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Could Virtual Reality Field Trips be the Future of Geography?

Pretty much everyone agrees if you want to really engage people, catch them young!

When we, as adults, tell children that we’ll listen to them once they have grown up, what we really mean is once they have started to think like us, and that’s not always a good thing. Young minds are open, and see things in ways that may be better than those accepted by adults. Schools really are a place for learning, but they should also be a place to imagine what could be, and how we can embrace technology to make learning not only more fun, but immersive too. And if we can engage young people with the beauty of the world early enough, we have a much better chance of making them part of the solution in making it a better place.

The world is full of amazing places and experiences, but a teacher can only impart a fraction of the real wonder of the world’s geographic wonders via PowerPoint, photos in books, and a bit of enthusing, and the power of VR is just the tool to bring field trips into the classroom. According to a new report, the use of VR equipment in the classroom would not only benefit the pupils but would act as an effective means of bolstering the skills of new teachers too. One of the biggest concerns that new teachers have is that they don’t have the experience to really impart knowledge on the children they are teaching, and getting that experience – particularly when it comes to interactive activities such as field trips – and VR might just be the short-cut that they are seeking.

Although current VR experiences are no real alternative to physically experiencing something, the technology is getting better all the time, and pundits such as Dr Des McDougall believe that even today’s standards can deliver a most excellent experience. VR, relaying video from HD 360° cameras, is now starting to offer truly immersive experiences, and Dr McDougall thinks that these are now a credible means of delivering encounters to children who may not have any other way of really appreciating them.  

Geography is the obvious subject to really benefit from VR immersion, because the content is highly visual and it’s easy to get the ‘wow’ factor that is the start of real engagement. McDougall is leading an international project to create high-spec geographic content just for this reason, and has already added a host of the world’s most picturesque places to the content. From Yosemite National Park in the US to Snowdonia in Wales, the list of destinations is growing, and can all be accessed by students around the world. 

But it is still early days, and Dr McDougall understands that there is still a long way to go before VR experiences replace the real thing. “This technology is not about replacing fieldwork, but it does raise the number of possible classroom activities” he says. “It’s high-quality imagery so you can see all the features of the landscape”. And with experiences like this, the weather is always good too, so students can get the full effect of the location and the features within it.

The main barrier to VR excursions is that the physical equipment isn’t yet ideal and the video content is still developing, but these are just technology issues, and will eventually be sorted out. The Metaverse itself will depend upon the believability of the content, and many people are working hard to improve both devices and experiences, and that will mean greater engagement.

But another consequence of VR is that as well as being able to show students the splendour of the world, virtual field trips can take people to places that they simply cannot visit too. There are a growing number of sites around the world – and even in space – where most people are forbidden or are unable to visit. The Lascaux Caves, in France, North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean (home to the primitive Sentinelese tribe), Chernobyl, Surtsey Island, near Iceland, and Snake Island, off Brazil, are just a few of the world’s sites that are forbidden to visit to all but a handful of people. But all of these sites could be accessed via VR experiences, and that makes the development of these systems even more worthwhile.

Once again, VR is showing how it can make the world a much more engaging place, and can help everyone understand the beauty – and danger – that surrounds us.