Teachers at G&L are always enthusiastic to try out new tools for teaching and see how they might be used to enhance and develop their teaching practice. This week a select group of teachers from the Mathematics, Classics, Geography and Communications Departments tried out the new Mixed Reality Headset one lunchtime to see how the technology could be used in their subjects. We trialled Google Earth, Ritchie's Plank Experience and Tilt Brush to get a sense of the activities available and the possibilities for learning.
Ritchie's Plank was universally the most popular as a way of experiencing the software for the first time, requiring participants to creep across a small plank from the top floor of a sky scraper, testing our perceptions of reality and vertigo! The software was so successful because it created a very natural simulation, mimicking our movements and tricking our senses into believing we were at the top of the building. The firefighting mode helped us get used to the controllers and adapt to the virtual world. While this app has less obvious educational applications we are looking forward to using it in more relaxed tutorial sessions as an ice-breaker for new groups and team work activity to build resilience.
Get a sense of what we saw in Ritchie's Plank Experience
Google Earth seems best placed app at present to translate directly into the classroom and this will be our focus with our pupils at G&L in coming weeks. The three dimensional nature of the images and the ability to switch between different scales will be invaluable in teaching students about the World and the different case studies they learn. The software was also tested more extensively by the Geography Department in one of our "Technology Focus" Department Meetings. It was universally agreed that the software was fantastic at demonstrating the scale and connectivity of different landforms (the Matterhorn was a particular favourite). The software worked brilliantly for urban environments too, where students would be able to get an excellent sense of the city planning, structure and functions. Many cities now seem to have three dimensional buildings within the software and this is of great help when trying to make sense of megacity and skyscraper locations. The addition of street view functionality is also excellent allowing full immersion in the landscape, whether urban or rural. We feel that the user interface could be improved with functionality to allow the user to walk independently in the app rather than needing to click to move to the next locations. However, the ability to fly in any direction, see the stars and change the time of day were really impressive options. Although clearly an app that would be easily utilised in any Geography lesson we feel that many subjects would benefit from the software including History of Art, Classics, Languages, Art and Design and Architecture. It is hoped that there might be a historical component to the app eventually too. Being able to switch between modern day sites and ancient sites, turning on or off the advance of ice sheets and seeing how cities have been redeveloped over time would be an incredible opportunity for students. The app is so helpful because students and teachers can collaborate even when just one student is using the virtual reality and the graphics still have impact and excitement when watched by the class on the projector.
Viewing the World with Google Earth VR
The third app we tried was Tilt Brush. It is clear that for an artistic and graphics expert with lots of experience and skill in virtual reality there could be some beautiful and astounding work created. There is enormous potential in the app and the wide variety of media, tools and colours meant there were few limitations to creations. However, for many of us, the app left us with the distinct impression of using Microsoft Paint for the first time. Our marks were blotchy and poorly controlled, rarely connecting with each other in space. There were pretty features, like the inclusion of moving fire and snow but this felt like it was the app doing the hard work rather than us. Indeed, the three dimensional nature of the app was surprisingly challenging, requiring a completely different mindset in the creation of the work. There is no doubt that it was our own technical and artistic (in)abilities that were the limiting features and we were confident that we would improve with practice. However, it would take many hours and probably more artistic ability than we had! We would recommend that this app is introduced to children from a young age and used regularly to help them develop the skill-set needed to use it proficiently. It seems very similar to the skill of writing for the first time and consequently we would expect it to be more difficult for adults who are unaccustomed to the challenges posed, compared to children using it for the first time. We can see how a more advanced version of the app would be used to create realistic graphics for movies, technical drawings for architects and engineers and the designs for new concept cars or machines. As such it is something schools should think strongly about incorporating if they are serious in preparing students for the modern work-place. However, this transition will invariably entail dedicated teachers prepared to gain training and expertise in the programme and diligent and patient students willing to learn how to improve their skills. We look forward to seeing what our students produce!
See what our students might (one day!) create in Tilt Brush
We have been really interested too to watch how Tilt Brush has been used by the Royal Academy and its artists on the recent Sky Arts Series. It was encouraging that even the artists had some of the same challenges we did at the start with the app. We would highly recommend that you watch the full programme and even consider taking your students to see the exhibition.