Initial Publication Date: May 20, 2020

Why VR?

There are a wide range of reasons why VR field trips are desirable, ranging from accessibility and cost to logistics and liability. Despite the advantages, a VR field trip should not be expected to reproduce the experience of a real-world field trip. Instead, it is important to consider what capabilities are provided by VR to support education and what learning goals you would like to achieve.

Some of the advantages for learning in a VR environment are:

  • The ability to take students to far away and dangerous places
  • Providing every student a first-person experience
  • Supporting spatial awareness and cognition in a three-dimensional world
  • Developing observational skills in real world settings
  • Controlling environmental complexity to adapt to customize content from novice through expert
  • Enabling inquiry and exploration in a field setting
  • Allowing "beyond-reality" experiences (e.g., shrinking to the size of molecules)
  • Enabling social interactions of remote participants in a shared virtual space

These types of objectives are well aligned with the learning benefits of virtual learning environments (not only VR) identified in past studies (Delgarno and Lee, 2010):

  • spatial knowledge representation,
  • experiential learning,
  • engagement,
  • contextual learning, and
  • collaborative learning.

In the model of Delgarno and Lee (2010), these benefits are derived from learning tasks that provide representational fidelity and learner interactions that create a sense of presence for the user in the virtual environment. In experiences where the user is placed within the environment (common in VR experiences), embodiment that supports the construction of identity is also important in achieving learning benefits.

Recently Harris et al. (2020) devised a framework for evaluating the validity of virtual experimentation and training environments in order to support transfer of learning to the real world. They considered six factors in the design or evaluation of an experience:

  • Face validity - Does the simulation look and feel realistic?
  • Construct validity - Does the simulation provide an accurate representation of real task performance?
  • Physical fidelity - Is there a high degree of detail and realism in the physical elements of the simulation?
  • Psychological fidelity - Does the simulation accurately represent the perceptual and cognitive features of the real task?
  • Affective/emotional fidelity - Does the simulation elicit emotional responses (e.g., stress or fear) in a similar way to the real task?
  • Ergonomic/biomechanical fidelity - Does the simulation elicit realistic motor movements?

While there is yet limited evaluation of this framework, it does highlight key elements of a VR/AR experience that instructors should consider in designing a new activity.

Affordances of VR

Not all VR experiences will support all of the above learning outcomes, so it is important to consider how the affordances of VR can support learning. Through there are a wide range of factors related to the design of a VR experience that influence learning, Moysey and Lazar (2019) suggest presence, interactivity, and accessibility as three key parameters to consider that could influence student experience.

Presence describes the sense of being within the virtual world (Biocca and Delaney, 1995; Slater and Usoh, 1993). There are various factors that can contribute to a sense of personal presence (Lombard and Ditton, 1997). Realism of not only the visual environment, but also the degree to which objects, events, and people are accurately represented is one important design consideration. The degree to which an experience supports embodiment of a user to make them feel transported to the virtual world is another factor impacting presence. Finally, sensory immersion refers to the degree to which an experience will engage multiple physical senses to further enhance presence in the virtual world. Though the term immersion is often used interchangeably with presence, the convention is increasingly common to consider immersion to be produced by objective characteristics of an experience whereas presence is a subjective condition felt by a user.

Interactivity provides a user control and agency within a VR experience (Roseau, Oliver and Slater, 2008), and is therefore directly related to the learning outcomes of a virtual field experience. Janlert and Stolterman (2017) identified a variety of aspects contributing to meaningful interactions, including intentionality and enablement in action toward a goal (i.e., agency), predictability in how one's actions will affect the environment, and the pace at which interactions are experienced. Interactivity encompasses both a student's ability to interact with and manipulate objects in the virtual environment as well as the instructor's ability to support differentiated, scaffolded, and potentially personalized learning experiences (Moysey and Lazar, 2019). The degree to which a student can engage with the environment, e.g., to select or manipulate an object, will define the mechanics of the activities created. For example, providing the ability to pick up, examine, and test objects may facilitate inquiry-based active learning exercises that motivate students to explore, ask questions, and test hypotheses more than environments where they can only passively receive information with little interaction (e.g., as in a 360-degree video). Notably, however, Roussou and Slater (2017) found that a guided (non-interactive) VR experience led to greater cognitive gains than an open-ended interactive experience tested with K-12 students. The ability to roam freely through an open world could empower students to change their perspective while investigating spatial relationships between rock formations or morphologic features in a way that would be impossible from a fixed spatial point of view. Virtual notebooks or other tools for documenting student understanding are important for several educational outcomes, including: the development of a student's use of inscriptions, as a scaffold for more complex learning objectives, and as a tool for assessment by instructors. The overall nature and structure of the learning experience and how a student progresses through it (e.g., through task assignments or narrative), is itself an important consideration that is central to the design of an effective virtual field experience.

Accessibility is an affordance of VR because students must be able to participate in a learning experience in order to receive its benefits (Moysey and Lazar, 2019). Accessibility includes a wide range of issues that can reduce participation, from how easily one can acquire the required hardware and usability of the experience, to lack of content interest, motion sickness, and learning or physical disabilities. It is important to consider the needs of diverse groups of learners in the development of virtual field experiences. The multi-modal approach emphasized by Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is aimed at supporting diversity in student learning needs through multiple means of representation, expression and action, and engagement – in other words the "what, how, and why" of learning.

Learning Outcomes for Field Experiences

In order to design effective VR/AR field experiences, it is important to understand what learning benefits one hopes to achieve. Mogk and Goodwin (2012) identified five main areas where field experiences provide value to learning in the geosciences:

  1. cognitive gains - development of higher order thinking and synthesis skills based on wholistic thinking, including the application of content learned within the classroom to a real-world environment
  2. metacognitive gains - student reflection and self-regulation in relation to their own learning activities, e.g., student reflection on what they currently know based on past learning experiences, whether their current observations conform to expectations, where they need to go next, and what they will do when they get there
  3. affective aspects of field instruction - student attitudes and perceptions about being in the outdoors to positive (or negative) outcomes of social learning environments and mentorship
  4. benefits of immersion in nature - understanding the complexity of earth systems and supporting affective responses related to sensory and emotional stimulation as well as being confronted with the context of real world complexities
  5. foundations of geoscience expertise - ranges from the use of specialized tools (e.g., Brunton compass) to thinking across space and time and developing professional communication skills and ethics

Moysey and Lazar (2019) suggested that these outcomes could be adapted to virtual field experiences as follows:

  • Affect: emotional and aesthetic responses; place attachment; development of interest, enjoyment, motivation, prosocial behaviors; personal and societal relevance
  • Cognition: understanding and application of theoretical concepts in virtual field settings; integration and synthesis of conceptual knowledge
  • Professional Development: identification of patterns in complex environments; spatial cognition; specialized field skills; observational skills; use of and interpretation of inscriptions (e.g., maps); collaboration, communication, and socialization
  • Inquiry: construction of mental models and hypothesis testing based on field observations; open-ended investigations and multiple pathways to completion; independent exploration and goal setting

The design of a VR/AR activity should consider which of these outcomes are desired and how different elements of an experience will support them. For example, enhancing presence through realistic, high quality visuals or immersive narratives may be important if addressing affect is the primary goal of the experience, e.g., by increasing student interest in the geosciences. In contrast, if professional development of procedural knowledge is the goal, e.g., proper use of a Brunton compass to measure strike and dip of rock formations, then interactivity that supports psychomotor transfer of these skills to the real world may be key.

Exactly how the affordances of VR support learning outcomes is clearly a critical factor in the design of new experiences, but remains an open research question. Regardless, instructors should think explicitly about these issues when bringing a VR/AR experience into the classroom.