Connecting the learning from an international context to a local context in geography fieldwork via Google Expeditions

Photos: Students looking at Google Expeditions during the field trip to a local nature reserve

Authors of this blog-post

Mrs Melanie Collins, Pipers Corner School, High Wycombe, UK, Dr Ana-Despina Tudor, The Open University, UK and Professor Shailey Minocha, The Open University, UK

The project and Google Expeditions

The Open University (OU), UK, is conducting a school-based research project (funded by Google and the OU) on the potential use of mobile virtual reality via Google Expeditions in science and geography in school education.

Google Expeditions is a mobile virtual reality (VR) which is being promoted by Google in schools globally. Google Expeditions are guided tours (field trips) of places that students experience on a smartphone through a virtual reality viewer called Google cardboard

An expedition in the Google Expeditions (GEs) app comprises of 360-degree photospheres of places and events - for example, Buckingham Palace; The Great Barrier Reef and the coral bleaching in the Reef due to climate change; the Borneo Rainforest and the International Space Station. These visualisations enable students and educators to experience places that may be hard or even impossible to visit in real life.

There are simulations too in the GEs app - for example, the respiratory or the circulatory system in a human body, the solar system, the activity in volcanoes during eruption, or the process of pollination. These simulations are virtual representations of otherwise invisible concepts, processes and events.

The GEs app (available for Android and iOS platforms) has over 700 expeditions.

Using a tablet and via the GEs app, the educator guides the students to look at the scenes of an expedition. The students use the app in the ‘follower’ mode and experience the GE/VR through the smart-phone embedded within a VR viewer.

In the Figure below, (a) shows a tablet and a Google Cardboard VR viewer with the phone slotted in; in (b) the tablet is in ‘guide’ (or educator) mode and the phone is in ‘follower’ (or student) mode. On the tablet, the educator selects a point of interest (the circle). The setup requires a local wireless connection which can be provided by a router.

Figure: (a) Tablet and Google Cardboard viewer with the phone slotted in; (b) The tablet is in ‘guide (educator) mode and the phone is in ‘follower’ (or student) mode.

Connecting international context to the local context

In this case study, we describe how a virtual field trip in the GEs app was used during outdoor geography fieldwork to help students draw comparisons between the local area they were visiting and locations in the rainforest in Borneo. The simplicity of the equipment associated with the mobile or smart-phone-driven VR of GEs

(as compared with VR headsets tethered to high-spec machines) enabled us to use VR in the field. We were able to power the router (for creating the wireless network between the Tablet and phones) with a battery. The equipment was set up on a picnic table in the nature reserve.

Use of Google Expeditions during a physical field trip 

Sixty-eight Year 7 students explored the GE of ‘Environmental Change in Borneo’ during their field trip to a local nature reserve in the Chilterns area of South East England.

The aim of this virtual field trip was to help students understand the impact of deforestation, land clearance and development of buildings on nature, and to sensitise them to the potential magnitude of impact on their local nature reserve that may be caused by the development of a High-Speed (HS2) railway nearby.

Together with the educators, the researchers showed them the following scenes from the ‘Environmental Change in Borneo’ Expedition:

  • “Pristine Rainforest” – describing the plant and animal diversity in Borneo
  • “Land Clearance and Deforestation” – showing how the forest is cleared and how former forest areas turn into fields
  • “Land Encroachment” – showing how land is being cut through to create space for new real estate development
  • “Sandakan Development” – showing modern touristic coastal developments at the beach

Geographical inquiry before and during the field trip

In order to set the context for the VR activity in the field, before the field trip and in the classroom, students were asked to write down questions that they would like to ask with regard to the impact of large-scale developments on the local nature reserve. These are some exemplars:

“If they build the HS2 will animals/wildlife still live there?” (environmental impact)
“Will they get the people that live there to move?” (social impact)
 “Would everyone stop visiting [the Chilterns]?” (social and economic impact)

The questions generated at this stage appear to be general questions about the possible impact.

During the field trip and after a 10-minutes tour of the GE, students were required to fill out two written activities:

I. Write down how the virtual field trip made them feel differently about the large- scale development planned near the local nature reserve.

The tour of the Borneo rainforest in VR enabled students to compare and contrast the local area with the areas explored in virtual reality. These are some examples of student quotes:

“It really opened my eyes to what the beautiful Chilterns might be transformed into […] and how bad it would be for the environment”.
“It made me think that so much can change in so little time.”

II. Write down the questions they would like to ask about how places like the nature reserve are changing/might change in the future.

These are some examples of students’ questions:

 “What will happen to animals?”
 “Is the chalk [of the Chilterns] ever going to show under the grass”
“How big of an impact would the HS2 have?”
“How much of the world is affected by this?”

Compared to the questions the students asked before the field trip, the questions generated in the field after having seen the Expeditions appear to be more focused on the natural reserve area. Also, they appear to relate the content of the Expedition such as biodiversity loss or land encroachment (at international level) with similar threats to the local natural reserve (at local level) and even other places around the world.

Post-field trip Reflections 

After the field trip students had a debriefing session for 30 minutes in the school where they reflected on the field trip virtual reality activity. They were asked to comment on how virtual reality helped them to understand about the potential impact of large-scale developments on the Chilterns.

Students were able to connect their understanding and relate the changes in Borneo rain forests to their local nature reserve and to map the broader context of infrastructural development and its impact on nature:

“It is very helpful to see what we are trying to understand, because it’s quite hard to comprehend what would happen to the Chilterns if HS2 were to happen and seeing the jungle [in Borneo] and what happened to it was unbelievable and should never have happened.” [student]

Google Expeditions support Geography fieldwork education

The affordances of GEs such as 360-degree visual authenticity, 360-degree navigation, 3D view, and single-user handling enabled students to familiarise themselves with the 360-degree space and see beyond what a flat view in a video or a book or a photograph may provide. This perception of space contributes to their spatial understanding and sense of scale of the context that they are visualising in an expedition – and, in this case, the scale of the environmental change caused by human interventions.

Students explained this experience of scale and understanding the extent of change via the GE:

“It showed me all different things and how things like HS2 can really impact. You could see it on a large-scale, so you got to see things on an overall scale” [student]
 “It was useful. It made you understand how habitats can change from human technology and wants. It gave you a before and after picture and it was scary how it can change” [student]

In post-field trip group-interview of educators who had accompanied the students to the field trip, an educator elaborated on the visual impact that the virtual reality had on students’ understanding of environmental change and how it helped to contextualize the knowledge from an international context (Borneo) to the local one (The Chilterns):

“I think they saw the whole Borneo thing in a kind of context of what we were looking at there [in the field], which is I think was the purpose [of this activity].” [Geography educator, leader of the field trip team].


This case study demonstrates that Google Expeditions can help in extending students’ knowledge and understanding by drawing comparisons between various locations – in this case the environmental change at international setting seen in virtual reality and local areas that might be affected by large scale development plans.

Other scenarios could make use of Google Expeditions to explore the same place as the visited one in the field, but at different times of day, seasons or even historical times.

Through preliminary analyses of students’ inquiry before and during fieldwork and their reflections after the field trip, we are finding that mobile VR as in GEs helps to:

  • bridge virtual fieldwork with physical field trips;
  • facilitates inquiry-based fieldwork, and experiential and contextual learning; and
  • improves the value of geography fieldwork education.