The Virtual Reality Classroom Guide

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Google Expeditions is a brand new VR experience that is available to schools who are interested in exploring virtual field trips as a way to enhance teaching and learning in the classroom. However, these things are expensive, so I wanted to take some more time to explore the possibility of building your own virtual reality kit for the classroom at a fraction of the price of a full retail set.

How Much Are Google Expedition Kits?

Currently, Google Expeditions kits are available for sale in the US from BestBuy Education. The kits are available in student bundles of 10, 20 or 30. Each kit comes with smartphones, Mattel View-Master headsets, device chargers, an Android tablet, a TP-Link router and a sturdy Pelican case. The bundle price for 10 students is $3,999, the kit for 20 students is $6,999, and the kit for 30 students is $9,999. However, there are some other options.

Option 1: Buy Your Own Smartphones

The Expeditions app is available for both Android and iOS. This means you could replace the smartphones with iPod Touches. Granted, the screen size is not as big, (4-inches vs. 5+ inches on the Expedition phones), but the price is right and the experience is very similar. A brand new 16Gb iPod Touch costs $200 direct from Apple. These devices can be managed with an MDM, (just like your iPads), they have access to a wealth of iPhone apps, and they also do double duty as some pretty capable digital cameras.

You can also choose from an increasingly large number of unlocked Android smartphones for under $200. These phones don’t need data plans because they will work perfectly well on Wi-Fi for an Expeditions kit. The first kits that Google released had Asus Zenfone smartphones in them, but other Android devices will work just as well.

Of course, you still need the VR headsets. The ones that BestBuy includes in the Expeditions classroom kits are the Mattel View-Master Virtual Reality headsets. These are a little more expensive than your typical Google Cardboard option, but they are sturdier so they will last longer. The standard View-Master Viewers retail for $18 or less. A Deluxe version is also available.

For the teacher’s tablet, you might opt to stay in the Apple Ecosystem and purchase an iPad to lead your Expedition. An iPad Mini 4 can be had for $350 or less right now, while an iPad Air 2 is around the same price. Alternatively, Asus make an affordable Android tablet for around $150.

So, let’s add this up. 30 iPod Touches/Android smartphones, 30 View-Master headsets and an iPad Mini 4 is around $6,880 versus the $9,999 you will be charged by BestBuy Education. Now, I realize this is not a like for like comparison. I am not factoring in the cost of the router, (you can use your school’s wi-fi instead), the Pelican case, (other storage options are available), or even the customer support from BestBuy, but it still gives a good idea of some of the savings you could make with a D.I.Y. Expeditions kit.

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Option 2: Use Free Smartphones

Free smartphones? Is there such a thing any more? Lots of us have old smartphones sitting around in a drawer at home. Many people like to keep them as a backup in case they drop, break or lose their current device, but others are just there because we didn’t know what else to do with them. So, what if you asked parents to donate old smartphones for the school to use as part of a Google Expeditions kit? Could that work?

It might. Most recent phones have the technology required to run the Expeditions app and to be able to work in a VR headset. However, you may want to check to see if this is within district policies in terms of electrical safety. The school I used to work at had devices checked by electricians on a yearly basis in order to comply with safety regulations, insurance requirements, and so forth. So, if you do decide to go down this road, check with school administrators first.

Another option, however, would be to have students use their own phones. This obviously raises an important question about equity, but even if you had enough devices for students to pair up, you could still get a very worthwhile experience. Of course, students would have to download the Expeditions app, and be able to connect to the school Wi-Fi, (not always an option for some schools). You would also still need a set of VR headsets like the Mattel View-Masters, and a teacher device to lead the tour, but 30 VR Headsets and an Android Tablet will cost around $700 and this is a significant saving.

Another way to get your hands on the smartphones you need would be to reach out to your local wireless carriers (Verizon, AT&T, US Cellular, etc.) to see if they have any refurbished or old model devices that they would be willing to donate to the school, or sell to you at a nominal cost. If you were able to secure any cell phones through these channels, it could be a great way to save a substantial amount of money on a DIY Expeditions kit for your classroom.

Option 3: Use the Devices You Already Use

If your school has a cart of iPads, or Android tablets, you could absolutely use those for Google Expedition tours at no additional cost. The app is free, and will work fine on many, if not all, of these kinds of devices. The downside is that these devices will not fit into a VR headset, so you won’t get as immersive experience. However, this means you don’t have to buy any VR headsets! Students will still be able to move the devices around in the air to explore a tour in a 360 degrees, just like they would with smartphones.

Beyond Expeditions: More VR Apps

So, are you using Expeditions at your school? Which option did you take and why?

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5 thoughts on “The Virtual Reality Classroom Guide

  1. Joan Brown says:

    This is a terrific and I’m almost done building the kit. Do you have any tips on setting up the router? I know you need to load each Expedition on the teacher device first through wifi but what about the student devices? How many devices can connect to the one router before the bandwidth is used?
    Thanks for the help.

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    • jonathanwylie says:

      Hi Joan,

      I am glad the guide was useful. Yes, you need to load the expedition on the teacher device, but the student devices will just pick it up automatically. You don’t need to download it ahead of time. Some of the “enhanced” tours take a little bit of time to reach the student device, but the others just appear right away. The number of students per router will likely vary according to the router you get, but a class of 30 should have no trouble with a decent router. One tip for using the devices with a router is to connect all the student devices to the router at least once before you start your first expedition. After that, the device usually remembers the network and will connect automatically.

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    • jonathanwylie says:

      I guess it depends on how mobile the case needs to be. I have seen suitcases, totes, and boxes of different sizes. Pelican sell cases with custom foam inserts that are cut to size. At Grant Wood AEA we bought ski goggle bags, but some hard case ski goggle cases may work too.

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