December 15, 2017

Dr. G’s #AGU17 Spotlight – Virtual field trips created by/for students: is the learning the same?

Posted by Laura Guertin

Although I typically blog about the plenary sessions or unique events taking place at the AGU Fall Meeting, there were two talks I attended as part of a session that really have me reflecting upon what I do for field experiences for students, and how I can make field explorations inclusive for all.

On Wednesday morning I attended some of the oral presentations in session ED31E: Education Through Exploration: Research-Oriented Teaching and Data Management in the Digital Age II. Two of the talks that had me really engaged include Kelly Lazar’s Virtual Reality as a Story Telling Platform for Geoscience Communication (abstract) and Steve Semken’s Learning outcomes of in-person and virtual field-based geoscience instruction at Grand Canyon National Park: complementary mixed-methods analyses (abstract).

Kelly started her talk by referring to the Kastens et al. (2009) EOS article that discusses learning in the field, “A hallmark of the geosciences is that theoretical advances are usually grounded in direct observations of the Earth, oceans, atmosphere, or planets.” The emphasis of a field-based education is detailed in the Whitmeyer and Mogk (2009) EOS article that states, “Researchers are beginning to highlight the need for more field-work-based learning opportunities for Earth science students.” However, the reality is that not every student can get out in the field, because of health, work schedule, family obligations, etc.

Kelly shared that virtual experiences are available through Google Earth VR and Google Earth Expeditions, yet any virtual reality engagement for students should address realism, interactivity, and accessibility. She shared how Clemson University is using virtual reality for modules and courses, including those in the geosciences. In her department, students use the program thinglink and create their own 360 photospheres of field locations enhanced with text, audio, etc. Students are required to purchase their own Google Cardboard to help them create stories behind their field observations. Her students have taken these 360 stories and enhanced the virtual presentation by placing the stories in an ESRI Story Map. This video presentation gives a good overview of some if the items Kelly presented.

Steve presented on Arizona State University’s Virtual Field Trips (or iVFTs – immersive virtual field trips – check out the video trailer of their collection). Assessment was conducted on the experience of a group of students that visited the Grand Canyon to walk the Trail of Time exhibit, and another group that did not visit but instead used a virtual tour option. Through pre/post concept sketching, inquiry exercises, attitude surveys and more (the PANAS instrument, ICAP framework, etc.), Steve and his colleagues were able to see differences in the learning, engagement, and attitude between these two groups. Here is part of Steve’s abstract that discusses some of the outcomes (note that ipFT is short for in-person field trip):

Analysis of pre/post concept sketches indicated improved knowledge in both groups and classes, but more so in the iVFT group. PANAS scores from the intro class showed the ipFT students having significantly stronger (p = .004) positive affect immediately prior to the experience than the iVFT students, possibly reflecting their excitement about the trip to come. Post-experience, the two groups were no longer significantly different, possibly due to the fatigue associated with a full-day ipFT. — Semken et al. (2017)

What stayed with me from Steve’s talk was his explanation that it is possible that there was too much “cognitive load” for the students that traveled to the Grand Canyon. Although those students were supposed to focus on the Trail of Time, there were so many other “distractions” beyond the Trail that students were not able to concentrate on the specific learning goals.

Both Kelly and Steve have provided some interesting ideas for the geoscience community to explore, from student-generated virtual experiences to the actual learning that takes place in the virtual environment (versus the same opportunity in person). I look forward to seeing and learning more about virtual experiences from Clemson,  Arizona State, and others.