Virtual and Augmented Reality Technology-Assisted Field Trips: Student-Based Approaches to Using New Technologies

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In many academic fields, particularly geography, the experiential learning opportunities afforded by field trips have long been recognized as an important part of the curriculum (Orion, 1993; Scare, 1997). The hands-on experience students gain applying concepts and building new skills such as teamwork, decision-making and data collection and analysis are nearly impossible to replicate in a classroom setting. However, because of their resource-intensive nature and growing operational and budgetary constraints, environmental programs are being forced to reduce the number of opportunities for students to get into the field. This is mirrored by changes in K-12 education, where a recent study by the American Association of School Administrators showed that more than half of US schools eliminated field trips during the 2010-2011 school year. Even when traditional field trips are available in university courses, many students find themselves unable to participate (e.g. disabled students, distance education students), strongly suggesting a need for more flexible field experiences in geoscience courses (Atchison and Feig, 2011; Gilley et al., 2015).

 

One potential solution to these problems is to develop flexible, technology-assisted field trips (TAFTs) that students can experience on their own time and schedule. Virtual and augmented reality TAFTs are being developed by individual educators and institutions across North America. Although these platforms are exciting for their potential to engage different types of learners, their success, as measured by student learning, hinges on informed design that applies sound pedagogical practice to leverage these new technologies. The effectiveness and best practices of TAFTs in undergraduate geography education is therefore one of the key issues that we are exploring as part of the Flexible Learning Project at UBC.

 

A major hurdle for integrating more TAFTs into curriculum is knowing the best platform to choose that maximizes learning while minimizing the effort faculty have to put into development. This is, in part, a pedagogical problem, with each platform offering certain advantages and disadvantages for helping students learn. But it is also a practical problem, as different education technologies are constantly being introduced that require some level of technical knowledge. There are also more specific issues when choosing a platform, such as:

 

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What types of media will best convey concepts to students;

How and where to store data that students collect, input and interact with;

How to handle implementation and maintenance;

How to limit the amount of data students are using on their mobile devices in the field;

How best to design a tool that is easy for both students and faculty to use without requiring specialize training.

 

 

 

In order to examine some of these questions, the UBC Department of Geography is actively developing and testing different virtual and augmented reality TAFT platforms. For an 1st year course on Geography, Modernity and Globalization (GEOG 122), Dr. Siobhan McPhee partnered with an app and software development company to bring students in her large enrollment course on a historical walking tour of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The resulting augmented reality app has geo-enabled locations with images and podcasts of Dr. McPhee speaking about the historical content of different sites while students are on the walking tour. Two of the strengths of this type of field trip are: 1) the ability to replicate a traditional field trip experience that would be logistically impossible to do with multiple sections of large courses, while still bringing students into the field; and 2) the ability to cache field trip data on mobile devices, limiting any data demands that large media files have in order to use them in the field.

 

A very different type of field trip was recently developed for Geography 316: The Geography of Natural Hazards. Because of the large class size and distance between field sites, we chose to build a virtual reality field trip that allows students to visit twice the number of stops they would typically be able to fit into a one-day field trip. The resulting field trip explores the physical processes and social vulnerability of communities on British Columbia’s west coast to hazards such as earthquakes, floods and landslides. Some other benefits of this field trip were that students could choose when they would complete it and which technology they would use.

 

To capture the content for this field trip, we used 360o photospheres using the freely-available Google StreetView app on an iPhone 6, as well as recording ambient audio and other images that illustrate the key points of each stop. The intention was to have students view these photospheres using Google Cardboard to create a more immersive experience than they would have using a computer. However, we found that the added content took away from the Google Cardboard experience, as students would have to take their phones out of the Cardboard in order to interact with the links to images, audio files and other websites. Instead, we had to balance incorporating this content with creating an immersive environment and choose the former. To add this content, we used a platform called Holobuilder (www.holobuilder.com). Next, we built a WordPress-based website to host the field trip, embedding a Google Map of the stop locations and linking to an auto-graded quiz on the course website for assessment. The final product can be found here: http://blogs.ubc.ca/field trips. The first iteration of this field trip was offered to 95 students in February, 2016.

360 degree photosphere of a debris flow retention structure on the Sea to Sky Highway

        360 degree photosphere of a debris flow retention structure on the Sea to Sky Highway

As part of the assessment for this field trip, we asked students for feedback on what parts of a traditional trip they missed on the virtual trip, how well the various components of the virtual trip helped replicate a traditional field trip and what advantages they found with the virtual version. Overall, the student response was positive, especially considering that this was a first attempt and there were a few technical problems. Students generally responded favourably to questions on scales of 1-5 about how much the field trip helped them learn about local natural hazards (4.0), how easy it was to navigate between stops (4.4) and how well the virtual field trip simulated a ‘real’ field trip (3.2). Interestingly, female students found minor technical issues somewhat or very distracting more commonly (33%) than male students (3%). Of the 66 respondents to the survey, roughly 50-65% of students identified one or more of “being able to talk to an instructor”, “being able to talk to other students” and “knowing where they were compared to other stops” as the things they missed most about not going on a traditional field trip.

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We also asked several qualitative questions about what they liked about the trip and what they would like to see changed. Besides students expressing overall enthusiasm about the delivery of images, video and audio content using novel technologies, the most common comments were that they appreciated the increased flexibility of the virtual field trip. Several of these comments aligned closely with our project’s guiding principles. For example, one student commented that they were “able to learn about places that we may not feasibly been able to visit on our own time.” Many students enjoyed being able to do it at home and being able to re-visit sites multiple times at their own pace. One student expanded on this by saying that they are “busy and this made it possible to have an engaging learning experience that was time sensitive. Also, I’m a visual learner and I find that it’s not often that students get to experience multi-media assignments.”

Both of these quantitative and qualitative data seem to justify spending the time and resources to incorporate more virtual and augmented reality field trips into the UBC Geography curriculum. These trips should not, however, be designed to replace traditional field trips entirely, especially those with small enough enrollment to allow valuable student-instructor and student-student interactions. Instead, they offer a potential way to increase the amount of field experiences undergraduate students get beyond existing options, or as a last resort in giving students time in the field if programs continue to be cut. With time, it seems inevitable that high quality, more immersive 3D augmented and virtual field trips will become more prevalent in higher education classrooms. Perhaps one day these technologies will enhance, or even replace, existing lecture formats. In the meantime, the goal should be to develop and test various formats to ensure they are maximizing the value to students, and can be shared openly between various educators and institutions around the world.

 

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360 photosphere of a UBC student examining lake sediment on a recent geomorphology field trip

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