geographical inquiry

Investigating the role of virtual reality in geography via Google Expeditions

Blog post by Dr Ana-Despina Tudor, The Open University, UK @AATudor


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

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.

Investigating the role of virtual reality in geography via Google Expeditions

At the Geographical Association’s annual conference (20th to 22nd April, 2017), we held a workshop with 24 geography educators on investigating the role of virtual reality in geography via Google Expeditions.

We first showed several Expeditions to the educators, such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo or Borneo Rainforest: Plant Adaptations. We then invited participants to share their experience on teaching geography with a focus on inquiry-based learning. We asked educators to discuss:

  1. their inquiry-based learning (IBL) practices in geography lessons and how they would use virtual reality for IBL in lessons;
  2. discuss their IBL practices before, during and after a field trip and how they would use virtual reality to practice IBL for fieldwork.

The presentation file of this workshop is available here

Geographical inquiry is an approach to teaching and learning that places students’ questions, ideas and observations at the centre of the learning experience. In our workshop we referred to Roberts' Inquiry Process model and we focused on how virtual reality can contribute towards the first steps of the inquiry process: creating a need to know and in formulating questions for the enquiry process.

Our reflections from the workshop are as follows.

Inquiry-based learning in geography lessons with virtual reality

With virtual reality or Google Expeditions:

  • Teachers can create the need to know by first introducing a topic and giving an overview of a theme, e.g., volcanoes in a more engaging way – “in the hyper-stimulating world our students live in, these images are a hook to interest them – it is engaging“ (Geography teacher)
  • By showing various places around the world, educators said that they could grab the attention of the students and familiarise them with new places as well as convey the context of those places in an easier manner – “break down a single story of a distant place” (Geography teacher).
  • Virtual reality can be used as “hook” together with other resources as well: “[discuss] what a map of Rio looks like compared to what the reality is and getting students to kind of compare those two resources” (Geography teacher)

Once students are through with initial exploration, educators proposed using frameworks, such as the 4Ws (Who is Where, When, doing What) or “I wonder” games to stimulate questioning. Students may develop questions either alone or in groups.

Inquiry-based learning for Physical fieldwork

With virtual reality or Google Expeditions:

  • Before a physical field trip, educators first establish the level of actual knowledge about that location and where lies the need to know. They may use the KWL framework - what-we know; what we want to know; and what we learned (Ogle, 1986).
  • Virtual reality (either alone or in combination with other resources such as maps, Google Earth) could then be used to provide students with comprehensive information about the fieldwork location.
  • Prior knowledge helps plan the inquiry steps before arriving at the location; help to focus the attention of students in the field (e.g., on data collection); and save time when in the field: “use VR [Virtual Reality] to model fieldwork inquiry process so that students are familiar with questions and structure of fieldwork” (Geography teacher)
  • While in the field, educators suggest using Google Expeditions to compare and contrast the location they are visiting with other locations in the world or with the same location but at different points in time (e.g., seasonal changes, historical views): “for example, you go to this local place and then you go and compare it with another place, which is similar but in another part of the world to […] investigate some questions in a different location” (Geography teacher)
  • After the fieldwork, geography educators would use Virtual Reality as a revision tool to recollect the visited place and contextualise the newly acquired knowledge for further inquiry.

Geography educators concluded that the use of virtual reality of Google Expeditions in geography lessons and for fieldwork as a part of a “jigsaw” of resources they would use in geography teaching to create the need to know (Roberts, 2013) and to encourage students to practice formulating questions both in the classroom and for physical fieldwork.

Please look at our previous blog-post on geographical inquiry for more details on the role of smartphone-driven virtual reality in inquiry-based learning.


Ogle, D. (1986). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text. The Reading Teacher, 39, 564-570.

Roberts, M. (2013) Geography through enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school. Sheffield: Geographical Association, 2013.

Workshop organisers: 

Steve Tilling, Field Studies Council

Ana-Despina Tudor and Shailey Minocha, The Open University

Rebecca Kitchen, Geographical Association


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).