virtual field trips

Reflections on our virtual reality projects - part 2

In this second part, we continue with the first part of our reflections on virtual reality (VR) projects in the previous blog post.

Google Expeditions

Students looking at the Google Expedition of solar system via Google Cardboard, a Virtual Reality viewer

Students looking at the Google Expedition of solar system via Google Cardboard, a Virtual Reality viewer

The desktop-based and graphics-intensive virtual reality applications that we discussed in part 1 (previous blog-post) have given way to smartphone-driven virtual reality (VR). Smartphone-driven VR has democratised the use of virtual reality as it has become accessible.

Virtual reality apps such as Google Expeditions run on a smart phone. You need viewers of the kind shown in the picture above called Google Cardboard. The virtual reality viewers such as Google Cardboard and Daydream have two lenses, and just as it with our eyes, these two lens combine the images together to give the stereoscopic effect.

In Google-funded project, we have conducted research on Google Expeditions (GEs) to investigate the role that this virtual reality app could play in education. 

Google Expeditions (GEs) are guided field trips to places that students experience on a smartphone through a VR viewer called Google Cardboard. The GE 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). GEs enable visualisation of locations which may not be feasible or easy to visit in real life (e.g. Great Barrier Reef or Tolbachik volcano). 

Further, GEs have simulations to envision concepts and systems such as the human heart, the respiratory system, or the process of pollination.

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 the VR viewer. Based on our feedback, Google went onto to modify this mode of operation. Now students can look at the expeditions on their own via the VR viewers without having somebody to guide them through an expedition via the Tablet.

We investigated whether GEs could support inquiry-based learning in science and geography education; and whether GEs, as virtual field trips, support fieldwork education.

We found that students felt the sense of presence while experiencing virtual field trips - as if they were there. There is a sense of realism when you can look around. The effect of phenomenon such as coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef was quite evident and strong - where students enquired higher-order questions - which are more towards investigating phenomena rather than just asking what it was. It is not possible to view the process of pollination - but you can do so in a simulated environment in Google Expeditions. Human anatomy and systems that students may not experience - you can see them in a  360 degree view and they were able to ask questions and see the inter-relationships between the circulatory system and the respiratory system. 

The project web-page has links to blog-posts related to our research on GEs.

Ana-Despina Tudor and I, with support from colleagues in Google, Field Studies Council, Association for Science Association and Geographical Association, carried out this project and continue to reflect and publish our results.

Virtual inclusion via 360 degree videos

A scene from one of the 360 degree videos in the Virtual Inclusion app

A scene from one of the 360 degree videos in the Virtual Inclusion app

The project ‘Virtual Inclusion: Tackling Hate and Extremism in the UK Using Virtual Reality Technology’ received funding from the partnership between Google and the London-based think-tank Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD).

We have designed and developed 360 degree videos - 360 degree videos have a great power of story-telling. We have three scenarios depicting three non-British children and from different backgrounds. The scenarios show the somewhat bullying nature of other students towards them - either because of the colour of their skin, or they can’t speak very good English. The scenarios ask the viewers about the path they would choose at the end - some resolutions - and the viewers are expected to reflect on the scenarios and propose a way forward. These scenarios highlight elements of hate but sensitise the viewers about the significance of empathy and understanding towards others. These scenarios are lessons in citizenship and promote social inclusion and tolerance together with a positive message of anti-hate and anti-extremism. 

The 360 degree videos are an example of experiential learning - learning by experience but also reflective learning - where you are reflecting on what you have seen - why there is hatred? why the bullying and learn how you would not treat others the way that you have seen it.

Although these 360 degree videos have been developed for UK schools of 9-11 years of age, they are in the process being posted on Open Learn, our university’s site that hosts free educational resources for all. We are hopeful that these scenarios will be used in other countries, at other levels of education for students higher/lower than this age group.

Youtube 360 playlist with spatial sound of this project is here. The app is currently in the process of being approved before it can be made available for iOS and Android users. A WebGL browser version of the app will also be made available.

Our colleague Peter Bloom in the Department of People and Organisations at The Open University leads on this project. Other team members are Evangelia Baralou and me.

Reflections on the role of virtual reality in education

Being involved in projects such as that of Google Expeditions and Virtual Inclusion that involve emerging technologies, we realise their educational potential. This enables us to come up with applications of these technologies for our students. So, it leads to evidence-based teaching for us.

Which ever technology we employ in our curriculum, it is critical that it has a definite role (over and beyond the current ways of learning and teaching) in the curriculum. So, for social care workers who study with us at the university, we are developing a simulation in an avatar-based 3D environment where they experience several risks that they may encounter when they visit people’s homes. Through this simulation, they will learn how to address those risks - so, it is a training environment for them.

To simulate risky scenarios is expensive in real life and are difficult to set up - and they can only be used once or twice while they are set up. However, in a 3D simulation, students can practise as many times as you would like. This repetition is particularly useful in procedural learning - so, if a medical student has to learn using an instrument - they can practice repeatedly in this virtual environment. So, when they go to the lab, they will use the instrument for whatever experiment they need to conduct rather than learning how to use the instrument - saving on the otherwise expensive lab time.

VR will increasingly become a mainstream technology and will be particularly useful for these training applications:

  • Simulating risky environments - e.g. after-fire investigation, accident investigation

  • In forensic science education

  • in medical education - e.g. 3D models of human anatomy and physiology

  • in nursing, nurses can learn to interact with patients; in midwifery

  • for skills-development - e.g.presentation skills, interviewing skills

  • to understand processes - such as visiting places that may not be able to visit in real life - e.g. bottom of the ocean floor to study the effects of climate change on oceanic life; to study environmental change in Borneo rain forests - affected by palm plantations, clearing of forests for creating infrastructure for tourists

  • fund-raising - for creating empathy via 360 degrees videos such as people affected by floods; 360 degree videos and VR can help in raising the plight of children in war-torn areas.

VR will soon become a norm in learning and teaching applications and in marketing.

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].

Conclusions

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.

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

Tracy-our-blog.jpg

Authors of this case study

Tracy Tyrell, Irchester Primary School and Ana Tudor and Shailey Minocha, The Open University, UK

Case study

This case study demonstrates how Google Expeditions can help in extending students’ knowledge and understanding from a classroom setting of seeing and feeling rock samples, to experiencing them in a local cemetery in a physical field trip, and to the use of rocks in well-known international locations.

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 Virtual Reality via Google Expeditions in science and geography in school education.

Google Expeditions is a Virtual Reality mobile application 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.  

Google Expeditions comprise of 700 photospheres of places and events - for example, Buckingham Palace, The Great Barrier Reef and the coral bleaching in the Reef due to climate change, Borneo Rain Forest, 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 Google expeditions app - for example, the respiratory or the circulatory system in a human body, the solar system, the activity in volcanoes during eruption, etc. These simulations are virtual representations of otherwise invisible concepts, processes and events.

Connecting local context to an international context

The Science educator of Grade 4 students of a primary school used Google Expeditions to link virtual field trips with physical fieldwork.

The learning outcomes of a set of lessons were focussed on understanding different types of rocks and their usage. The educator structured this topic in the following lessons:

  1. Introducing the different types of rocks in the classroom through a sample of rocks kept in a rock-box in the school. The rocks were sketched and initial observations made as to appearance, texture, etc.
    • Investigating how rocks are formed by looking at the rock cycle and then creating sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rocks from Starbursts. Observable features of the different rock types were then related back to the rocks children had observed – which type of rock did they think they had and why?
    • Testing the rocks for hardness and permeability using a scratch test and water. The testable features of the different rock types were then also related back to the rocks children had observed – which type of rock did they think they had and why?
  2. After introducing the rocks in the classroom, the educator organised a field trip to the local cemetery where the students could see and discuss the different types of rocks.
  3. In the third lesson and continuing with the theme of rocks, the educator took them to several locations around the world with two Expeditions (“7 new wonders of the World” and “Egypt”):
    • City of Petra in Jordan
    • Taj Mahal
    • Machu Picchu
    • Pyramids in Giza in Egypt

Through the rock-box in the school and in the physical field trip, the educator focussed on the experiential aspects of the topic and the physical trip. She wanted the students to see the different kinds of rocks, feel them with their hands, and analyse their varying characteristics such as hardness, lustre and crystal structure.

The discussion in the local cemetery focused on looking at rocks, how they are used locally, and how they had weathered. The educator reflected in her post-physical field trip conversations with us (the research team):

“we were talking about which was the most common [rock], why do you think there are a couple of [rocks] that [are] completely different there and why? Why do some [rocks] look as if they’ve aged better and lots of questions about what they could see or what they could feel.”

This is how the educator introduced Google Expeditions in the lesson that we observed:

“We did go on a little tour of the graveyard to look at how rocks are being used in the churchyard and in the church, so this [Google Expeditions] is going to be taking you to places where I can’t actually take you because it’s too far and it’s too expensive”.

In each of the expeditions and their scenes, the educator gave students a brief background of the location, the history, the types of rocks and their characteristics, and the structures and buildings made from those rocks. She prompted them to see the connections between the local site that they had visited in the previous lesson and the international locations they were now seeing in virtual reality:

“This is the main tomb where the emperor and his wife are buried, and what do you think that rock is covering the whole mausoleum? Thinking about yesterday and the gravestones we looked at, which rock do you think covers the Taj Mahal?”

High-order questions in students' questioning

The eduactor noticed that her students expanded their thinking towards rock usage and asked high-order questions in their written activity sheets in the lesson such as:

“How did the Egyptian people get the rocks to make the Great Pyramid?” or “How [do] the rocks stick together?”

In their post-lesson reflections, students wrote that Google Expeditions helped them to see that in other countries rocks can be used for tombs”. Also, it helped them to understand that rocks are important all over the world:

“It made me understand how much the world needs rocks. It also helped me understand how much progress we’ve made.”

Reflections

This case study shows how Google Expeditions or virtual reality-based field trips can be used as an extension of a local field trip to locations that may be difficult to visit. In this particular lesson, Google Expeditions enabled comparisons and contrasts between local and the international contexts; how different kinds of rocks are found and used in different parts of the world; and the significance of rocks in history. 

Google Expeditions and virtual field trips to Jordan, Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu and Egypt helped to extend the understanding of rocks from a classroom to a physical field trip locally, and to an international context.

The educator has explained the case study in her own words here: Google Expeditions - Irchester Primary School.

Project team

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).

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: http://www.geography.org.uk/gtip/mentoring/geography/curriculumplanning/frameworkforenquiry/): 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

THE PROJECT TEAM

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).

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 PROJECT AND GOOGLE EXPEDITIONS

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 http://bit.ly/2oiiDCw 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.

THE PROJECT TEAM

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).

Google Expeditions: Comparing the "explorer" experiences on Tablets and Virtual Reality viewers

iPads set-up for students ("explorers") and educator ("guide") ahead of a lesson using Google Expeditions (Photo courtesy: Dr. Ana-Despina Tudor) 

THE PROJECT AND GOOGLE EXPEDITIONS

The Open University (OU), UK is conducting a school-based research project (funded by Google and the OU; July 2016 - June 2017) on the potential use of Virtual Reality via Google Expeditions in secondary school science and geography.

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

GOOGLE EXPEDITIONS KIT

When we have been visiting schools as a part of our research project, we have noted that the main obstacle for adopting Google Expeditions in schools is the cost of the equipment, and especially the constraint of not having 1:1 smartphones for their students.

In January 2017, we worked with a school which has 1:1 iPads for its students from Year 4 onwards, to investigate student and educator experiences of Google Expeditions on iPads, and how the experiences compare with using smartphone driven VR through VR viewers.

HOW iPads FARED IN COMPARISON WITH SMARTPHONE-DRIVEN VIRTUAL REALITY?

These are some of our reflections:

  • Students normally use the iPads on stands. They found that iPads (with their protective covers) were heavy to move around to view the Expeditions. “I liked the virtual reality [VR-viewer] because it was lighter to hold and it’s smaller.”
  • Some of the students reverted back to keeping the iPad on the stand and using the fingers to swipe through the screen – a mode of interaction that they are used to. For these students who reverted to a stationary iPad, the 360-degree experience was different and less engaging due to moving restrictions. Another student remarked: “I prefer the virtual reality [VR-Viewer] because it wasn’t hard to use. The iPads [the scene] wouldn’t move when you moved it, but the virtual reality [VR viewer] did.” 
  • The educator felt the students were more distracted in the iPad lesson as compared to the VR-viewer lesson. Once the VR-viewers are close to the student’s eyes, they have an individual focused experience and are not so much affected by others in the room and events around them.  The educator said:“it [VR-viewer-lesson] was much more self-directed. There was a lot less low-level disruption. They were looking and taking to their partners, but it was on task as compared to just spinning randomly…”
  • The sense of presence – or the sense of being there was perceived to be more in the VR-viewer lessons by the students: “because it looks more realistic and you can hold it to your face... and so it feels like you are there…but you can’t with the iPad.”
  • Moreover, students could zoom in and out on the iPad – an interaction which also comes naturally to Tablet users.
  • If the students were pointing to a particular aspect of the Expedition for clarification by the teacher, the educator found it easier to address that in the iPad classes as she could walk over to the student and look at their iPad screen.
  • The educator suggested that having both iPads and VR-viewers in the lesson could be helpful: VR-viewers facilitate self-exploration and immersive ‘individual’ experience of the expeditions. iPads could be used for group-work, discussion in pairs, for accessing other Apps, and for discussions that involve the entire class - when the teacher uses the iPad to display the expedition using the classroom projector. Students also pointed out that that both technologies can be helpful: “Both of them helped me learn because [on] the iPad I saw it in detail and the VR [virtual reality] was getting the experience better.”
  • Some students preferred the larger screen of an iPad: “it [iPad] gave the picture larger. You didn’t have to put the iPad on your face. It gave me the full look around and gave the chance to move [within the scene] with nothing on me. Sometimes my eyes got fuzzy with virtual reality [VR viewer] compared to the iPad. You could see the bit she [the educator] was talking about clearer and nice and big [on the iPad].”

The educator, after having reflected on the activities that the students carried out in the lessons, concluded: “They do both [iPads and smartphone-driven VR viewers] help learning, but you do get a bit more from the VR experience. However, as a compromise, if you haven’t got the VR [equipment], you could do it with iPads.”

With over 400 expeditions, the Google expeditions App provides a very rich resource for teaching and learning, and for virtual field trips. The educator added: “if you have a small group [of students], have a few iPads out… they can explore something [in the expeditions] even just to enhance their awareness of this technology…start planting the seeds of how will that [VR] work.”

The Project team

Dr. Matthew Kam, Research Lead, Google Education

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

The project partners are: UK's Field Studies Council (Steve Tilling and Dave Morgan), UK's Association for Science Education (Richard Needham and Marianne Cutler) and Geographical Association (Becky Kitchen).

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).

The role of Virtual Reality-based virtual field trips in supporting physical fieldwork

The authors of this blog-post are Professor Shailey Minocha and Dr Ana-Despina Tudor of The Open University, UK and Dr Steve Tilling, Field Studies Council, UK.

Audience in the Science Circle island of Second Life (picture courtesy: Chantal Snoek, Founder, Science Circle)

Audience in the Science Circle island of Second Life (picture courtesy: Chantal Snoek, Founder, Science Circle)

Taking the example of Virtual Reality-based Google Expeditions, in a presentation in the 3D virtual world, Second Life on 3 September 2016, we (Dr Ana-Despina Tudor and Professor Shailey Minocha, The Open University, UK and Dr. Steve Tilling, Field Studies Council) discussed how virtual field trips can prepare students for physical fieldwork and enhance the fieldwork experience during and after a physical field trip. Our project's details are summarised in a previous blog-post

In this Second Life talk, we presented the results from our preliminary investigations with Geography and Science educators, fieldworkers and curriculum leaders. The presentation slides are available here.

These are some of the themes that came up in the discussion:

  • significance of outdoor fieldwork in Geography and Science (the two subjects of study in our project); 
  • constraints on how physical field trips may not always be feasible because of some of these challenges: cost constraints, safety concerns, time limitations (in the school timetables);
  • cost of the VR technology - smartphones, tablets, virtual reality (VR) viewers and availability of network for smartphone and mobile-app based VR such as in the case of Google Expeditions; concerns about the affordability for schools and parents; 

Discussion quotes: 

"biggest challenges would be money, not allowing smartphones in schools (we have 1:1 laptops instead) and admin buy-in"

"If schools in the UK can find a way of providing tablets that can be used in class that would be great so we can avoid the issue of affordability of some families."

  • need of guidance or resources or lesson-plans for teachers for using such technologies in the classrooms;
  • teachers would like to create their own content but is it really feasible given the time-constraints?
  • concern about teachers having to keep pace with the ever-changing VR-landscape;
  • need for sufficient evidence on the role of VR in education and in schools for adoption.

Dr Steve Tilling, UK's Field Studies Council, said: "I'd just say that I think VR will follow a similar path to Google Earth. Slow at first, but accelerated rapidly as teachers developed their own resources. Now, 10 years later, many geographers, and some scientists, would struggle to survive without it."

Our thanks to Chantal Snoek, Founder of Science Circle, for hosting our presentation in the Science Circle island in Second Life.

We will keep you posted on our future events and research results. 

Investigating the role of virtual reality in Science and Geography in schools via Google Expeditions

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  Teachers of Science and Geography trying out Google Expeditions at a local school in Milton Keynes, UK.  [Dr Ana-Despina Tudor of UK's Open University (standing) was leading the session.]

Teachers of Science and Geography trying out Google Expeditions at a local school in Milton Keynes, UK.

[Dr Ana-Despina Tudor of UK's Open University (standing) was leading the session.]

The authors of this blog post are: Professor Shailey Minocha and Dr Ana-Despina Tudor of The Open University, UK and Dr Steve Tilling, UK's Field Studies Council.

The year 2016 is when Virtual Reality has finally become a mainstream product, with major investment by some of the leading developers in the IT and smartphone sector (e.g. HTC, Samsung, Sony). Whilst the Virtual Reality (VR) devices being launched this year are usually associated with gaming and entertainment, their potential in education is also being explored. 

Google Expeditions (GEs) is one of the VR approaches being promoted by Google in schools globally. GEs are guided tours (field trips) of places that students experience on a smartphone through a virtual reality viewer called Google cardboard (see video). Also, see another video.

A GE comprises of 360 degrees scenes or panoramas of a location (e.g. a museum, or a city like Rio de Janeiro) along with the description of that location, points of interest and some suggested questions for inquiry and discussion. GEs also enable visualisation of locations which may not be feasible or easy to visit in real life (e.g. volcanoes, or an underwater visit to Great Barrier Reef, or Galapagos islands). Further, GE-like VR-based simulations can help to envision concepts and systems such as the human heart, circulatory system, or a plant cell. Using a Tablet and via the GEs App (available from Google Play Store), a teacher can guide students to look at places and concepts. Students experience the GE/VR through the smartphones embedded within the VR viewers.

The Open University (OU), UK are conducting a school-based research project (funded by Google and the OU) on the potential use of VR via GEs in secondary school science and geography classes. The project is being co-led by Field Studies Council, and UK's Association for Science Education and Geographical Association are the two partnering organisations. The project will run until July 2017 (project website). 

The focus of this project is to understand:

  • how VR-based field trips can prepare students for physical fieldwork in Science and Geography classes;
  • how effectiveVR-based simulations are at representing scientific or geographic concepts (e.g. showing students a human heart, taking them to an underwater excursion);
  • whether VR-based field trips facilitate spatial literacy; and
  • whether VR-based field trips support self-directed inquiry-based learning.

Involvement of schools in the UK in the Autumn term 2016

These are the following ways in which we are inviting schools and teachers (KS3, KS4 and A-levels) to participate in our research.

  • in-class sessions with students and teachers where teachers can try out GEs during a Science or Geography lesson (the OU researchers will help teachers plan the lesson ahead of the session(s)).
  • meeting with a group of Science and Geography teachers during lunch-hour or at the end of the school-day; this will involve a demo and hands-on and discussion on virtual reality field trips and their role in Science and Geography Curricula.
  • involving teachers to review GE-based virtual field trips with the view of reflecting on the role of VR-based field trips in teaching and learning Science and Geography.

To express your interest in taking part in this project, please complete this online form: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/Virtual-Reality-Google-Expeditions or http://bit.ly/29ShR6k. Alternatively, please contact Dr Ana-Despina Tudor or Professor Shailey Minocha at the OU (ana.tudor@open.ac.uk; shailey.minocha@open.ac.uk)

The research will be carried out with approval from OU’s Human Research Ethics Committee. The findings of the project will be shared with teachers and their schools. Ways of recognising participating schools and teachers are currently being investigated.

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    Teachers, policy makers and fieldworkers at a Google Expeditions workshop at UK’s Open University in Milton Keynes

Teachers, policy makers and fieldworkers at a Google Expeditions workshop at UK’s Open University in Milton Keynes