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Transforming Education

From field to online: creating immersive virtual field trips during a pandemic

For departments like Geography and the Camborne School of Mines, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a particularly difficult challenge. How can the unique experience of educational field trips be replicated in an online environment?

It’s a question that departments have tackled in a number of different, innovative ways.

In Geography, interactive ‘story maps’ had already been produced for several years for students unable to attend field trips in person, using resources available at ArcGIS Online.

“Story maps can take the learner on the same journey that students who are actually at the location would go on,” explained Dr Damien Mansell, Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography & GIS. “They allow you to embed video clips, photographs and other data that allow you to showcase a particular area. Students can learn about a location without visiting it, using data that we’ve provided.”

But Dr Mansell and his Physical Geography senior lecturer colleagues Dr Steven Palmer and Dr Anne Le Brocq have gone a step further by developing their own interactive field trip solution: Interactive Virtual Environments for Teaching and Assessment (InVEnTA). This innovative software recently lifted the Technological or Digital Innovation of the Year trophy at the sixteenth annual THE Awards, and allows the creation of more immersive environments.

InVEnTA uses information from existing datasets, drones and handheld cameras to recreate environments virtually. “You can add ambient sounds to increase the level of immersion,” explained Dr Palmer. “You can also play with sea level to demonstrate what coastlines would look like under different sea level rise scenarios. Changing the time of day or year results in realistic changes in solar illumination, and you can change the weather conditions too. This all helps to better engage our students.”

“Students can demonstrate their learning by adding text, images, audio or video content to the interactive landscapes,” added Dr Mansell.

From residential to virtual

While several departments have created shorter interactive elements to replace the field trip experience, the Camborne School of Mines took it one step further: turning a residential six-day field trip to Devon and Dorset into a five-day virtual trip.

“It was a real challenge,” said Dr Kate Littler, Senior Lecturer (Education and Research) in Geology. “For a virtual field trip, you need to have all of the resources ready up front – photographs, videos and activities – which all need to be available and tested. It’s an enormous amount of work.”

The school’s Digital Learning Developers, Ben Stainton and Eira James, used tools like Google Earth and H5P to create a range of interactive online activities. Rock samples were also sent to students to give them a more tactile experience.

“The students really liked having real rock samples to look at,” said Dr Littler. “They also liked having paper-based tasks, such as making sketches, as that gave them a bit of a break from the screen.

“We found what worked well was starting the day with a short introductory lecture, followed by a task they could work on in Zoom breakout groups. We’d then reconvene for a wrap-up session. We’d follow the same format in the afternoon but for a different location.

“It’s important not to overload each day with content,” she continued. “You can’t do as much in a virtual field trip because students can’t concentrate for eight hours online as they could in the field.”

Making the most of video

Some departments have also been using video to recreate elements of the field trip experience.

For the first year Geography of Cornwall module, Dr Richard Lowes, aided by Digital Learning Developer, Tristian Herbert, prepared a video walking tour of the local, boat-accessible village of St Mawes to illustrate key geographical and historical themes relating to the module. He then encouraged his students to retrace his steps and undertake their own tour as COVID-19 restrictions allowed.

For the Psychology MSc in Animal Behaviour, a lack of zoological park access was mitigated by creating a YouTube channel featuring videos of animal behaviour. Students were instructed how to use and choose different methods of recording data to study animal behaviour. They then received a four-hour session to watch the videos, record their data and present their findings.

“As long as your videos are of a substantial length, you can create a similar schedule to what students would do in person if they were out in the field or at the zoo,” explained Psychology Lecturer, Dr Paul Rose.

Field trips can be hugely popular, and most staff and students will want them to resume as soon as possible – in the field. But the COVID-19 pandemic has also demonstrated that many aspects of field trips can be created online to good effect.

“The students responded really well,” concluded Dr Littler. “They could see it was well run and well organised – even though they would all have rather been in Dorset.”