Using Virtual Reality Tools in Geography Fieldwork

Preteen student using virtual reality goggles during STEM classBack in May, I wrote a blog outlining my first thoughts on virtual reality and its possible uses in school. I described many of the ‘starter apps’ I tried to get used to the idea of virtual reality, as well as some of the slightly more sophisticated software that was coming onto the market.

See: Virtual Reality – The New Super Tool? – May 2016

Since then, I have experimented with a number of pieces of software and different platforms in order to explore how it might be used in the classroom – so it’s time to offer an update.

One big breakthrough in my exploration of VR came when ‘Google Expeditions’ was made available for all to use. Google launched its Expeditions Project in September, 2015, and thousands of schools around the world have benefited from visits from the Google Expedition team to work with students for a day.  taking them on a virtual trip to places like the Pyramids, Mars, and the Great Wall of China. However, now anyone can access these resources via the Expedition app, and use them in the classroom. This is a great place to start if you are new to VR.

 But apart from using resources sourced from elsewhere, what I wanted to do was make use of my own images as VR experiences. So I decided to focus on how geography fieldtrips might be enhanced by VR – both prior to the visit (for preparatory work and risk assessments), and again after returning to the classroom for follow-up work.

cardboard-logoAlthough my I Phone takes nice panorama shots, these do not transfer as a  full VR experience when used in a VR viewer. So, I downloaded the free ‘Cardboard Camera’ app – a fantastically simple but efficient app which records a 360 degree image which produces the desired VR effect  in a viewer. I explored the possibility of purchasing a new 360 degree camera for this purpose, but have found the Cardboard app completes the job really well without the extra expense. The photos reproduce in high quality, and are easily shared between platforms. How I wish I had use of this technology in early years when visiting so many wonderful places in the world!



360 degree panoramas captured in the Google Cardboard Camera (free) app



Shooting a 360 panorama using the Google Cardboard camera app



In my retirement, I now work for Rayburn Tours as a Field Studies Tutor, and get the chance to escort school groups to Iceland on a regular basis. So in order to experiment with the Cardboard panoramas, I decided to collect some images from my autumn trips to the land of ice and fire. If you want to try these in a VR viewer – click and save the images below:




Sharing these with the students in the evenings, it proved to be a really useful tool to review the experiences of the day. There is obvious scope here to use these VR images as an engaging tool for detailed follow-up work (directed questions, descriptive writing, field sketching etc) back in the warm classroom after a day in the field. The students were also excited by the prospect of creating their own images to record their discoveries in the field.

 round-meThe next step was to make more direct use of the 360 images, and I have had quite a bit of success using the tools offered by the web site and app.

 This site allows users to showcase and share such images, and is growing in popularity. All images are cloud stored (so no limits on memory space) and can be easily embedded into web sites. A world map on the site allows the user to search for tours in specific locations. The tools provided on the site give the user a chance to make the images interactive, by adding text boxes and hot spots to reveal other photos, sounds, maps and even video.

ScreenHunter_01 Nov. 04 17.13.gif

This means the 360 images taken in the field can be used to do things like:

·         highlight health and safety requirements at different locations

·         draw attention to specific features eg landforms, individual buildings, management features or interventions

·         summarise simple conclusions

·         create instructional VR images

·         pose questions for the students to answer

·         guide students towards extension tasks

 The possibilities are endless!

Once the students have mastered the basic skills necessary to operate these two free apps, they should be able to use it to their own advantage as part of their fieldwork write ups, and in individual lessons. For example, I am currently working on a lesson plan to provide students with the task of designing annotated 360 degree images to show off the attractions of their own local areas. I also have plans to design a series of images to introduce the secondary school campus to new year seven students (or any new arrivals, for that matter) as a virtual tour. I also have an idea of producing images for students to study prior (and during?) fieldwork, with links to historic maps and photographs to show what the (for example) streetscene or coastline looked like in the past.

untitledThe use of VR images could be structured around the SAMR model – beginning with passive observation, using the images as ‘hooks’ for engagement. This could be a short experience followed by other structured classwork. The next step would be  the ‘explore’ stage, where students record observations, thoughts and feelings  – and then students could move on to the ‘create’ stage, where they can complete different forms of original writing, or create new VR content of their own.

 Although I can see scope to develop VR ideas in a classroom context – I still find there are many barriers to further development. I have used some of my VR ideas with students – but relied upon them having their own smartphones to use, and a handful of VR viewers I have accumulated. Schools that embrace some sort of bring your own devise policy would have no problem utilising student smartphones (and hopefully providing for those without) – but some sort of investment would be needed to supply a sufficient number of viewers. There are many ‘top end’ products on the market now – but also many cheap versions that do the job well enough. Google Cardboard viewers are now available for just a few pounds, and I notice my local supermarket and local petrol station offer cheap versions for around £15. So would a set to use in a classroom be beyond a department budget or even funding from a whole-school pot?

 This article describes some of the different viewers now available:

 I continue to be excited by this new technology, but wonder if  VR will ever achieve accepted mainstream adoption in our schools. Is it destined to flop like 3D TV did a few years ago? I am not yet convinced that our 2D screens will ever become obsolete, but I do appreciate that the VR market is growing at an astounding speed. As prices tumble and more and better resources and applications become available, its place in education may gather serious speed. There is probably a need for a pedagogical shift in the classroom for it to become truly ‘mainstream’, however, as devices become available in the home, we may well find ourselves once more in a position in schools of playing technological catch-up – with the students living in a world of ‘haves’ at home, and ‘have nots’ at school. I love the range of possibility offered by VR, but don’t yet know if a new, sustainable revolution is upon us.






About devongeography

Head of Geography and Assistant Vice Principal at South Molton Community College, North Devon. Exeter Chiefs supporter!
This entry was posted in Curriculum, Fieldwork, General Geo, Students, Teachers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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