Role of smartphone-driven virtual reality field trips in inquiry-based learning 

Images: Buttress Roots in Borneo rainforests represent a plant adaptation in tropical rainforests (Google Expedition GE: Borneo Rainforest, Plant Adaptations); a scene on reshaping-land by Tolbachik volcano (GE: Tolbachik volcano); scanned snippet from a student activity sheet listing the questions after having seen the GE of Borneo Rainforest, Plant Adaptations

At the Geographical Association’s annual conference (20th to 22nd April, 2017), we presented a research paper on the “Role of smartphone-driven virtual reality field trips in inquiry-based learning” (presentation pdf). In this blog-post, we share our reflections on the paper.

Google Expeditions

Google Expeditions is a Virtual Reality approach comprising of 360-degree photospheres of a location (e.g. a museum, or a city like Rio de Janeiro, an active volcano) along with the description of location, points of interest and suggested questions for discussion. Using a Tablet and via the Google Expeditions App (for Android and iOS), a teacher can guide students. Students experience the Google Expeditions through the smartphones embedded within the Virtual Reality (VR) viewers called Google cardboard.

Geographical enquiry

Our research project’s objective has been to examine the potential role of VR in science and geography in schools. In this research paper, we outlined some of the results of our empirical investigations related to whether 360-degree photosphere VR on smartphones as in Google Expeditions can support geographical enquiry.

Geographical enquiry is an approach to teaching and learning that places students’ questions, ideas and observations at the centre of the learning experience. It is a question-driven investigative approach that expects students to enquire actively into issues and problems.

For example, if the students were planning a field trip to an area that has changed due to regeneration – then ahead of the field trip, students may develop questions for investigations in the field: the impact on transport and commercial infrastructure; is it a sustainable regeneration; impact on local people and any changes in life styles, etc. Another example of an enquiry is students looking at the photographs and related news items on coral bleaching in Great Barrier Reef and developing questions related to coral bleaching. The nature of the enquiry is dependent on the steer by the teacher and is generally based in the learning outcomes of the lesson and the curriculum.

The teacher facilitates the activities of investigative enquiry (on UK's Geographical Association site: encouraging a questioning attitude; enabling the collection of evidence or resources; opportunities to students for thinking geographically and how to make sense of the data to answer the questions; and finally, how to reflect on the learning.

Creating the need to know

The foundation of enquiry is ‘creating the need to know’ amongst the students and sparking their curiosity, and for students to formulate questions for enquiry. In our project, we have specifically focused on whether and how Google Expeditions (GEs) can support the questioning in geographical enquiry.

Our investigations have involved: observing Geography lessons that have used one or more GEs in secondary schools; analysis of the lesson-observations; and assessment of the nature of questions that are generated by the students during these lessons. The teachers reported that the students generate more questions (than usual) in lessons that involve GEs. Also, the questions are high-order (as compared to lower-order or factual/temporal questions) and have one of more of the following features: are analytical, enquire about impact, or are evaluative.

For example,

How did the mangrove leaves adapt to take in the salt? (Year 10, Geography, GE: Borneo Rainforest: Plant Adaptations)
Can the colour of the coral before it’s been drained come back? (Year 8, Geography, Climate Change and The Great Barrier Reef Expeditions)

Creating question “hooks” in student’s minds

Research which was originally conducted in the History but has since been applied in Geography, Science and related disciplines that have enquiry integral to their curriculum, has shown that there is a need for a “hook” to raise curiosity and to give students a range of areas to think about for their inquiry questions. This hook or initial stimulation material (ISM) could be a photo, a painting, video, a presentation, a map, or a role-play activity.

An ISM helps to cultivate conceptual understanding through concrete examples that connect with the students known and familiar experience of the concepts they are learning about or places that they plan to visit. The affordances of visualisation, 360-degree visual authenticity and 360-degree navigation of GEs along with over 500 expeditions or case studies – facilitate understanding the context where educators relate subject matter content to real-world situations and give students probes to think about and situate their newly acquired knowledge within a wider context.

Author affiliations: 

Alan Parkinson, King’s Ely Junior School

Rebecca Kitchen, Geographical Association

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

Steve Tilling, Field Studies Council


Dr Ana-Despina Tudor and Professor Shailey Minocha 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).