Google Expeditions: Comparing the "explorer" experiences on Tablets and Virtual Reality viewers

iPads set-up for students ("explorers") and educator ("guide") ahead of a lesson using Google Expeditions (Photo courtesy: Dr. Ana-Despina Tudor) 


The Open University (OU), UK is conducting a school-based research project (funded by Google and the OU; July 2016 - June 2017) on the potential use of Virtual Reality via Google Expeditions in secondary school science and geography.

Google Expeditions is a Virtual Reality (VR) approach being promoted by Google in schools globally. Google Expeditions are guided tours (field trips) of places that students experience on a smartphone through a VR viewer called Google cardboard.  


When we have been visiting schools as a part of our research project, we have noted that the main obstacle for adopting Google Expeditions in schools is the cost of the equipment, and especially the constraint of not having 1:1 smartphones for their students.

In January 2017, we worked with a school which has 1:1 iPads for its students from Year 4 onwards, to investigate student and educator experiences of Google Expeditions on iPads, and how the experiences compare with using smartphone driven VR through VR viewers.


These are some of our reflections:

  • Students normally use the iPads on stands. They found that iPads (with their protective covers) were heavy to move around to view the Expeditions. “I liked the virtual reality [VR-viewer] because it was lighter to hold and it’s smaller.”
  • Some of the students reverted back to keeping the iPad on the stand and using the fingers to swipe through the screen – a mode of interaction that they are used to. For these students who reverted to a stationary iPad, the 360-degree experience was different and less engaging due to moving restrictions. Another student remarked: “I prefer the virtual reality [VR-Viewer] because it wasn’t hard to use. The iPads [the scene] wouldn’t move when you moved it, but the virtual reality [VR viewer] did.” 
  • The educator felt the students were more distracted in the iPad lesson as compared to the VR-viewer lesson. Once the VR-viewers are close to the student’s eyes, they have an individual focused experience and are not so much affected by others in the room and events around them.  The educator said:“it [VR-viewer-lesson] was much more self-directed. There was a lot less low-level disruption. They were looking and taking to their partners, but it was on task as compared to just spinning randomly…”
  • The sense of presence – or the sense of being there was perceived to be more in the VR-viewer lessons by the students: “because it looks more realistic and you can hold it to your face... and so it feels like you are there…but you can’t with the iPad.”
  • Moreover, students could zoom in and out on the iPad – an interaction which also comes naturally to Tablet users.
  • If the students were pointing to a particular aspect of the Expedition for clarification by the teacher, the educator found it easier to address that in the iPad classes as she could walk over to the student and look at their iPad screen.
  • The educator suggested that having both iPads and VR-viewers in the lesson could be helpful: VR-viewers facilitate self-exploration and immersive ‘individual’ experience of the expeditions. iPads could be used for group-work, discussion in pairs, for accessing other Apps, and for discussions that involve the entire class - when the teacher uses the iPad to display the expedition using the classroom projector. Students also pointed out that that both technologies can be helpful: “Both of them helped me learn because [on] the iPad I saw it in detail and the VR [virtual reality] was getting the experience better.”
  • Some students preferred the larger screen of an iPad: “it [iPad] gave the picture larger. You didn’t have to put the iPad on your face. It gave me the full look around and gave the chance to move [within the scene] with nothing on me. Sometimes my eyes got fuzzy with virtual reality [VR viewer] compared to the iPad. You could see the bit she [the educator] was talking about clearer and nice and big [on the iPad].”

The educator, after having reflected on the activities that the students carried out in the lessons, concluded: “They do both [iPads and smartphone-driven VR viewers] help learning, but you do get a bit more from the VR experience. However, as a compromise, if you haven’t got the VR [equipment], you could do it with iPads.”

With over 400 expeditions, the Google expeditions App provides a very rich resource for teaching and learning, and for virtual field trips. The educator added: “if you have a small group [of students], have a few iPads out… they can explore something [in the expeditions] even just to enhance their awareness of this technology…start planting the seeds of how will that [VR] work.”

The Project team

Dr. Matthew Kam, Research Lead, Google Education

Professor Shailey Minocha and Dr Ana-Despina Tudor at The Open University, UK

The project partners are: UK's Field Studies Council (Steve Tilling and Dave Morgan), UK's Association for Science Education (Richard Needham and Marianne Cutler) and Geographical Association (Becky Kitchen).