Being there, just virtually

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Google announced it was releasing its full Expeditions app for free to educators.  While in its beta testing, the Expeditions app allowed over a million students in 11 different countries to take virtual field trips using Google Cardboard.  With the inexpensive virtual reality viewers, Expeditions offers some exciting opportunities for educators who may not have the ability geographically or financially to visit certain locations.  Take Lance Teeselink, who is a seventh grade student living in Iowa.  By using Google Expeditions and Google Cardboard, his class was able to visit Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Few American students get to visit Dubai and experience this architectural marvel but Lance’s class was able to visit the city virtually.  With the full release of the Expeditions app, students will be able to visit 200 different locations.

While virtual reality offers tremendous educational opportunities, I wondered a little about the research that was being conducted on virtual field trips (VFTs).  While the concept of VFTs has been around since the 1990s, most research has explored the use of synchronous classrooms and video to support student exploration of remote locations. Contrasting these methods, virtual reality has the ability to offer more immersive experiences for students.  By using smartphones with virtual reality headsets, students can explore locations independently and interact with the environment more directly.  Since the virtual reality aspect is relatively new, however, very few research studies have examined this in any empirical way.  As schools start offering more VFTs for their students, I thought I’d share a few areas that educational researchers should investigate.

Student autonomy: As the technology offers students some independence in exploring virtual environments, I wonder how much autonomy should students be afforded. For instance, what are the instructional benefits to allowing students to explore the Buckingham Palace on their own without a guide? Or the Great Barrier Reef? While the Expeditions app allows the instructor to guide and pause students as they navigate a virtual environment, I wonder whether independence and autonomy may be more motivating and educational for students.  Or are virtual docents needed to help students navigate virtual spaces?  Research can help to inform this.

Presence: While virtual reality offers a window into a remote world, the sensation of presence isn’t solely based on visuals. When we visit a location, our other senses (touch, scent, sound) help us fully experience the environment. Can these be incorporated into virtual reality experiences? Are they educationally beneficial? While this may sound somewhat silly, a recent article in Make magazine examined virtual conferences and how participants needed to see the virtual faces and hands of other participants to feel fully present in the conference. The article discussed how individuals don’t just communicate with words and facial expressions but with hand gestures as well. But what others aspects play a role in students’ sense of presence in virtual environments?  More research can help to shed some light on this.

Identity and Diversity: Our view of self is socially constructed. We develop our identities by interacting with our environment and with one another. How can virtual reality play a role in students’ identity? I wonder whether STEM-related VFTs can help students see themselves as potential scientists or mathematicians and maybe help motivate them into STEM-related careers. I also wonder how VFTs can help to broaden students’ perceptions of diversity.  Could VFTs be a tool to foster understanding of other religions or cultures? Again, these are areas that deserve some research.

While these are just a few of my VR musings, I see great potential for virtual field trips. As we start to broaden the focus to include places that are impossible to visit, I think the educational opportunities continue to multiply. Students can visit the nucleus of an atom. Or the surface of Mars. Or experience a reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. Or participate in the Moon landing. While each of these undoubtedly has educational benefits, we need more research to determine the best ways to leverage these experiences for students.



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