University of Maine student teachers bring lessons to life with AR & VR

University of Maine at Farmington elementary education majors are learning how to use augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to transform literacy instruction. Using Google Cardboard and Google Expeditions, these pre-service K-8 educators are designing new ways to engage students in learning with immersive experiences.

The University of Maine at Farmington (UMF) has a long history of preparing future teachers for the classroom. The ways teachers are taught have changed over the university’s 150+ years, but perhaps never as dramatically as they are today, with the advent of engaging new educational technology.

Dr. Meredith Swallow, an Assistant Professor in Elementary Education and a technology integration specialist, wants to build bridges between what’s taught about teaching in higher education and “what really works in the classroom.” She’s preparing her K-8 student teachers to support student-centered, experiential learning by introducing them to Google’s AR and VR technology.

“Our pre-service teachers are using Google Cardboard and Google Expeditions to increase authentic exposure to the concepts in the books they were using,” Dr. Swallow says. “Google’s AR and VR tools are fun and user-friendly, and they worked with the resources we had.”

UMF Education majors serve as student teachers in school field placements in and around tiny Farmington (pop. 7,760), working closely with their in-service mentor–teachers. “Our students wanted to model learning activities using tools that are accessible to schools that are already very limited in budget, and that are easy for students and teachers alike to explore.”

Designing new ways to experience literature

In spring 2018, Dr. Swallow teamed up with Assistant Professor of Literacy Dr. Kathryn Will-Dubyak to integrate new technologies into her K-3-focused Literacy Methods class. They challenged their pre-service teachers to find new ways to use technology to create and share more engaging and immersive literacy instruction for their young students.

The literacy class chose Jeannette Winter’s children’s book, The World Is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid, for its first AR and VR project. Hadid, a visionary Baghdad architect, overcame obstacles as a Muslim woman to found an architectural firm that built 950 projects around the world. UMF students used the free Google Cardboard Camera app on their smartphones to create 360° images of local architecture reflecting the concepts in the book, and Google Cardboard headsets to view and share their creations.

“It was a personal way for our students to connect what they took from the content of the book and make it their own application,” Dr. Swallow says.

Bringing the world to rural classrooms

UMF pre-service teachers also experimented with using Google Expeditions—a free app that allows teachers to guide students on VR and AR tours—to incorporate virtual field trips into their lesson plans. “Students in our K-8 schools are in a very rural environment,” Dr. Swallow explains. “With the Expeditions app, we can bring virtual experiences from outside the state of Maine here to our students—whether New York City or Antarctica.”

Dr. Swallow’s students also used Tour Creator, a free tool for creating VR tours, to create custom learning adventures that captured the wonder of living amid the deep forests and rugged mountains of western Maine. “It was as simple as walking outside and picking an element that represented, for example, ‘fall,’ and capturing the images and videos to create a biome for their young students to experience.”

Dr. Swallow looks forward to exploring new ways of using AR and VR with her student teachers. “You don't need to be a VR expert to make this work,” she shares. “Our pre-service teachers are very passionate about what they're doing. Just hand over the tools and let them explore. Let them go for it!”

Organization Profile

Located in the rural western part of the Pine Tree State, the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF) is a premier teacher education and public liberal arts college. UMF prepares students for engaged citizenship, enriching professional careers, and an enduring love of learning. UMF Education offers a range of programs for students seeking careers as K–12 educators. Several graduates have gone on to be named “Maine Teacher of the Year.”

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