International Perspectives on Virtual Fieldcourses

John Stainfield (University of Plymouth, UK), Peter Fisher (University of Leicester, UK), Bob Ford (Westminster College of Salt Lake City, USA) and Michael Solem (University of Colorado, USA)

1   Introduction
2   Examples of Virtual Field Trips
2.1   GeographyWeb: Improving Geography Education with the Internet
2.2   Skiddaw Granite
2.3   Great Salt Lake Virtual Field Tour (GSL VFT)
2.4   Environmental Problems in the Mediterranean: a case study of Malta
2.5   The Virtual Geography Department
2.6   Virtual Field Trip - Ireland
2.7   CTI Virtual Field Trips and Tours
2.8   The VFC Project
3   International Perspectives on Virtual Field Courses
4   Discussion Questions

1) Introduction

In this paper the reader is introduced to a range of examples of virtual field courses (VFCs). The paper ends with a set of questions designed to stimulate debate about the role of VFCs, issues involved in their development and the potential for international collaboration.

Kent et al. (1997) have drawn up a schematic model of changing approaches to field work in Geography. Starting around 1950 field work was largely the traditional 'look see' or 'Cook's Tour' variety. The approach was based on observation and description and was very dependent on lecturers lecturing in the field with a minimum of student participation. The 1970s and 80s saw increasing development of problem orientated project based field work. The late 80s found problem-orientated field work still dominant but with the introduction of transferable skill elements and the emergence of thematic and guided trails with the emphasis shifting back to the group as a whole. The 1990s saw the consolidation of these approaches and a big jump in student numbers which gave rise to problems of administration and accommodation and an increasing impact on the environments of the field work locations. In the late 1990s the question of cost together with even larger field work groups have become uppermost in many minds. However it is worth noting that at the same time long haul field trips have become increasingly popular and students seem to have been happy to meet higher costs. Indeed the experience at Plymouth both in Geography and Environmental Science has been that students sign up very rapidly for the higher cost long haul field trip and that these are often over subscribed. Such is the popularity of the long haul field trip that the number of students going on them has increased every year for the last 5 years. Visits have been made to such locations as South Africa, Hong Kong, The Philippines, Russia, Malaysia as well as middle range field trips to Spain, Yugoslavia, Malta, and Latvia. A trip to Australia is currently under discussion.

Virtual field trips would appear to offer a possible answer to problems of cost, distance and accessibility and to help with relieving pressure on environmentally fragile sites. By virtual here is meant 'digital alternative representations of reality'. This is not an attempt to create a virtual reality where the intention is to fully immerse the user in an interactive computer generated environment. Rather it is an attempt to place further autonomy in the user's hands, by allowing observations to be made without being on the actual site or having a lecturer to hand to explain. At its best it should also allow interaction through participation, exploration analysis and the learning and trying out of skills in a new environment. In the last few years increasing attention has been given to the idea of virtual field trips and a number of virtual prototypes have appeared on the Internet.


2) Examples of Virtual Field Trips

2.1) GeographyWeb: Improving Geography Education with the Internet

Prof. David Hill & Michael Solem

The multi-campus Geography-Web curriculum initiative at the University of Colorado has produced a number of virtual field studies for use in a variety of undergraduate geography courses. Two of the field studies involve a combination of work on the Web and in the field and give students an opportunity to inquire into the local geography of Boulder, CO. These two lessons are (1) The Boulder Creek Virtual Field Study, a lesson on the flood hazards and land use in central Boulder; and (2) The University Hill Virtual Field Study, a study of socioeconomic conditions in a commercial/residential space adjacent to the University of Colorado-Boulder campus.

The Boulder Creek and University Hill Virtual Field Studies are both modelled after Hill (1990) issues-based geographic inquiry model, which informed an earlier University of Colorado-based materials project entitled Geographic Inquiry into Global Issues (GIGI) (Hill, 1994). Under this model of learning, students gain experience in the practice of geography as they learn how to acquire, map, and interpret real data on an important issue. Research has shown that GIGIs constructivist approach can improve cognitive outcomes in secondary geography education and has potential to enhance affective outcomes (Klein, 1995). Hill and Solem (1999) adopted this approach for the Geography-Web project with the hope that it would achieve similar results for college students.


2.2) Skiddaw Granite the Skiddaw Virtual field trip

Ian Gilmour

Ian Gilmour (1997) argues that virtual field courses are designed to introduce students to various aspects of geology and to develop some of the basic skills needed for field geology. They are not designed to replace real field trips but rather to prepare students for going into the field or as follow-up exercises following a real field trip.


2.3) Great Salt Lake Virtual Field Tour (GSL VFT)

Professor Bob Ford

This resource is used primarily in General Education (GE) "intro to natural science" and "environmental biology/studies" classes, not in Geography specifically. The GSL VFT is seen as fitting within a larger curricular reform effort that has several dimensions to it:

A major aim is to reduce the time spent on "background lecturing/information transmission" - particularly when in the field - and increase time spent by students exploring specific science issues in a more "inquiry-based" manner both in the field and on-campus. By providing more of the lecture/background material online students can review/study it at home before they either come to class or come on a fieldtrip, and review it after the trip. An "integration" of science skills, knowledge and application, as well as human-value/ethical issues is looked for.

The GSL VFT is aimed at introducing science to non-science majors in a more integrated and exciting/stimulating way by breaking down traditional disciplinary boundaries and increasing cross-disciplinary cooperation within the science program. The VFT is intended to maximize time spent in the field by reducing the need for the "Cook's Tour" lecture focusing on students actually doing more field analysis in an "inquiry format". It provides a more visual approach to the background lecture material and will eventually introduce students to new tools such as GPS, GIS, as well as other automated remote data-retrieval tools for climatological and hydrological analysis.


2.4) Environmental problems in the Mediterranean a case study of Malta

At present this site is a refereed resource base with links to other sites such as the Maltese National Database of Biodiversity. Eventually the intention is to develop interactive field exercises based on data collected in the field. The site is based on the idea of the collaboration of people who take students to Malta on a Field trip.

The approach adopted is not to replace fieldwork with a virtual substitute but rather to enhance the fieldwork through providing a resource base for a wide range of students whose primary aim is to do fieldwork. For more details see:

Phipps, L. and J. Stainfield (1998) Heightening the experience: Using the Internet to 'virtually enhance' fieldwork, GeoCal Number 19, available at


2.5) Virtual Geography Department Project

Contains On-line Virtual Fieldtrips, Guidelines for Virtual Fieldtrips, Virtual Fieldtrips Under Construction Virtual Fieldtrips Web Forum and information about the Virtual Fieldtrip Working Group. Subject listings include Biogeography and Ecology, Climatology, Geomorphology, Hazards, Political Geography

Regional Listings, include Israel Antarctica, The Aral Sea Bosnia Malta Alaska Arizona California Colorado Hawaii Kentucky Maine Michigan New York Ohio Tennessee Texas Utah Wisconsin Wyoming


2.6) Virtual FT -Ireland

A tourist guide to a visit to Ireland with information on places to stay and visit and things to do rather than a virtual FT


2.7) CTI Virtual Fieldtrips and Tours

A collection of Virtual Fieldtrips and Virtual Tours in the UK, Europe, Asia and America with links to Virtual Libraries Natural History Museums and Environmental Sites


2.8) The VFC Project

The development of generic software for building and running VFCs at

The VFC Project is developing a software toolkit to enhance and extend traditional fieldwork courses... Software under development is due for release in September 1999, it will include:

  1. traVelleR: A Java / VRML multidimensional (2D / 3D) interface to spatial multimedia.
  2. PanoraMap: Explore field locations through panoramic imagery linked to multiple base maps and data.
  3. Urban Modeller: A tool for true3Dimensional mapping and exploration.
  4. VRGIS: A standalone 2D/3D explorer with basic GIS functionality.
  5. LandSerf: Java / Open GL based terrain analysis and exploration.
  6. VFC Hub: The backbone of the integrated VFC Toolkit.
for more details see:

Notes from a Virtual field course by Kate More at and also

The emphasis here is on student visualisation, involvement and presentation. Students learn by use of visual tools that enable comparison and interrogation of spatial data in the form of maps, images, virtual-reality environments and other media. Panoramap uses maps and panoramic imagery to allow students to explore fieldwork regions and add their own data to the VFC database.

Eventually the VFC at Leicester hopes to offer a range of modules some aimed at the delivery of factual information which in the past was delivered by the lecturer either in the classroom or in the field. Other modules are intended to cover the preparations (briefing of students, departure times, etc). Other modules are used by students to supplement their field work experience providing interactive loading of data for students from statistical packages, digital cameras and GPS. Data collected for an area by staff or students can be used by others (next year's students?) to explore the area in an interactive multimedia exploratory environment.

The educational functions of a virtual field trip enhancement, replacement, extension, interaction, and efficiency have been explored by Nathan Williams in What should be the educational functions of a virtual field course at


3) International Perspectives on Virtual Field Courses

Virtual field courses can overcome the limitations of cost and distance involved in 'real' field courses. Jenkins and Williams (1997) have suggested that whereas VFC should be mainly viewed as an enhancement of traditional field course visits, it is likely that in within 3-4 years some field courses will be completely virtual. As long as real field courses remain as part of the curriculum, the addition of VFCs to remote locations is an attractive proposition. Students in Australia for example could "visit" locations in the Mediterranean as part of their course. If a number of universities world wide created VFCs from their "real" field trips then these could be made internationally available via the Internet. This could become a really useful learning resource for students in many parts of the world.

The symposium should:

Explore the potential of virtual field trips to enhance the field trip experience identifying the main issues.


4) Discussion Questions

Internet Discussion Comments
1. Can we justify building VFC websites?

2. How can we evaluate existing materials and approaches?

3. What is the feasibility/desirability of template creation?

4. What generic software is currently under development?

5. Should we establish formats and standards?

6. What is the future of VFCs?

7. How can a wider geographical coverage of VFCs be encouraged?

8. Who are the appropriate people to take this initiative forward?

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