teachers and we said, hey, what kinds of lessons would you want to build? How would you use this? And really, it was so collaborative from the beginning. And then from there, we ended up building a prototype product and we brought it to schools in over four countries and the feedback was out of this world. You know, teachers didn't know what VR was or how it applied to them. And then once they had this experience in the classroom where students were so engaged and they were asking questions and they're pointing things out, it was like this light bulb went off for all of them. And these aren't teachers that had historically used technology in the classroom. We had some teachers, and this is part of what we believe, which is you have to basically design a product for everyone, you know, and all teachers. And you can't rely on professional development training. And so we had teachers who had never used technology in the classroom to teachers that were, you know, using technology every day to teach. And what we found was that the simplicity of the UI that we built, you know, make it really easy to get going. was really critical. And then the other element, you know, which was like we were trying to embrace how the interaction happens in a classroom. As a former teacher, and my colleague Ben is a former teacher, like, you want kids to engage with each other. That's where really wonderful learning experiences happen, as well as with their teacher. And so creating that social dynamic is actually really important when you think about VR as well. You don't want it to be an isolating experience. So that was really core to how we designed the product. And then we spent a lot of time obviously aggregating feedback, but one of the things that we wanted to make sure was that Expeditions ran without the internet. So many schools don't have connectivity, especially globally. We were able to bring expeditions to schools in the Amazon. Schools that literally couldn't travel to Rio got to all of a sudden have this amazing experience and visit places in the world where some of these kids aren't ever going to get to go. And what it does is it opens up their minds, right? They're inspired. And I mentioned in my talk earlier today We get thousands of letters from kids, and we actually respond to them. I mean, like, they're precious, but they're like, oh my god, I had no idea the solar system was like this. Or you can go inside the human body and start to see the heart and understand, like, the circulatory system in a very different way. And as one fifth grader put it, he said, You know, usually, like, I am forced to take all of these, like, flat 2D diagrams and put this whole mental model together. And I spend so much time just trying to get that mental model that now in VR I can actually see it immediately and I can focus on what my teacher is trying to teach me. instead of just trying to get the model together. And so we spent the past two years bringing Expeditions to over 2 million kids. We've continued to iterate. We have over 600 tours now. And it's just been amazing to see how it's been integrated into curriculum and how teachers are using it. And so one of the things that we saw was that kids are pointing at things, they're trying to grab stuff. VR was definitely about going places and getting experiences and culturally immersing yourself. And we saw this opportunity to use Tango as a way to bring objects into the classroom and continue to create that social experience but focus on specific objects and really getting into the detail. So VR is great for experiencing places and building empathy and kind of getting a sense of the natural environment. And what Expeditions AR allows you to do is focus on specific objects. And we've used a lot of the same building blocks from Expeditions that we've learned, you know, along the way. like making sure that teacher has the ability to point things out and to pause it and just like the basic interactions that a teacher needs to feel confident behind using, you know, the technology in the class and the social experience, right? One of the, you know, people laugh when they see the selfie stick. The selfie stick is actually awesome because kids can extend that. Kids are only a certain height. Objects are huge, right? And if you're trying to teach scale, different size of buildings, kids not tall enough to see the top. Like, how are they going to see it? So just working alongside teachers and students every step of the way has been and continues to be a really critical part to how we think about designing. And we've just been incredibly excited about Expeditions AR and the pilots that we've been doing.

[00:10:40.309] Kent Bye: Yeah, and if I were to kind of categorize a genre of what this is doing is it's kind of like a field trip and a guided tour in a lot of ways where you have a number of different, let's say, just scenes or chapters and you're able to allow the teacher to be able to proceed through these different chapters. So there's a tablet interface as well. So it sounds like There's a whole interface that the teacher has to be able to help guide the experience rather than just setting off a 360 video, but you're able to actually control and direct and allow people to engage that way. Can you talk a bit about that interface between the tablet and to what's actually happening in the Expeditions experience?

[00:11:17.029] Jennifer Holland: So expeditions are actually comprised of six to eight different panoramas, 360 panoramas. And each expedition has a description, has a point of interest, which make it really easy for the teacher to be able to identify specific things within the panorama and point them out and also incorporate it. And the larger expedition tells like an overall narrative. One of the things that we learned really early on was not to add a grade or subject to the expeditions. So initially, and if you think about how most education content is structured, it's usually by grade and subject and topic, right? And so what ends up happening is specific teachers use only specific content. And we started with that, and what we found was that only those teachers in those grades or subjects use the content. The content is actually, can be used across grades and subjects. the imagery doesn't change. What changes is how the teacher applies it. Because for one student, that might be in fourth grade, to a student that is, you know, in high school or even a student in college, the place doesn't change. You're not going to change the physical surroundings. What changes is how you're incorporating it. What are the corresponding materials that go with it? So we wanted to make sure that expeditions were flexible and that could really easily be incorporated. So we've seen, you know, lessons that are used the same expedition that's used in a math lesson, that's used in a history lesson, that's used in a language class, I mean, across the board. And so what's been really great, and we've always said, and we continue to say, it's supplemental material for the teacher to use. And the great lessons are the ones that a teacher has sort of scaffolded a lesson around it. There's discussion involved. You're not always in cardboard. You're turning to your partner and discussing what you saw. You're writing down, comparing and contrasting different scenes or different things. And what it does is it gets kids thinking in a very different way. They're very visual, right? And they're able to just absorb the information in a far different way. And it also, what I found, and this is just anecdotal, is they're just much more inquisitive. You have kids that are like asking questions with their hands up you know, in cardboard. I have no idea where they're positioned in the classroom. But they're like, oh, what is that? Is that a shark or is that a ribosome? And they're super engaged because, as one kid put it, I'm immersed. It's around me, and so I can start to understand the content very differently.

[00:13:44.010] Kent Bye: Yeah, and the thing that I've also noticed here at Google I.O. after getting a chance to actually try out the Tango, the world locking on there was really impressive. I was really quite stunned to see how well you could lock a single object into space and be able to start to actually walk around it. And I've covered on the podcast before this concept of embodied cognition where you're able to actually use your body to understand objects within a spatial relationship. And I had always thought about that in the context of VR. But I think that even with a phone-based Tango system, you start to really use your body to walk around an object. And because it's locked so solidly, you start to get that same level of embodied cognition of actually using your body to learn. But the other thing is that because it's an AR, you're able to actually see the student's eye contact. And because of that, you're not occluded. And there's a different level of engagement that you can have socially that I think that you can't get with virtual reality. And so just curious to hear if that was part of the feedback that you're getting from teachers is that they want to be able to have different levels of engagement with the kids and kind of the differences between the immersive quality of VR versus what you get from the AR.

[00:14:52.624] Jennifer Holland: So I'm really glad you actually, A, brought up the embodied cognition and B, the concept of making eye contact with people. One, we watched and listened to your embodied cognition podcast and it's been 100%. Like it was sort of like this light bulb went off when we heard it because it's been grounded in a lot of the things that we've been thinking about as we design our product. And I think the biggest thing that we found early on was teachers said, hey, you know, it's great that my students are immersed, they're engaged, they're learning, but I don't know what they're looking at. And one of the things as a teacher, you know, that the way you know if your student is on track by whether or not they're engaged is asking questions, obviously. or making eye contact, right? Like, I'm a teacher and I can see what my students are doing. Well, in cardboard or VR, you don't have that eye contact. And so what we ended up doing, actually, is on the interface of the tablet, we have little smiley faces that represent the students. And where those smiley faces are, you know, and floating around on the tablet, is where the student's looking. And that made it so that teachers could feel connected to their students. They don't know which students because it's a logged out experience, but they can see if there's a swarm of smiley faces on the point of interest that the teachers pointed out. Generally speaking, your class is looking at the thing that you're discussing. And if they're seeing the smiley faces scattered, then they can pause it and then they can refocus the class or ask different questions and then they can go back into the experience. And so that eye contact actually is really critical and it makes it a lot easier in AR because you can make eye contact. But again, giving teachers those controls and the ability to leverage the technology but taking into account how a class actually functions is really important.

[00:16:44.384] Kent Bye: Yeah, and one of the things that you talked about a little bit more today in this session was that you can actually create your own expeditions using the open web technology stack with both the WebVR, WebAR, but also Unity as well. I'm just curious if you could talk a little bit about that process of if people wanted to create their own expeditions, like what kind of tools you've talked about and the best way for people to be able to do that, to be able to then create these expeditions and then potentially share them.

[00:17:12.576] Jennifer Holland: So you actually, right now, We create the expeditions, but we work with partners to create them. We don't have creation tools that are out there for teachers or students. It's definitely something that we want to do. One of the things that we found is actually the camera technology and the quality of the imagery is actually really important. And so we've been able to use Jump, which has been an unbelievable, like it's given us the superpower almost to be able to work with museums and cultural institutions who don't have access to this camera, to bring the camera, capture it, they write the content, and you know, they're the experts. And then we can use the Jump Assembler to stitch all this content together in like an instant. Which is amazing when you're thinking about building 600 of these lessons. And we can focus then on working with teachers to build the lesson plans and stuff. And we've started this way as opposed to just letting people create their own, is that the quality of the panorama is critical. If there is a stitching artifact or things aren't quite captured or it's slightly blurry, it doesn't matter how beautiful the rest of the panorama is, the students always find it and that's what they get fixated on and then it becomes a distraction. And now you've introduced something into the classroom that is not helpful for learning. So we've actually been very slow in terms of offering those tools and really our whole focus is let's figure out how we can create a lot of this content so that teachers can use it and incorporate it. Let's figure out the lessons that they want. And then let's figure out, okay, if they were to be able to create content, what would you want? And what we're hearing mostly is, hey, I want to be able to remix tours, right? It's not necessarily that I want to go out and capture it because I don't have access to go to, you know, Zambia and capture animals in a safari, or I don't have the ability to go underwater. But what I'd like to do is maybe do a whole series of animals in an animal expedition. And I'd like to basically pull from this expedition in Zambia, and I'd like to pull from this expedition in Australia, and I'd then like to write my own notes. And so something like that we could see is really powerful and it offers quite a bit. But it's still early days, and one of the things that we've committed ourselves to as a product team is just really making sure that we won. work with teachers and students, build something, pilot it, get their feedback, iterate on it, pilot it again. And because VR and AR are so new, we don't want to rush anything. you know, and we want to make sure that we get it right. And I think so far we're on a path where we're really seeing things pick up and the ecosystem is definitely building, especially in education. So we're seeing traditional content, you know, educational content partners like an HMH interested in working with us, but we're seeing non-traditional partners. And, you know, we just announced that we have five new MLB, Major League Baseball tours. and we are so excited because all of a sudden now math teachers can use that to teach how to calculate angles and triangles and all this and it starts to bring the physical world into the classroom in a very different way.

[00:20:19.277] Kent Bye: So here at Google I.O. I had a chance to go through three of the solo expeditions that were here. And the thing that I noticed was that on two of them there were like a 360 degree photosphere and then some narration. They were able to use the Daydream clicker to be able to advance to the next one. Sometimes you'd have a photo graph that was coming up. There was a way to direct attention with an arrow that was pointing out to where I should be looking. kind of playing out a lot of the user interface that you need to be able to kind of guide and direct attention to have people to look at the right spot that you're talking about. And then eventually I can imagine that there's going to be a volumetric sense of being able to take these and to be able to actually walk around, going beyond the photosphere. But I guess the question that I have is in thinking about this narration that you have, which is, you know, very fixed in terms of everybody kind of going through and listening, maybe they're guiding it. But is that more for the solo experience? Or you also have these narrated stories that you have, like talking about the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton?

[00:21:20.550] Jennifer Holland: Yeah. So one of the things that we've been really focused on in terms of the evolution of, you know, how we're building this expedition. So we started with just the traditional 360 panorama and it had the descriptions and it had the points of interest. And what we started to do is we realized actually there's a lot more content out there that could be really valuable to give a tour context. So we have worked with partners to annotate their expeditions with flat 2D photos, videos. We have a Borneo rainforest expedition. where you go in and you can see the orangutans and then you can see a video about how the orangutans are trained and like you know rehabilitated and it gives kids context you can hear the sounds of so ambient sound is actually really important and start to add those things and as far as the narration goes I mean learning happens inside the classroom and it happens outside and we wanted the flexibility to be there so that if a teacher wanted to be able to sign a homework assignment to go home and like listen to this or, you know, do it with your family, they could. And, you know, you don't always have access to a teacher to guide you. Right. And so that was really like the focus was like, let's enable more people to be able to experience this high quality educational content. And so many of our requests have actually come from adults that want to experience the content. They're interested in a subject area and they want to learn more or, you know, a family's going on a trip and they want their kids to like learn about, you know, where it is that they're going and get culturally immersed before they go. And so it just opens up a lot more opportunity for the content to be repurposed and used. But we do add ambient sound as well as like different audio tracks so that you can hear directly from a source and that could be a point of interest within a tour or you could go through the whole narration.

[00:23:12.037] Kent Bye: Yeah, I was just at the Microsoft Build Conference and talking to some architects at Studio 216. And architects are in the practice of telling the story of place. And I feel like a lot of these expeditions are using place to then tell the stories. And one of the things that one of the founders of Studio 216 was telling me is that whenever you're telling the story of place, you need to be able to tell the story at different scales. So that you're zoomed out and you're contextualizing people Some of the stories that I've seen originally were just kind of teleporting me around and I didn't have a good sense of where these places were related relative to each other. And it started to make me think about how what you're doing here is basically annotating the earth with these stories of history, which then I'm thinking about, well, Is there going to be a way to take the same architecture and then just put it into Google Earth in a way that you could see it directly from there? But I'm just curious to hear how you're starting to think about that and be able to start to bring in these different levels of scale, because Google Earth is amazing to be able to zoom out and see this. And I kind of wanted to see a little bit of that contextualization of the place before I dive into the photospheres.

[00:24:17.552] Jennifer Holland: Yeah, so I think in terms of, I mean, we're still really early days. and we're conscious of that. I think for us, you know, there's a couple of things. One is we actually think AR is really great. You can start to compare and contrast the size of an object or buildings or scale, you know, and get that sense of scale, which is nice. And yes, it would be amazing if Expeditions and Earth VR work together, but we're really focused on the classroom experience and not needing to be tethered to a device. and really being able to create that group experience. So yeah, I could certainly imagine a time when that could happen, but I think what we find is that actually Expeditions provides that context, right, and gives a student an opportunity to see a place, get immersed, and then they can use Expeditions AR and follow up on specific topic areas or specific objects that the teacher wants to call out. that are really hard to see in VR, right? And be able to look at it and really see the details and have a different conversation.

[00:25:19.404] Kent Bye: You mentioned in your talk today this idea of a kit, the expedition kit that you're sending out to these schools, which is essentially bootstrapping them with the phone technology, the Tango-enabled phones, selfie sticks, presumably some other stuff that is involved in running an entire kit for doing these expeditions. What is the plan to be able to actually scale this out beyond people getting a hold of one of these kits? Do you foresee that in the future that these phones are going to be eventually just so pervasive that it's just going to not be much of a question? Or I guess it's a deeper question of access of this technology and how you really get it out there.

[00:25:54.833] Jennifer Holland: Yeah, so Expeditions VR, you know, Expeditions today, because Expeditions AR isn't available. Expeditions VR works on Android, iOS, smartphones, tablets, in full screen mode. You don't even need a cardboard viewer. And we were intentionally designing a product that could work in a variety of environments. And what I mentioned today in my talk was that you can't assume that a school is going to be one particular device and one particular platform. And really making sure that the tool works across platform is critical. and across device. So we actually see a lot of schools use their school managed tablets and kids go in full screen mode and be able to view it. But we worked with partners like Best Buy Education, they were the first kit partner, to identify a high quality affordable device and be able to put that in a set of 30. And that kit moves from class to class. It's not necessarily a one-to-one experience. And so we've provided, you know, you can either use your school-managed device. You could, a lot of schools have now started introducing the bring-your-own-device policies. You know, so kids that do have smartphones, you know, could use it. And then you share or you do a mixture. Schools are buying the kits. through you know partners like Best Buy education or they do it at home you know and a lot of kids have access to a device at home and so what's great about that is you have the kids that are going home and then teaching their they're the tour guides right and teaching their parents about these different subjects, and then they're coming into the class and having a really great discussion because they're not spending the time going on the expedition, but they're talking about what they learned. And when you teach, you tend to retain information very differently, right? So it's really interesting to see how the roles are reversed. The thing that I love most is, and I've started to see this a lot, is teachers actually turn the reins over to their students. So students get assigned a topic area, they pick an expedition, they are the experts, and then they take their peers on the expedition together, and they come up with a lesson. And that's really powerful when students are involved in their own learning. You know, they get more excited about it, they go deeper into a subject area, and it starts to open up a whole new world for them.

[00:28:05.257] Kent Bye: Yeah, when I was at the IEEE VR conference, there was an embodied learning workshop that was the second year. I also attended the year before that. There's actually a couple of researchers from Google that were talking there. But there was generally some discussions about pedagogy and philosophy around pedagogy, whether it's going to be a didactic-like lecture. You're going to just basically speak at somebody what the truth is. And then there's the other side, which is the constructivist pedagogy, where they're actually actively engaged in the construction of the meaning participating and engaging and being able to express their agency in different ways. And especially if you're teaching, that's another level. So do you think about that in specific pedagogies of whether or not you're trying to really bring out any specific philosophy of constructivist pedagogy?

[00:28:49.630] Jennifer Holland: We're not. I mean, as an education team, I mean, sure, we think, obviously, students learning from each other, the engagement, the immersiveness, those are things that we just think are really important and things that, you know, when I was in school, really appreciated, right? But we also recognize that there are a lot of different ways to teach. And what we want to do is build a tool that works across different pedagogical and philosophical views of what education should be. But we're definitely like obviously we're in the camp that we think school should be fun and immersive and give students the opportunity to explore the world. And so one of the things that I love about expeditions is that it's not just about learning about a subject or a particular place, we have career expeditions. You know, we know that kids don't have access to mentors or even access to different internships, but we know that that's a really critical step in their inspiration and getting exposure to the world, right? And so if we can have kids that can go through any one of our career expeditions and get inspired and then go and, you know, follow up on that, like, that is amazing, right? And the same is with college expeditions. We teamed up with the first lady, Michelle Obama, to create college expeditions because we knew not every kid has the opportunity to go and physically visit a school, but we know that getting access to see what a college campus is like, to see what student life is like, to see what the dorms and your classroom looks like might make you feel a little bit more comfortable, might make you really excited to apply to college. and take that first step towards actually applying. And so we're starting to see a lot of different ways that expeditions can be used as an inspirational hook. And I think that's why we get so many cute letters from kids is, you know, it's just opening their minds to different things and then they can go and explore the different topics.

[00:30:40.705] Kent Bye: So being at the IEEE VR workshop on embodied learning, a lot of discussions around the process of getting this type of technology into the schools and maybe a more official capacity of that it's actually built into the curriculum. and there's a lot of questions about measuring the impact and quantifying double-blind studies or having longitudinal studies to see the impact. Is this sort of approach, you're just treating this as a supplemental teaching tool and taking a bottom-up approach of maybe reaching out to, like you mentioned, a community of people who are sharing lesson plans, and so getting into lesson plans that are collaboratively created and shared and doing it that way rather than kind of officially have it as a policy that is bringing in this technology that's supported by federal funding or state funding to be able to actually pay for it.

[00:31:32.107] Jennifer Holland: We're building a tool that is hopefully useful for teachers. And if it's useful, then it's going to be used. That's sort of my philosophy. That was certainly my philosophy as a teacher. You don't have time, right? Like if this isn't going to either save me time, create an opportunity for me to engage with my students differently, why am I doing it, right? But I think for us, It's so early days, and everyone wants to know what the longitudinal research studies look like. I mean, that takes years. We just started, and we'll let other people do that for us. For us, we just want to create immersive, engaging experiences, give teachers tools. and access to really incredible technology and let them transform their class and let them decide how they want to use it. And we have just seen some amazing lessons. You know, when teachers are given that flexibility, it's awesome to see what they come up with. They got into teaching because they loved kids, right? And they loved working with kids and teaching kids. And so if we can give teachers tools to be able to teach and do the thing that they love, then that's a win. And my colleague Ben and the rest of our team, that's why we're committed to doing this, is we want to give teachers that opportunity to create those experiences every day, not just like once a semester.

[00:32:48.839] Kent Bye: What are some of the biggest open questions and problems to be solved that your team is really looking at with these expeditions?

[00:32:57.472] Jennifer Holland: So I think content creation is a big one. As we move into AR, content creation is even more challenging, actually, than where VR was. It requires a much more specific skill set, and so it's not taking a camera out and capturing places. It's a lot trickier. So I think in terms of content creation for AR, I think that's a challenge and I'm excited about that challenge. I knew nothing about creating VR content two years ago and just spent an insane amount of time. I listened to your podcast, I listened to a lot of you know, and read a lot and just experimented, right? And so I think I'm really excited about that challenge on the AR side. I think there's a lot of opportunity on the enterprise training side, you know, like businesses and seeing how we can leverage technology there because training happens at work and, you know, it happens on the job. And we're actually seeing different industries, you know, want to use expeditions as a training tool. So I think for us, it's like, how do we stay focused? How do we create the content at scale? The devices are a big one, right? And finding affordable devices, particularly for schools. So making it flexible and work on multiple platforms. Those are my big area. That's what I'm focused on. And I think, you know, continuing to find like the gems with the teachers, right? Like in what's working and then iterating on that.

[00:34:25.062] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual and augmented reality, and what it might be able to enable?

[00:34:34.871] Jennifer Holland: I just think it enables experiences when it would otherwise be impossible. Like, a kid cannot go inside the human body. Like, Mr. Frizzle is awesome, but for kids to be able to conceptually see stuff like that and give them, like, you know, I had this teacher that said, you know, and I should say it's really important. Like, we're not trying to replace field trips. Field trips are like the most important thing that you could do with your class, but it enables experiences when otherwise be impossible. And this teacher was like, I'm never going to get a permission slip signed to take my kids to an erupting volcano, you know? And so, but that's like, it's a really important thing or like to go inside a hurricane and we have this whole weather system expeditions AR lesson and you can see tornadoes, you can see hurricanes, you can see earthquakes, like. you're never going to put a child in harm's way, right? So I think what AR and VR does is it allows students to experience things when time or safety or geographic distance make it virtually impossible. And being able to go back in time and see things in a different context and really walk in someone else's shoes, I think those are all really important things. And so I'm really excited about the next generation of kids.

[00:35:48.864] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining me today.

[00:35:51.260] Jennifer Holland: Thanks so much for having me.

[00:35:53.222] Kent Bye: So that was Jennifer Holland and she's the expeditions program manager for Google. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, I think Google's strength is going to be mental presence, training, education, their mission statement is to organize all of the world's information. And so it just makes sense that they would be one of the leaders when it comes to education and virtual reality. And the other thing that I really respect of what they've been doing with the expeditions program is that they've just been rapidly iterating, creating a minimal viable product and just trying to create something that's a useful tool for teachers. And Jennifer said she used to be a teacher and that she didn't have a lot of time or energy. And so if there's anything that she was going to be doing in terms of creating a lesson plan. She wanted to be sure that her students were going to have a very engaged and immersive experience, or that it was going to have some benefit that she could immediately see. And from what the early feedback from the Expeditions program is that it's been just highly successful in being able to take the level of immersion and engagement of the students to an entirely new level. So the Google Expeditions program up to this point has been fairly simple because it's been the Google Cardboard. So you essentially get these 360 degree photo spheres with some photos that may pop up or some text annotations. But the thing that I found really super interesting was that Jennifer was saying that the Google Expeditions was advocating for people to not declare what level any of the content was for or what grade or subject matter even. just to keep it a lot more agnostic such that you could take people to a baseball stadium and to be a cultural tour or it could be teaching math or it could be showing the nuanced differences of different regions of the United States. The point being is that you could take any piece of content and allow the teacher to determine what was going to be interesting to be able to teach the students and to have a piece of content that could work anywhere from a kindergarten all the way up to high schoolers. So, to me, that's really fascinating because it's just focusing on the basic elements of experiential design, such that you create an experience and allow the teachers to really guide and direct the overall educational experience. And that, you know, it's not so much that you have to include all the different narration, but that when it's actually used in a classroom, it's dialed back and you're just looking at the visuals and the immersion and letting the teacher dictate the flow of the interactions. The other thing is that I think in the future I feel like virtual reality is going to have a certain level of immersion that you're able to get but that a lot of this stuff seems like it's going to be going in the augmented reality direction just because there's just so much more engagement and interaction that you get from the kids. So the Tango demos that I was able to see at Google I.O. were just super impressive and being able to world lock the objects onto the world and to just give you this sense of embodiment that I haven't been able to feel before. So I was able to walk around the planets. And when I had that, I just had this sense of like, wow, you're really tapping into these different levels of embodied cognition, of allowing students to walk around these virtual objects. That's just allowing them to put it into their body in a new way. And I think that level of embodiment and embodied cognition, I think, is just going to take education to the next level. Right now they're starting with a lot of virtual reality content, a lot of 3D photospheres, but Jennifer said that doing AR content is going to be a lot more difficult because it's going to have to focus more on these volumetric sense of how do you really use the space and to be able to walk around objects and to use the benefits of embodied cognition or scale or interaction between the students within these experiences. I love to hear how some of the early examples of what's been happening with expeditions is that the students are teaching each other. So they're going home and preparing their own tour guide. And when they come in and teach their students, and that actually is some of the deepest learning that you could possibly do is when the students start teaching each other. It was somewhat surprising to hear that there wasn't any specific pedagogical lineage or philosophy that was really driving the process of creating these different expeditions, that they were really trying to create these immersive experiences that were agnostic to the many different types of teaching philosophies that are out there. I think eventually at some point, there's going to be a whole line of experiential design that's going to kind of focus the unique affordances of what makes a great VR educational experience. Right now, I think it's still just so early days that taking people on a photosphere is just giving them that level of immersion. But when it comes to agency and what kind of control they have within the experience, I think when you get up to the higher levels of beyond the initial wow factor of being immersed in the VR experience, then What are the things that are going to be taking education to the next level when it comes to virtual reality? And I think that's where you're going to start to see a lot more consideration of creating a holistic experience that has a narrative or is engaging the emotions or is using the body in specific ways to use the unique affordances of embodied cognition or really showing the extent of agency of how people are interacting and constructing their own meaning. Or the social mental presence dimension of how do you construct experiences where you're allowing a group learning experience, where you're learning from each other, but also engaging your mind and really challenging your mind in a new way. And that, you know, one of the key design criteria for these experiences was that it had to work on a variety of different devices. And so using the principles of responsive web design, as well as progressive web applications, I think we're going to start to see a lot more immersive experiences that can translate whether or not you have a VR headset on the high end, whether or not you have a Daydream, a Google Cardboard, a tablet, the full range of different devices that are available that creating immersive experiences that will work on them. And as there's more and more sensors that get put onto these tablets to do depth sensor cameras and whatnot, we're going to be moving more and more towards just being able to do these phone-based AR experiences, and then eventually moving things into the headset for augmented reality over the next, like, nine years as we have this kind of convergence between the virtual and augmented reality experiences. But it sounds like right now there's a specific niche for still using the Google Cardboard, but I suspect over the long run that there's just so much more collaborative potential and social potential of doing these shared augmented reality experiences that makes me suspect that the Google Expeditions is going to eventually move much more towards the augmented reality than the virtual reality. Although the level of immersion that you can get from VR is still super compelling, and I don't think that's going to necessarily fully go away. But when it comes to access of the technology into the classrooms, having a 3DOF experience within a Google Cardboard experience is not as perhaps compelling as having a selfie stick with a camera that has a depth sensor and allowing kids to kind of walk around these objects. That full level of six degree of freedom and embodiment, I think, is going to be super compelling. And I expect that much more content is going to be leaning towards the augmented reality side. So just the other thing that I just want to throw out there is that I did go to the IEEE VR conference in March, uh, where there was an embodied learning workshop that was happening. There were a couple of researchers from Google, Matthew Calm and Jinghua Zhang. They were presenting some of their latest research that they have been doing. And so they've been doing just a lot of research, proving out the efficacy of immersive education and having all such a different pilot studies, as well as working on some primers for immersive education. with circlecenter.org slash primers. And at this point, it's not a clear path for if people wanted to create their own expeditions experiences, either in VR or AR, the best path to do that. They mentioned some tools in there. talk that they gave at Google I-O, which mentioned A-Frame to do VR, as well as Unity to do these AR experiences. And so there's no specific tool set that they're releasing beyond that. But if you take a look at what they're doing with some of the early Expeditions experiences, then you can kind of get a sense of what is required. And using those tools of A-Frame and Unity, you could pretty much start to create your own educational experiences. And right now, there's no clear business model or market for you to sell these experiences. So not having a strong business model around these experiences, I think kind of limits them to collaborating with these specific partners. But I expect at some point there's just going to be more available educational experiences that are out there. It's just if you want to make a living doing that right now, it's not really a clear path for how you do that. So that's all that I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and become a donor. Just a few dollars a month makes a huge difference. So you can donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

More from this show