FieldscapesVR: Virtual world field trips to extend and enrich field teaching

Argles, T. W.; Burden, D.; Tilling, S. and Minocha, S. (2017). FieldscapesVR: Virtual world field trips to extend and enrich field teaching. In: International Geological Congress, Abstracts, 35, article no. 2109.



Field teaching is an indispensable feature of geoscience education, at all levels. However, delivering effective field experiences is challenging under many circumstances – not least for distance students such as Open University (OU) undergraduates. Hence, OU geoscience modules over the last 25 years have featured virtual field trips (VFTs), exploiting a range of formats, typically delivered via CD-ROM, DVD or web browser. 2013 saw a dramatic reboot with the launch of Virtual Skiddaw, a field exercise framed in a multi-user virtual environment that was created using 3D gaming software (Unity 3D). Virtual world field trips (VWFTs) offer a wealth of new opportunities for online field learning. Advances in scanning and photogrammetry make detailed observation possible, while the digital landscape and ambient audio foster immersion. Rather than merely trying to replicate an outdoor field trip, the VWFT can also go ‘beyond fieldwork’: users can access aerial perspectives; drape the digital landscape with different imagery (e.g. maps); teleport and fly to save time; call up subsurface cross-sections; even fade other avatars out if they are obscuring the view! The multi-user capability enables collaborative work, even among groups that are widely dispersed, as OU students are. There are times when a VFT can replace physical fieldwork, for example for those who cannot access the outdoor locations. However, we regard their primary role as support for physical field teaching, so that students can make the most of their, often limited, time in the field: pre-trip familiarisation and orientation, followed by post-trip revision, reflection or extension – for both educators and students; introducing basic fieldwork concepts and logistics, risk assessment, and even some fieldwork skills – for instance to students with no prior field experience – to alleviate anxiety and build confidence. For example, in Virtual Skiddaw both mapwork and compass skills can be practised in the context of a 3D landscape. VWFTs also facilitate development of spatial literacy skills by bridging the 2D/3D conceptual gap, promote active learning, foster collaborative skills and reinvigorate problem-solving exercises.

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