The Daily Mail has found some ‘experts’ who have equivocated Google’s efforts to demo Google Cardboard and Google Expeditions in classrooms to them pushing ‘educational cocaine’. This is a bit much - not on the whole Daily Mail scale of a bit much - but daft nevertheless.

Google's virtual school invasion

I admit that Google is trying hard to get into as many schools as possible but in my opinion student use of ‘classroom VR’ is an excellent educational opportunity. Classroom VR can engage, motivate, help a teacher facilitate deeper understanding and may even help students enjoy and remember a lesson even more - heaven forbid.

So Google will come to your school with a class set of smartphones and Google Cardboard headsets along with  all the necessary gadgetry to make it all work. It’s free, it’s pretty cool and why wouldn’t you say yes? I doubt that many schools have run out and purchased a class set of phones, headsets, tablets and gadgetry - though you can if you want. Google has even partnered with the Open University to research the impact on student questions.

“educational experts fear the devices take pupils further away from traditional classroom teaching and distract from the ‘hard graft’ of actual learning”

— Jonathan Petre for the Main on Sunday


At the International School of Geneva - Campus des Nations we have recently purchased a class set of Mattel View-Master Google Cardboard headsets. Students use their own smartphones if they have one (on average about half of a class - the percentage increasing with age). I have witnessed the headsets being used to teach the structure of the heart to Year 10 and Year 13, the process of fertilization with in cell visualization that helped the teacher focus upon the genetic material being ‘mixed’ with Year 10, Year 11 students seeing the destruction of Hiroshima after the Allies dropped the atomic bomb and Year 8 students describing the challenges of life in a desert while looking at photospheres taken on a recent field trip.

Last week I team-taught a Year 11 Individual and Societies lesson with a colleague. As he worked with the class to  explore development indicators I worked with small groups (working on a rotation) who used our Google Cardboard headsets to see life in the Hadzabe Tribe of Lake Eyasi and then standing beneath and on the 43rd floor of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. After the initial wows and the students nearly falling from their seats as they craned their necks to see the top of the Burj Khalifa the questioning and discussion got insightful about the deeper elements of what development actually is.

“Critics warned last night that such ‘gimmicks’ were dangerous and children would later pester their parents to buy the more expensive leisure version”

— Jonathan Petre for the Main on Sunday

The ‘gimmick’ label has been thrown at Google Cardboard for a while now. If after such an experience a child pesters a parent to buy some Google Cardboard (available for just a couple of EUR/GBP/CHF) and they talk about and show that parent what they have seen and experienced - excellent - that is a win! Some of our Year 7 students have done this and it makes me happy. If after a visit from the Google ‘dealers’ a parent feels the need to run out and get a HTC Vive or Oculus Rift - then the issues run a little deeper.

“‘This is educational cocaine. These things are gimmicks and more about entertainment than education.’”

— Jonathan Petre for the Main on Sunday

Why can’t education be entertaining? It doesn't always need to be - but for all involved some fun is a good thing. The first time a class uses Google Cardboard it is best to get the major wows out the way quickly - swimming with turtles, climbing El Capitan and visiting the Taj Mahal. In the same way, during the first lesson with Google Earth, you need to allow students to find their house, and their friend’s house and their grandparents’ house and so on.

After that initial peak of excitement the really valuable educational opportunities can occur. Although Google curates all the content on Google Expeditions there are opportunities to visit student and teacher created photospheres. For such an educational expedition you need to venture away from Google Expeditions to alternative services that work with Google Cardboard like the excellent

Google Cardboard is not ‘educational cocaine’. It’s engaging, there is potential but there will be no major ‘high’ without a skilled teacher integrating its use into a purposeful and focused lesson.