3D Virtual field trips and their relationship with physical field trips

At The Open University (OU), UK, we have a long tradition of virtual field trips to support our students at a distance. These virtual field trips have been made available on CD-ROMs, DVDs, on websites (e.g. Sorting out Soils in OU's Open Science Lab) and now in 3D avatar-based virtual environments (e.g. Virtual Skiddaw - the 3D virtual geology field trip in OU's Open Science Lab - OSL). Virtual field trips enable our students to familiarise themselves with the area and develop/practise fieldwork skills.

Virtual field trips (VFTs) can be perceived as replacements to physical field trips and even considered as a threat/obstacle for physical fieldwork (a survey of UK school teachers by Geographical Association). However, disciplines such as geology, biology, environmental science/studies and geography are founded on field observations, exploration, and enquiry. The skills for such disciplines are best learned and practised in the field - to discover and to be curious. In fact, fieldwork by its very definition involves leaving the classroom and engaging in activities through first-hand experience of the phenomena out-of-doors. 

We perceive VFTs being used to support, enhance and extend physical fieldwork so that students can make the most of their time out in the field. VFTs can help in preparation ahead of a physical field trip, and as revision aids after a physical field trip. 

Virtual Skiddaw is a browser-based 3D Geology VFT App within OSL. It was developed with a 3D game engine (Unity 3D). Virtual Skiddaw presents geological fieldwork in a 3D immersive digital landscape created using real world data from part of the northern Lake District in the UK. Unlike other 3D virtual field trips that are normally based around fictional landscapes, the Virtual Skiddaw App has been developed using real data - digital photogrammetry, LiDAR data and maps from UK's Ordnance Survey. 

The multi-user avatar-based environment of Virtual Skiddaw facilitates interaction with other students and educators and facilitates synchronous communication, peer-to-peer learning and collaborative learning. There are six sites of Skiddaw in this VFT - each site has 5-6 activities. The 3D virtual environment (VE) facilitates learning activities that lead to improved transfer of knowledge and skills to real-life situations through contextualisation of learning. If students are unable to visit all the six sites due to time or weather constraints, then this VFT provides a space for practice and revision of fieldwork activities.

The sense of presence afforded by the 3D VE and the sense of self due to the avatars contribute towards an immersive experience for students and educators.

The evaluation of the Virtual Skiddaw initiative is being supported by OU's eSTEeM - The OU Centre for STEM pedagogy.  

Publications and reports by the project team are available in OU's Research Repository (ORO).