Saturday, June 21, 2014

Leap Motion In The Classroom

This post first appeared on Edudemic in October 2013

Leap Motion is a brand new and highly promising device.  For those who never heard of the Leap Motion controller before, it’s a small piece of hardware, compatible with both, Macs and PC’s, that allows the user to control the device without touching the keyboard, the mouse, or the screen.  Its pedagogical potential persuaded me to spend the $80, a somewhat steep asking price, and try it in my classroom.  In my trials I discovered that the petite device can make an excellent teaching companion, and can complement a teacher’s arsenal of teaching tools.

Given the fact that Leap Motion is a newcomer to the filed of technology, the number of available applications, particularly education-oriented applications, is naturally, low at the moment.  However, the few that are available, if used appropriately, can elevate any lesson to a highly enjoyable augmented reality experience, and as such, they can provide unique learning opportunities for all students, especially kinesthetic learners.  Furthermore, it appears that the Leap Motion controller has a great potential in the field of special education.  Special education students of all ages can benefit greatly from the advantages the small device offers. 

Teaching Earth & Space
The fact that the enormous size of planets, stars, and galaxies make them such an abstract concept to explain, teaching kids about space has always been a challenging task for many teachers.  Thankfully, Leap Motion comes to fill that gap and offer a unique, Tony Stark-like learning experience with Solar Walk.  Solar Walk is an app that costs $4.99, but in my opinion it is the best 499 cents I ever spent to buy a tool that helps me explain the structure of the Milky Way Galaxy in such a comprehensive way.  Students were able to use the Leap Motion controller to zoom in and away from the Sun, the planets of our solar system and their moons, as well as all of the major satellites that orbit Earth.  Using just their index figure, they were able to pull up facts and graphics about the internal structure of each planet, general information about a planet’s size, length of day and year, surface temperature, as well as the names of scientific missions and probes sent to these planets.  As an added bonus, the app offers true 3D environment with 3D glasses students can get at any movie theatre.  Students were so excited to work with Solar Walk and so inspired by its unique approach, that they insisted they wanted to write their own ebook about our solar system (look for it on the iBooks store in the near future). 

Teaching Social Studies
Arguably, Google Earth is the most modern, detail packed, and up-to-date map tool teachers can use to teach history and geography.  With Leap Motion teachers end up with nothing less than Google Earth on steroids.  Once you manage to master the admittedly highly sensitive controls, Leap Motion seems to have been created to complement Google Earth.  Both tools work in absolute harmony, and the user is able to perform flyovers over the entire world.  Our students were having a blast showing off their piloting skills and delivering a report on how to use cardinal directions as well as pinpointing the locations of major geographical features of the state of Florida.  Recently, Google added street view to the Galapagos Islands.  I can’t wait to use Leap Motion and Google Earth later this year, to teach animals and their unique ecosystems using street view on the Galapagos Islands.

Teaching Lower Elementary
There is something to be said about the Leap Motion’s potential in the lower elementary grades.  There is a limited, at the moment, number of very good apps on the Airspace store - Leap Motion’s equivalent of the Apple or Google app stores -designed specifically for young learners.  These apps can help students develop eye-hand coordination skills and at the same time explore educational concepts.  Caterpillar Count is a free app that kindergarten, first, and second grade teachers can use to teach counting skills as well as odd and even numbers.  Curious Kids is another app designed with the young learner in mind.  The cost is $1.99 and can be used by kindergarten and first grade teachers to teach skip counting, and animal and piano sounds.  Both apps do an excellent job in helping students develop their motor skills while working on number sense. 

Leap Motion and Gamification
Undoubtedly, the Leap Motion controller gives new meaning to one of the most popular modern trends in education: gamification.  Learning becomes a game, regardless of what you are doing with Leap Motion.  Its kinesthetic approach turns every activity into an enjoyable, highly interactive learning experience.  The students’ interest in the lesson is clearly more intense, and the sincere and voluntary effort they put into the tasks they perform keeps them engaged and motivated for longer periods of time.  More importantly, the students are more likely to retain the information they learn, and to apply this information to everyday situations to solve problems.  If you have been thinking about incorporating game-based activities and interactive learning in your classroom, the Leap Motion controller is a great starting point. 

Some Final Thoughts
Every now and then, new and promising technologies come to disturb the waters, and some of them eventually cause disruptive innovation.  Leap Motion belongs to that category.  It is a product with an incredible ability to tap people’s creativity, especially students, and open the door to unimaginable innovation.  For those familiar with the SAMR Model, this is “redefinition of learning and accomplishment of tasks previously inconceivable” at its best.  Early adopters and technology enthusiasts will probably love the Leap Motion controller, and they will try to find innovative ways to use it in the classroom.  However, eventually all teachers might want to give the minuscule device a shot in their classroom. 


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