Beyond the School Bus

Imagine you could visit any place in the world. Where would you go? What would you like to see? What would you hope to experience?

Imagine you are learning about India. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to visit the Taj Mahal and explore its wonders? What if your geography class is learning about coral reefs and could go diving in the Maldives or Hanauma Bay or the Great Barrier Reef to see what it’s like there. What would it be like to visit the South Pole, or Niagara Falls or the Palace of Versailles? There are so many amazing things to see and learn about in our world.

While we would love to take our students on excursions to learn about the things they can’t experience at school, there are obviously many places that are simply too far away, too expensive, too dangerous or too impractical to visit.

Meet Expeditions. Expeditions is a new tool in development from Google that uses the StreetView technology found in Google Maps to take students on virtual field trips to all sorts of exotic and interesting places, all without leaving the classroom. Using a simple and inexpensive viewer made of cardboard, paired with a smartphone and the free Expeditions app, teachers are able to share immersive 3-dimensional, 360-degree panoramic imagery with their students to let them experience some of the incredible places that a school bus simply cannot take them.

Although Expeditions is still in the beta testing stage, students from PLC Sydney were recently invited to take part in a special sneak preview of the technology. Two members of Google’s Australian Expeditions team visited us this week and spent a day sharing some of these amazing virtual field trips with our girls. Guided by the teachers, students in Years 3, 4, 6 and 11 were taken to the top of Mount Fuji in Japan, to Amundsen’s Hut in Antarctica, climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, and feeding sharks off the coast of Miami, to name just a few. The excitement, engagement and enthusiasm of the girls was very obvious. Their reaction as they first looked through the cardboard viewer was one of utter amazement. As they excitedly looked around – up, down, behind them – taking in the full panoramic experience of the location they were virtually visiting, it quickly became apparent just how much impact this technology could have in education. As one of our teachers observed, the girls got to visit and learn about places that they would not have been able to actually go to in person. And as one of our students noted, it makes you realise just how many places there are in the world to learn about.

Google Expeditions 08

Looking at the world through a virtual viewer is obviously no replacement for the real thing, but it’s certainly a great option for immersively taking students to places that they may not otherwise get to experience for real, all without leaving the classroom. As a tool for learning, as a starting point for discussion, as a means of provoking conversation and questions, Expeditions is astonishing in its simplicity.

The intent of the Expeditions team is to develop a tool that not only offers an incredibly immersive educational experience, but can be used in schools at minimal cost. Many students already own a smartphone, so by adding a free app and a viewer costing just a few dollars the potential for exploring the world virtually becomes a very real option for schools everywhere.

PLC Sydney was very pleased to have been able to be part of the Google Expeditions Pioneer Program and to be able to offer feedback on its future direction. For more information about Expeditions you can visit

Age Shall Not Weary Them

I’ve been trying to remember the very first time I went online to the Internet.

I started thinking about this when I read about the recent passing of Olive Riley, a 108 year old woman who regularly wrote on her Blogger account and was known as the World’s Oldest Blogger.

Olive passed away this week on the NSW Central Coast, just a few months before her 109th birthday, God bless her. In the newspaper article about her passing, her Grandson notes how she was regularly communicating with people from as far away as America and Russia.

I suppose I take for granted just how easily we can communicate with people from far away places. A quick glance at the Live Feed widget on this very blog shows me that in the last few hours I’ve had hits from India, America, Norway, Canada, the UK and of course all over Australia. A quick peruse through my open Skype contact list shows a similar global diversity, with people listed there from virtually every continent except Antarctica. It’s all too easy to take this for granted these days but the fact that we can connect like this, sending our little binary bits flying around the planet in mere milliseconds, is still a pretty amazing thing when you stop and think about it.

So, when was the first time you ever saw the Internet?

For me it must have been early 1995. I remember it well because I had a student whose father worked for the company that was contracted to do the 3.5″ floppy disk duplication for the original Microsoft Windows 95 release. (Yes, remember when operating systems could be installed using floppy disks?) This student was a very smart, very geeky kid (he taught me to code in HTML) and he came to school one day and said “dad wants to know if you’d like to see the Internet”… (apparently I had been trying to teach something about this new thing called the Internet and he thought it was clear I had no idea what I was talking about, so wanted to set me straight). I said yes of course.

So I went in and visited his dad at his work, had a look at the disk duplication facilities for Windows 95, and then he took me to his cubicle and typed a few weird UNIX commands into a terminal. A few seconds later, some more text appeared on the screen in response. Apparently it had come from Singapore, where an FTP server had responded to his request and was allowing him to browse through some files. Although it was all UNIX command-line stuff (real men use Shell script!) I was fascinated by the idea that a computer in Sydney was communicating with a computer in Singapore, right there before my very eyes!

Not long after that, I wanted to give it a go myself so I managed to hook a modem up to an LC575 Mac, work my way through the setup of the required TCP/IP stacks, and somehow got it connected. I was so excited to be able to browse the Internet (not the WWW, mind you!) using a text-based browser called Lynx. I somehow found my way into the University of Minnesota library and browsed the catalog. I thought it was so exciting and I was just fascinated that I could send these little packets of data all the way across the Pacific and back.

But that was not my first foray into going online. It was maybe a year prior to that that I’d discovered eWorld. Ah, eWorld! If you never saw it, eWorld was Apple’s first attempt at creating an online community. It had – as you’d expect from Apple – a pretty, graphical interface that used the metaphor of a town, called eWorld, to let you wander from place to place. You could send emails by clicking on the Mail Centre, read the news by going to the News Stand, visit the Leisure Pavilion to find out about health and lifestyle news and so on. eWorld was very cool (and very expensive… it cost me $US10/hour to use, paid out of my own pocket, and I used it with kids in my classroom) but it was essentially a closed community. This was not the Internet, but rather a private protected community for Apple users.

However, in 1995, Apple updated eWorld to include a few new buildings and a picture of a highway going by the town. This highway was labelled “Internet”, and you could click on it to take the fast lane out of the safe haven of eWorld and out into the big bad unknown world of the Web. It was the wild west, highly unregulated, hard to find stuff, very random, but very interesting and a lot of fun to explore. It had plenty of weird places to visit… I remember the first real website I ever saw was the Virtual Cemetery, a list of obituaries for people who has died. I can’t find it anymore of course, although there seems to be plenty of others to take its place.

It’s hard to believe that this was only 13 years ago. Just 13 short years ago, there was no real Internet to speak of, at least nothing that you’d recognise as the Internet of today. No online banking. No eCommerce. No online dating. No Amazon, no Google, no eBay. No Web 2.0 and not even Web 1.0. We’ve come an awful long way in a very short space of time. Next time one of your high school students makes a joke about your age, remind them that the World Wide Web was not invented when they were born. Puts it in perspective doesn’t it?

And as for Olive, I hope she rests in peace in some Virtual Cemetery somewhere. At 108 she still had a sense of curiosity and wonder at being able to communicate so easily with others around the world.

She sounds like one pretty cool old lady.

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The Awards and the After Party

A few posts ago I mentioned that both Betchablog and The Virtual Staffroom had been nominated for Eddies, or Edublog Awards.

As the voting processes started for the awards, there was apparently quite a bit of blog-love being shown for certain nominees in the form of multiple votes, automated voting, group voting, etc. It got to the point where the organisers had to first of all manually delete suspicious voting activity such as in the form of huge numbers of votes all coming from the same network address in a short period of time, and eventually had to completely limit the voting system to a single vote per IP address. No doubt this was the result of some very enthusiastic voting by students in class (“OK kids, your teacher has been nominated for an award so go to this url and click the button for me”). Finally, the opportunity to see the progress of the results was shut off completely as well. It’s a shame the voting had to be nobbled in this way as it really ruins whatever meaning may have been derived from the award process in the first place. At the end of the day, I think these awards are a bit of a lucky dip anyway and it was just nice to be nominated regardless of the notion of “winning”.

Getting up to speed with SLWhat did intrigue me though was the notice I received to say that the awards ceremony would be held on Jokaydia Island. “Cool!” I thought, I get to fly off to some tropical resort on some exotic island somewhere to attend the ceremony. Well, it’s true, I did fly off, and it was an exotic island, but it existed only in the virtual world of Second Life. Yes, the Edublog Award ceremony was to be held in a virtual 3D space – a space existing only as a collection of bits, bytes and packets inside my computer, arranged into an amazing 3D environment by the creativity of the people who build these virtual spaces.

While I have dabbled on and off with Second Life over the past year or so, I never spent long enough in there to really get my head around it. Holding the awards ceremony in SL was a great way to encourage me, and probably others, to spend a little more time in-world. So while I was dabbling again the other night I noticed Sue Waters was online in Skype. Sue, or Ruby Imako as she is known in-world, is well known for her Second Life skills so I buzzed her to ask for a quick tour of the facility. This turned out to be a really useful lesson, and I learned lots of things I’d not yet discovered, including how to get free stuff, how to make my audio work, how to interact with the in-world objects, and most important of all, how to photocopy my butt using the amazing Copybot. 🙂 Thanks to Ruby (Sue) and and also Slammed Aabye (Dean) for showing me around. It was enlightening, and made me realise just how much I have to learn.

The actual awards were held on Sunday morning at 8:30am Sydney time so my SL alter-ego, Outback Outlander, turned up with a handsome new look (thanks to some last minute shopping on Freebie Island) and took my seat at the awards auditorium with a whole lot of other very good looking avatars. The event was hosted by Jeff Lebow, James Farmer and Dave Cormier who did a great job of keeping it all moving along despite a couple of minor hassles with the audio streams. Considering it was being broadcast out to Second Life, UStream and Skype, it was a pretty impressive undertaking. Here are a few happy snaps taken during the event, and these are the final winners. Also interesting to read is James Farmer’s insights into the “Awards Curve” and some suggestions for growing the event next year. Jo Kay, who is largely responsible for the creation of Jokaydia Island did an awesome job of building these spaces, and I’m absolutely gobsmacked at the world she has created in SL. Her attention to detail, sense of design, creativity and inventiveness just blows me away.

I’m still getting me head around Second Life. There are times when I see glimpses of amazing possibilities and others where I just shake my head and wonder what all the fuss is about. While it’s obviously got plenty of wow factor, I do still wonder just how effective the actual learning could be in a place like this. I still find it amazing that a virtual space can be used to hold an “event” like this, that people turn up, with their avatars all dressed up, some with virtual clothes that they paid for with real money, to socialise and mingle as though it were the real world. I still get blown away when I read that over half a million dollars of real money change hands in Second Life every day!

When I told other people I know (who mostly don’t “get” this whole online world thing) that my blogs had been nominated for an award they congratulated me. When I told them the awards ceremony was going to held in a place that existed only inside a computer, populated by people who were represented only by virtual 3D characters, they looked at me as though I was nuts. When I heard people in-world saying that there was an awards after-party on the beach where there would be dancing and drinks, I started to wonder if I was nuts. Dancing and drinks?! C’mon! I mean, in my First Life I’m sitting in my study in front of my computer in my pyjamas on a Sunday morning and in my Second Life I’m heading to a virtual beach to drink virtual cocktails and dance under a virtual mirror ball? … I’m pretty geeky, but that is seriously bizarre stuff!

So what did I do? I wandered down to the beach afterward and hit the dance floor with the others of course. Like most of this new technology world, if you ever want to understand it and find whatever value it might have, you just have to get in and give it a go. So pass me that virtual pina colada and let’s boogie on down, baby!