360° Photos for ELT

Every innovation in tech has the potential to be or become an advancement in ed tech. So, every time we hear about a new technology, we ought to pause and ask ourselves, what could this mean for my classroom and my students?

The term virtual reality has been around for decades, as has some form of the technology itself. The basic concept is that the user is immersed in a simulated—or virtual—reality: you not only see an image, but if you look to the left of you, you see what is to the left. Turn your head to the right and you see what’s to the right. In the 80s some consumer VR products were released, but they were very expensive, and they were primarily a novelty: There just wasn’t much you could do with VR, so interest faded. Just 5 years ago, the very term VR was obsolescing its way to the tomb of dead tech terms, to join the likes of beeper and phonograph, velocipede and 8-track, carburetor and zeppelin. But in the past few years, the concept has been resurrected and interest in it reinvigorated. Somewhat surprisingly, one of the driving forces behind the return of VR is Facebook and smartphones.

Facebook has recently rolled out 360° photos: panoramic photos taken on your ordinary smartphone that, viewed on your mobile device, respond to motion. Here’s an example I took recently:*

If you have Facebook and a recent smartphone, you can create 360° photos (Facebook automatically detects metadata in the photo and turns it from a panorama into a 360°; you don’t have to do anything but upload). Combined with a viewer like Google Cardboard, which holds your phone and blocks out the light of  rest of the world, panoramic photos become a form of virtual reality.

Ok—but we’re like four paragraphs in and I’ve barely mentioned English teaching, right? Where’s the application? Well, to be honest I myself haven’t yet used 360° photos in class—that’s right, this is some real bleeding edge stuff—but here are a few ideas I’ve been thinking about:

  • When we’re teaching a thematic unit such as Rooms in the Home or My Neighborhood, we’ll sometimes ask students to describe their homes, maybe draw a map. Instead, we could have them take 360° photos and take us on a virtual tour in class.
  • Or perhaps the teacher takes a 360° photo of her own home, shares with the class, and holds a race to describe where certain objects are using prepositions of place: Who can find the picture that my son drew? I see it! It’s on the refrigerator under the grocery list!
  • 360° photos as writing prompts are potentially much richer than traditional photos. They posit the viewer smack in the middle of a scene with the ability to look around and select a perspective, rather than teachers choosing the students’ focus for them.

  • Combined with, say, Google Maps, there’s a whole lot of potential for practical, real-world English use that might otherwise be impossible: the teacher gives a “lost” student a 360° photo, and the class looks at Google Maps on the projector.  By asking questions—What are you standing in front of? Is there a hardware store next to that Starbucks?—the class helps to figure out where the lost student is and gives him directions to the next place.

This technology is really only in its infancy. There’s a lot of unrealized potential, especially for teaching. I’ve already been playing with 360° photo in Photoshop, overlaying text, creating 360° vocab pages.

This is perhaps more a novelty at this point, but novelty can boost engagement. I also hope this has given you an idea of the direction the technology could go in. Combine it with the sort of GPS-based augmented reality that Pokemon Go uses, and I can imagine wikified ESL communities, in which teachers and students can wander their community, labeling objects in the streets in much the way many teachers put a Post-it note on the wall that says wall.


*Note: there are still some compatibility issues with embedding these photos. If you’re on a computer, clicking these photos should take you to the photo I’ve shared on Facebook, which you should be able to explore using your mouse. If you’re on a mobile device, you’ll want to view the posts in your Facebook app rather than your browser, as most mobile browsers don’t seem to support 360° photos at the time of publication. This is sure to change quite quickly.

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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One Response to 360° Photos for ELT

  1. I think photos are becoming more and more popular in the class. I use them a lot, mainly to get a few giggles from the students, but also to make the lesson memorable. Using 360 degree photos is definitely a new idea I’ll try to fit in this term. Thanks for the idea. Barry

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