Three hundred sixty–degree (360°) video provides an opportunity for students to have an immersive experience of a location they’re studying in class. Prices have dropped to a point where institutions generally have 360° cameras available for instructors to use. Students can play 360° videos in virtual reality mode, where they view the scene in 3D on ordinary smartphones with inexpensive viewing goggles, such as Google Cardboard Cameras (available for $15). Alternatively, they can view the videos in 360° mode in an ordinary browser, choosing their perspective by swiping the screen with their mouse or fingers, albeit without the true 3D experience.
Language and culture
Foreign languages are perfect subjects for 360° video. These courses are about cultures as much as words, which is why foreign language classrooms normally have posters and items representing the culture. Using 360° video can situate students within a culture, allowing them to make a connection between the words they are learning and the culture itself. This allows the word “hogar” (home) to conjure up visions of a Spanish-style home, which can help students move from mentally translating words from English into Spanish to thinking in terms of the new language.
With this in mind, we traveled to Puerto Rico to shoot scenes for Spanish classes. We scheduled to shoot footage in a town square, at a beach, in a household kitchen, in a rainforest, and at an underwater coral reef restoration. (Yes, the cameras were waterproof!) We were able to capture additional scenes as we came upon them because the cameras were so easy to use.
The decision to capture video in the San Juan historical cemetery resulted in one of the most engaging and versatile videos that is used in all three levels of undergraduate Spanish instruction. Introduced during the fall semester, the cemetery lesson aligned with the US celebration of Halloween. We added a simple audio track to connect with the holiday.
What we do
Ana Serrano-Martinez teaches class in a variety of modalities, both in person and online. On campus, the instructor and students have access to smartphone VR viewing equipment. Online students use their own VR goggles or headset or view the 360° video in a web browser. YouTube provides a Google Cardboard option for viewing the 360° video using smartphone VR equipment and the YouTube VR APP for viewing the content using Oculus headsets.
In Spanish I, the 360˚ video provides cultural context for students to meet the objective of articulating basic Spanish vocabulary words. Students view the scene on the web, on a smartphone, or in VR goggles. The instructor asks simple descriptive questions for each scene such as, Where are you? Is it loud or quiet? What does it sound like? Students respond using vocabulary and basic sentences they have learned. If anything intrigues the students to learn more, the instructor encourages them to consult their Spanish–English dictionary and discuss their findings with the class and instructor.
In Spanish II, students learn terminology that enables them to better describe settings. Using the video, students decide which aspect of the scene to describe using the vocabulary introduced at this level. The result is a student-driven assignment that eliminates the pressure of “I need to answer what the professor wants me to answer.”
A creative writing exercise is presented to the students in Spanish III. Students write a short story about the location in Spanish. They are asked to use their imagination and again, build on their vocabulary to tell the story they want. Their submitted stories were then shared with their peers. Extra credit points are awarded to the class favorite, which also needs to reflect good grammar and storytelling. The selected story is then paired with some music and added as narration to the video for all to enjoy. The student-created content is used in future classes in different ways. For example, two written examples are shared (with permission from the former student authors) with current students. They are asked questions that compare and contrast the stories.
According to the instructor, students appear to be actively engaged in the video activities—making comments, asking questions, discussing the scenes in groups, and practicing the requisite Spanish vocabulary and grammar.
Another 360˚ video that engages students is the underwater coral reef restoration. This content was captured before Hurricane Maria destroyed 20 years of preseration efforts. When using the reef video during class discussions of Puerto Rico’s natural resources, students discuss environmental impacts on the island’s ecosystems and the sustainable practices needed for their preservation. In every course, the observed engagement exceeds the instructor’s expectations.
If you are interested in adding this versatile and reusable immersive element to your teaching, all you need is a consumer-grade 360° camera, a tripod, and a little practice. One important consideration is to position the camera so that the lenses face key features in the scene. Position the sides with the edges of the lenses facing less essential content because there may be slight blurring along these edges where the camera stitches together the two 180˚ images. The cemetery video was captured with an early consumer 360° camera that produced two separate 180° files, requiring postproduction stitching. If you spin the video, you can see the blurry stitching. To be fair, recent consumer 360° camera models stitch automatically, produce excellent quality video with minimal blurring, and create files that are ready to upload to a video-streaming platform (YouTube, Kaltura, etc.).
A second consideration when filming is to plan whether you will be in the video. During manual camera operation, be sure to extend recording time at the beginning and end of the video to remove a camera operator who is not meant to be part of a scene. If you choose to be in the video for narration and instruction, plan ahead for what you will say in relation to the complete scene. With 360˚ video, users can look anywhere and may not understand specifics of directional instructions, such as “over there” or “to your left.” Either way, allow extra recording time for clipping at the beginning and ending of the video (an editing option that most video-streaming applications provide).
The videos we created for our Spanish courses are valuable and long-lasting learning assets. Each video can be used several times and in several ways, depending on course needs. These videos also hold additional value because we filmed them all one month before Hurricane Maria destroyed much of Puerto Rico in 2017. They hold historical and biological value. In the case of the reef, the video provides a reference when students compare reef conditions before and directly after the devastation.
The three cemetery 360˚ videos:
Underwater 360˚ video of coral reef restoration off the coast of Culebra, Puerto Rico:
- 360° camera: A low-cost option is the Ricoh Theta SC2 360° cameras ($300, non-waterproof). For underwater recording, use the GoProMax 360° camera ($500).
- Tripod: Any camera tripod will work. We used the Koolehauda K-288 monopod with folding three-feet support stand ($65).
- Underwater monopod: SeaLife AquaPod Mini Underwater Monopod ($50)
- Memory card: Scan Disk Extreme Micro-Card SD 128 GB ($20)
- VR goggles for use with a smartphone: Handhelds cost $15, while those with a head strap that allow viewing without holding with a hand ($25–$50)
- Google Pixel phone device for students without compatible smartphones: Price varies by model and condition (new or refurbished).
Eileen M. Grodziak, MEd, and Kathleen J. Morgan, MA, are instructional designers for Penn State University, and Ana I. Serrano-Martinez, MA, is a lecturer of Spanish at Penn State Lehigh Valley.