Virtual Geology fieldwork

Reflections on our virtual reality projects - part 1

Our journey into virtual worlds or virtual reality research started in Second Life.

Second Life

Educators gathering in Second Life ahead of the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable’s weekly meeting

Educators gathering in Second Life ahead of the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable’s weekly meeting

In 2007, we started investigating the role of a three-dimensional (3D) virtual world Second Life in education - and particularly, in supporting our university’s (The Open University, UK) students who study part-time and at a distance. We found Second Life to be useful for running tutorials with our students, for one-to-one meetings with our post-graduate students and for socialisation of students who were new to the university. The educators at our university ‘met’ with educators of other institutions/countries in this environment and learned from one another in the weekly meetings of Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable.

Encouraged by our experiences in Second Life, we embarked on developing a virtual geology field trip for our second level undergraduate students as a part of their Earth Sciences module.

Virtual Skiddaw - a virtual geology field trip

Sketch points to guide sketching in the virtual geology field trip

Sketch points to guide sketching in the virtual geology field trip

Our students are sometimes unable to participate in field trips due to family constraints or due to health or time constraints. So, we were keen to provide an experience to students as if they have visited Skiddaw mountains in the Lake District. So, with the help of digital photogrammetry and 3D modelling, we have simulated the six sites of the field trip to Skiddaw mountains in this 3D environment. It is an avatar-based environment - it is multi-user - so, students can come together to carry out activities together or the tutor can come in and take them on to a field trip just as our Geologist colleague does in real life. Each avatar has a name that you enter when you log in. You can find out from here where in the six sites each of the avatars are. You can text to one another. So, the tutor can send our messages to students. This environment support individual learning, peer-to-peer learning collaborative learning and tutor-led teaching and learning.

We have not only replicated the six sites of the Skiddaw mountains but we have added features and functionality that may not be possible to experience in real life: for example, draping the maps over mountains - geological map gives an insight into the different rock structures and how they are spread over the land, or bringing up a cross-section to see the geology underneath, or being able to fly and to have a helicopter view of the whole terrain, or being able to teleport to different sites. Each site has activities - so, you can pick up a rock and look at it under the virtual microscope. Virtual microscope is an OU application which is integrated within this Skiddaw app. So, you would normally pick up a rock and take it back to the field centre to study it whereas here our students can look at the rock while they are in the field and on a particular site - so, they learn within the context itself.

Webpage of the Virtual Skiddaw field trip

Videos of the field trip on YouTube: Video 1 and Video 2

Colleagues: Brian Richardson led the production of this app. Tom Argles was our Geologist expert who guided us on how the physical field trip experience could be replicated in a virtual environment.

Smartphone-driven Virtual Reality via 360-degree photospheres and 360-degree videos

We will discuss the next two initiatives of Google Expeditions (360 degree photospheres) and VR via 360 degree videos in our journey of virtual reality in the next blog-post.

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).