Virtual-Reality Google Expeditions Augment the Physical field trip Experience

Workshop with fieldworkers earlier this year at the Field Studies Council Offices in Preston Montford, Shrewsbury, UK

Workshop with fieldworkers earlier this year at the Field Studies Council Offices in Preston Montford, Shrewsbury, UK


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

Google Expeditions is a Virtual Reality mobile Application (app) which consists of field trips of places that students experience on a smartphone through a Virtual Reality (VR) viewer called Google cardboard.  The Google Expeditions app (available for Android and iOS platforms) has more than 500 expeditions. An expedition comprises of 360-degree photospheres of a location (e.g. Rio de Janeiro). Google Expeditions enable visualisation of locations which may not be feasible or easy to visit in real life (e.g. Galapagos islands or the Tolbachik volcano). Further, Google Expeditions have simulations to envision concepts and systems such as the human heart, the respiratory system, or the process of pollination.

Fieldwork, which involves leaving the classroom and engaging in teaching and learning through first-hand experience of phenomena out-of-doors, has a long tradition in geography and in certain sciences, notably biology and environmental science. Learning in the ‘real world’ through exploration and enquiry is particularly valuable for introducing students to the complexity and messiness of the real world. However, there are several barriers to physical fieldwork such as time-constraints; it is expensive; requires health and safety assessment; students should have some essential fieldwork skills to make the best use of their time in the field; and the support staff require training for conducting physical field trips (see: Year of fieldwork: why do we need it?).

Virtual field trips, which are designed in 3D virtual reality platforms (e.g. for desktop computers or for mobile phone apps such as Google Expeditions) provide realistic spaces and contexts and have enormous potential for supporting fieldwork before, during, and after a physical field trip. One of the research questions that we have focused on is concerned with this potential:

How can virtual reality-based virtual field trips via Google Expeditions support physical fieldwork?

Virtual field trips and how they support physical fieldwork

There are two kinds of virtual field trips in Google Expeditions:

  • places that may be difficult to experience in real-life such as underwater excursions of the Great Barrier Reef to view the coral bleaching and effects of climate change; and
  • places that one can visit in real-life but it may not always be feasible to do so due to resource, distance, or mobility constraints – for example, London Olympic Park, or visiting tropical rainforests in Borneo, or pyramids in Egypt.

We have identified several characteristics of Google Expeditions that may help to complement physical field trips:

  • The 360-degree photospheres in Google Expeditions and the 3D view that the virtual reality viewer generates create an ‘authentic learning space’ in virtual field trips.
  • Being able to navigate in 360-degrees, that is, moving your head up and down and from side to side and being able to place the viewer on your eyes gives an individualised first-hand viewing experience.
  • The participants in our empirical research have commented on the sense of presence – ‘as if I was there’ and the sense of space – being able to perceive the spatial relationships in a scene of the expedition.

The authentic spaces, and the sense of presence and sense of space that the users experience in virtual reality set an authentic context for learning – enabling the educators to relate virtual field trips in Google Expeditions to real-world experiences of physical field trips. For example,

  • before a physical field trip, Google Expeditions can support students to practice and gain observation skills, or in the formulation of inquiry questions for the physical field trip, or to conduct risk assessment; the support staff can learn and prepare themselves for managing a group of students and for assisting in the fieldwork activities;
  • during physical field trips, Google Expeditions can help sensitise the students to the issues of the location of the physical field trip with other parts of the world – for example, how will the area of their physical field trip change due to footfall by tourists and construction of hotels and holiday resorts – and showing them the ‘Environmental change in Borneo’ expedition (see in the Weekly Teacher Tips of Google Expeditions, 29 November 2016); and
  • virtual field trips provide a space for de-briefing by the educator, for reflection, and for consolidation of knowledge after a physical field trip.

The realism of virtual field trips and the sense of presence and the sense of place that they generate can help augment the physical field trip experience and support the learning gained through physical field trips.


Professor Shailey Minocha and Dr Ana-Despina Tudor at The Open University, UK

Dr. Matthew Kam, Google Education Products Team

The project partners in the UK are:

Field Studies Council (Dr Steve Tilling and Mr Dave Morgan);

Association for Science Education (Mr Richard Needham and Ms Marianne Cutler); and

Geographical Association (Ms Becky Kitchen).