When I found out that New York Times was sending subscribers a Google Cardboard headset, my ears perked. A news organization entering into the world of affordable virtual reality?
Sign. Me. Up.
Google Cardboard is Google's answer to virtual reality using a smartphone. Just turn your phone sideways, place it into the viewer and the screen splits in two. When the headset is held up to the eyes, each eye looks through a lense and it's just like Mattel's View Master -- images and video become three dimensional.
So, when the NY Times decided to start telling stories using virtual reality, the teacher in me said, "I WANT MY STUDENTS TO TELL STORIES USING VIRTUAL REALITY, TOO!"
To do so, I need 16 GoPro Hero4 cameras, a plastic circular device for them to all sit in, the ability to edit all the videos into one spectacular story and probably $4,000 to do it all.
That, and on GoPro's website because I need to sign up to see if I'm even eligible for such a thing.
Here's what I'm thinking -- why not, right? Why wouldn't GoPro and their Odyssey contraption want a middle school journalism program to start using its magnificence? How amazing would it look to see mini-teenagers creating virtual reality content?
"And the best middle school journalism teacher award goes to..."
"You like me! You really, really like me!"
Wait. I just looked up the real price. I was way off by $11,000.
Does anyone have $15,000 they'd let me borrow? Well, not borrow. I'm not going to pay you back.
What if I write Trump to send me a $15,000 check to promote education? In my letter, I'll write: You will have my vote if you adopt my journalism program and help me get my students to tell virtual reality stories.
Stop breathing into that paper bag, I'm kidding.
Maybe Google will fund me.
"Um, Google? Do you want to fund a middle school journalism program's use of the Odyssey rig so we can create virtual reality news stories? You can use our content for free as a marketing ploy!"
Granted, we won't take our viewers to Syria or up in space or down underwater, but we will take you into the world that is far scarier.
The wilds of middle school.
Live and see what it's like to be in the orchestra. Immerse yourself in mixed media. Understand the concepts of floor hockey. There are so many stories we could tell that would capture fellow middle school students' eyes, and then every kid would want to take my class and my journalism program would become unstoppable!
For now, it will be a dream, but I'm not totally shelving it just yet. Since this consumable virtual reality is still fairly new, the cost is going to be high. But like anything, I may get to see that cost go down, and the story about what it's like to be a principal told in 360 degree virtual reality just may be around the corner.
Where some people follow and obsess over Apple, I follow and obsess over Google.
I realize Google can be seen as evil, and there's conspiracies that it's the right-hand of the government, spying on us, but it also allows me to run my website for free, and my school uses a bucket full of the tools it offers for education.
And, Maps is also nice for traveling.
But, when it comes to the wiles of computer technology, though, I can't understand the language of coding, nor can I sit down and write and create an app that you can download to your phone.
I wish I could because that's (supposedly) where the money is today.
Instead, I just get to be very interested in what Google is mixing up in its cauldron. I may not be able to create it, but at least I get to use it.
Every summer, I follow their I/O developer conference online, attending from my recliner. I don't watch many of the videos, but I do read the articles on tech blogs and magazines about the new technology Google introduces.
About two years ago, I read a blog post about how all the attendees received a cardboard cut-out that turned into a weird set of goggles.
And the collected reaction was like, "What the H?"
Then, the attendees placed their phones into the headset, after downloading an app, and they were thrust into a low-cost world of virtual reality.
I know virtual reality isn't new, but it's something that was never at our fingertips. Not like this.
I mean, I remember going to Blockbuster's Block Party when I was in high school...
...wait...do you even remember Block Party? The adult arcade? It had a giant playplace, games, food, other things like those chairs you sat in that moved around while the movie screen moved around and it was like you were on a rollercoaster...you know...moving around.
But what made Block Party state-of-the-art was its virtual reality stations. There were two of them, and you could place the hefty black goggles on your face and play some kind of virtual reality game...for, like, $10.
The line was always long and my adolescent brain could not handle the wait. Nor, did I want to pay $10 for a few minutes of my time.
Jump ahead 20 years, and now we just place our phones sideways into a set of cardboard goggles and, walah! Instant immersion.
When I first read about Google Cardboard, I thought it was cool, but it wasn't available to the consumer. I could've made my own viewer, but I didn't have the patience or the engineering know-how to put it all together -- even if there was a template and I would just be cutting up cardboard, even though there were instructions, it looked more difficult than IKEA furniture.
So, I just said, "cool" and went on with my day.
Over a year later, this past November, I read how the New York Times mailed out viewers to their subscribers. It was their way of telling the world, "Hey, we're going to start using virtual reality, too."
That's when I finally got on board. Now, the viewers are easy to purchase (we don't have to make our own!), are inexpensive, and come in a variety of materials, colors, and designs.
I bought a multi-colored foam one that seemed more sturdy than the basic cardboard.
When my Google Cardboard viewer came in the mail, I put it together, placed my phone in it and started to giggle.
That is the initial response. It's simple amazement. It's 3D. You're sitting on the floor in your living room. It cost you no more than $12, and it's not "Avatar."
Because I knew there was major educational value in this little contraption, I took my Cardboard headset to school and showed it off. My fellow staff members were excited to see that a smartphone turned sideways could become a virtual reality conduit.
And everyone that put it on giggled and gasped.
I'm sure the biggest, toughest, manliest man would put on the goggles and giggle.
Their catch phrase should be: Google Cardboard gives you the Google Giggles.
With some research, it was discovered by our media specialist that Google was using this virtual reality experience by incorporating it into education. Something called Google Expeditions was making its way around the country, and we found out that they were going to come to Indiana.
So, we signed up.
And they came.
On January 27, a representative from Google came with 60 headsets and some tablets. The headsets all had smartphones in them, and with the help of the tablet, the teacher picked an expedition (traveling to space, going to the Taj Mahal, walking the Great Wall of China, looking behind the scenes at what a photographer does for the American Museum of Natural History, and more) and led the students through a field trip without leaving the room.
The nanoseconds those Google Cardboard viewers touched the students' faces, they all emitted a sleugh of Google Giggles.
The students turned around, looked up and looked down, and wherever they were, they could see the sky, the ground, and all the details. Although Google Expeditions doesn't use video, it's still amazing because it's like the students were standing inside a photograph. You could visit the same Expedition twice and see new things.
It's absolutely crazy.
And now I'm hoping to bring it to my classroom. I'm not quite sure how, but since the New York Times is creating content, there's definitely a way to incorporate that into the journalism classroom.
Maybe eventually, my students could start creating their own virtual reality content.
We have this weird 90-minute block of time every other day called Core+ during the school day. Students are able to get help with classwork, finish homework, read, and more with some of that time.
This time is a huge benefit for my class because it allows for students to have extra time to get interviews. You see, in my journalism classes, students have to pull their sources out of class to interview them. Normally, this isn't a problem because my students have to schedule an appointment using the tried-and-true Appointment Pass I created years ago.
The Appointment Pass is a simple carbon copy: the reporter writes the student name, teacher name, date, time, etc. on the pass and the teacher signs it. I get the top part, and the reporter gets the bottom part.
This pass lets me know the students checked in with the teacher to make sure it's OK for an interview. It also lets me know where they are in case of an emergency.
The faculty I work with are pretty fabulous and supportive, and they will often allow students to get interviewed during class, as long as they are respectful and professional little journalists.
To cut down on those interruptions, I like Core+ because the entire school has it at the same time.
So, when a student is struggling with getting an interview during class, I just tell them to get a pass and do the interview during Core+.
Then they say this: "But I have homework to do."
Is getting interviews not homework? Is this not a real class?
I'm a mere Muggle in their Hogwarts world.
This annoys me. They hold their science, social studies, math and language arts classes above mine. Those are real classes that matter, apparently. This thing, this yearbook they're working on is pointless.
When students tell me they have homework they need to get done during Core+, I ask them: "Are the interviews you have to get done not homework?"
They fall quiet. Sure it's homework, they think, but it's not as important. I have learned the truth at this point. They don't see my class as a real class, because let's face it, the communication skills they're working on won't help them in high school or the real world...
...said no one ever.
Then, I remind them that they have a real audience. That hundreds of people follow our Twitter account and see our updates and links to stories on our website. I remind them that over 1,000 kids are actually paying for their homework when they purchase a yearbook.
"How many people pay for your language arts paper?"
I usually get silence in return, which means I have won.
I don't mean to belittle the other classes, but I feel like I have to use fighting words in order for students to realize that my class is a class, too. That it's not just this thing they do for 90 minutes every other day.
Sure, it's not a typical class, but I truly believe they are getting something out of my class, even if they don't realize it.
When we talk about photo composition and design terms, they're actually learning about art, and sometimes, those skills get reapplied in their art classes.
When we discuss good question writing and interviewing, we're working on research skills. They do a ton of research in their science, social studies and language arts classes.
When students submit a Tweet to me so we can update our Twitter feed with the news of the school, they're taking the information that they've gathered, summarize it and create their own main ideas in the form of a Tweet. I also publish those to our growing list of Twitter followers. Those Tweets they write have an authentic audience, and they are often liked and retweeted. It's also one of the few ways we can report "breaking" news.
When we work on stories, they're writing. Writing benefits all areas of every class, ever. We do daily editing exercises, which can benefit them in language arts.
So, when a student thinks my class isn't a real class, they are sorely mistaken.
When Whitney Houston sings, "I'm every woman," on "The Bodyguard" soundtrack -- that's me she's singing about.
My class is every class.
No, they won't be tested on a standardized test over what they've learned, but the concepts and skills they work on in my classroom can help in other areas. There are times when I try to tell my students that journalism can be seen as a bridge to their other classes.
What they're working on in those classes, well, they're working on all that in my class, too.
Then, I drop my mic and leave the room.
Who is The Vade Mecum
Evan Williams is a middle school journalism teacher in Indiana. He advises the student publications: yearbook, magazine, video announcements, broadcast and online news. To find success in the classroom, he uses blended learning with the help of Canvas and Google Apps for Education.