Initial Publication Date: September 29, 2020

Technology for online field experiences

There are a variety of technologies that can be used to develop and deliver online field experiences.

Jump Down To: Geoscience-Specific Apps | GIS Apps | Topography Apps | Other Technologies

Geoscience-Specific Apps

Geologic Map Data Extractor

Geologic Map Data Extractor, developed by Rick Allmendinger, is a program to extract information from a scan (raster image) of a geologic map or image of known scale.

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GeoMapApp is a map-based application for browsing, visualizing and analyzing a diverse suite of curated global and regional geoscience data sets. The program provides data layering, display customization and analytical tools to support the analysis of multidisciplinary data sets. Users can import their own grids, tabular data, images, and shapefiles.

Example Activities


StraboSpot is a free, open-source mobile and web-based app that was built specifically for the collection, analysis, and sharing of structural field data. The app gives students extra guidance in location and strikes and dips and also integrates with a widely used program for generating stereonets.  On the downside, the program is so full featured that it can be used as a black box once students understand which buttons to push to get results.

Example activities

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GIS Apps


ArcGIS is an industry-standard geographical information system (GIS) tool. It is powerful, robust, and able to handle and manipulate vast data sets. It is also a complex tool to use and can have a very steep learning curve so it's use in the classroom will need to be carefully scaffolded in order for students to be successful.  It can also be expensive to provide students with access.

Example Activities

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QGIS: The QGIS Project is a free and open source GIS that is an alternative to ArcGIS.

Example Activites

Topography Apps

Google Earth

Google Earth is a free and widely-used application that has many of the capabilities of a GIS. The application comes in three formats:

  • Desktop - The original format, the desktop version has functionality that is not available in the other formats such as uploading 3D models, drafting polygons, custom symbology, and incorporating data sets. There is vast amounts of content available for use in this version.  However, there are known issues due to the age of the code and the lack of updates and support from Google.  Running this version also requires the ability to install the program onto a computer and will not work with Chromebook or similar machines.  Many available teaching activities were designed for use with the desktop version.
  • Online - The online version of Google Earth was fully redesigned to make use of newer programming code.  It runs in a web browser and does not require installation on a machine.  With good internet access, this is easily accessible on any format of device. It is easy to incorporate presentations/pictures/links to other photos/etc when making projects.  It lacks some of the functionality of the desktop version and the interface is different.  There also is not the same richness of content available in the program.
  • Mobile - Essentially the same as the online version, but scoped for mobile screens.

Example Activities

Teach the Earth includes a very large collection of teaching activities that make use of Google Earth.

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JMARS is an acronym that stands for Java Mission-planning and Analysis for Remote Sensing. It is a geospatial information system (GIS) developed by ASU's Mars Space Flight Facility to provide mission planning and data-analysis tools to NASA scientists, instrument team members, students of all ages and the general public.  The tool free and has good online support  including Twitter "office hours" for questions. It provides access to data for multiple solar system bodies especially Mars but also the Moon, Mercury, icy satellites, asteroids, and Pluto.  Primary downside is that the program is uses Java which may not be possible to run on some machines so installation could be a problem.  The interface and controls are also different from Google Earth and other GIS programs which can be non-intuitive for some users.  JMARS is particularly useful for geomorphology and/or planetary geology.

Example activities 

Search the Teach the Earth collection for more.


OpenTopography facilitates community access to high-resolution, Earth science-oriented, topography data, and related tools and resources.

Example Activities

Search the Teach the Earth collection for more.

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Virtual Landscapes

Virtual Landscapes is a virtual reality environment designed to develop geologic mapping and field skills. They include natural landscapes where the geology can be mapped, and interactive 3D block models of topographic and geological maps.  Virtual landscapes are designed to be used in class/lab activities, but can also be used independently online.

Example Activities

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Other Technologies


ImageMatrix simulates the experience of using a microscope online. The platform has an initial focus for simulating microscopy-based activities that decouple the difficulty of learning to physically use a microscope from the interpretation of data sets while maintaining the same educational outcomes.  The platform builds upon the highly successful Virtual Petrographic Microscope.  The site has hundreds of digital geological thin sections that can be used to supplement other data sources (field photos, 3D photogrammetry models, etc) to determine rock types in building mapping problems.  It is not currently possible to upload your own imagery but this may be possible in the future.


Minecraft is a world building game that allows players to create and explore three dimensional landscapes.  The game has been adapted for use in geoscience courses.  Successful uses have included orienteering, geologic mapping, subsurface exploration (e.g. test if your drill hole really contained oil or your vein model predicted the vein accurately), and activities that need spatial awareness, in general.  The game is quite effective for recreating large-scale field mapping projects and works well in both synchronous and asynchronous formats.

On the downside, the ~1 m3 resolution in the game world makes it difficult to recreate the magnitude of variability in natural rock textures.  Students also have to buy a license and install it on their own machine which can present barriers to some.  Given the learning and installation hurdles, it is best used multiple times over the course of a term.  Instructors also need to be intentional about promoting student group interaction within the game.

Example Activities


Sketchfab is a popular platform for creating 3D models which can be used to develop virtual hand samples.  The repository contains thousands of 3D geologic models including hand samples and outcrops.  However, the quality of the models can be highly variable.

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  • NAGT Webinar: Creating 3D Hand samples (August 10, 2020) - Presenter Sara Carena (University of Munich)  provides extensive detail on how she makes 3D hand samples using a variety of tools including Sketchfab.

NSF_logo_sm.png The work presented on this website was funded through a National Science Foundation RAPID grant (NSF-EAR 2029920) awarded to Kurt Burmeister, Laura Rademacher, and Katherine Ryker. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.