The virtual geography field trip versus learning outside the classroom?

Rouna Ali
9th February 2017 at 16:27

Subject Genius, Rouna Ali, The virtual geography field trip versus learning outside the classroom?

The virtual reality (VR) software available at the moment is not sophisticated enough to do all the things that teachers and pupils would like to do. However, I do think it could be a useful tool to inspire children about the world (and thus human and physical geography) around them and possibly inspire them to want to travel more as they get older.

We currently use Google Drive and Google Classroom. Google Expeditions is another app for education which you can download for free yourself.

The application, which was used across several different subjects including geography, is very wide-ranging. In history you can demonstrate the virtual realities of World War 1 and 2; in science the inside of the human body, the electromagnetic spectrum and the International Space Station; and for us geographers you can show students the 7 Wonders of the World, climate change, volcanoes and earthquakes.

I did not have much time to plan a lesson. All I knew was that for 30 minutes (half a lesson), my Year 7s and I would experience the 7 Wonders of the World. But which wonders? The man-made ones or the natural wonders? Neither were part of the Year 7 programme of study. In the end I assumed we would be shown the man-made wonders and I was right. I handed out and explained the following homework task which is related to the Google Expedition. The idea behind this was to see if experiencing the Wonders virtually would enhance the homework they produced in any way. This would be difficult to prove, I know, especially as some of the students (including myself) had actually visited some of these places for real.



  • Use the internet to research Your top 7 Wonders of the World from the table below. Put a tick next to your top 7, plot them all onto a blank world map, write about a paragraph about each one and include some pictures. Make sure your favourite is number 1.

Acropolis, Athens, Greece


Angkor Wat, Cambodia


Chichen Itza, Mexico


Alhambra Palace, Spain


Christ the Redeemer Statue, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil


The Collosseum, Rome, Italy


Easter Island Statues, Chile


Eiffel Tower, Paris, France


Great Wall of China, China


Hagia Sophia, Turkey


Kyomizu Temple, Tokyo, Japan


The Kremlin, Moscow, Russia


Machu Picchu, Peru


Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany


Petra, Jordan


Pyramids of Giza, Egypt


Statue of Liberty, USA


Stonehenge, UK


Sydney Opera House, Australia


Taj Mahal, India


The Mud Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali



During the 30 minute virtual reality session with myself and my Year 7 class

I got my class seated because one of the health and safety rules is that if students walk around as well as view they could get sick and injure themselves on furniture. I held the tablet which controlled what the class saw. We started with the Taj Mahal and all of a sudden there were a whole range of gasps and exclamations of: ‘Whoah’ ‘Wow’ ‘Aaah’. All the sounds you would expect; I navigated around until I saw the iconic buildings, held my finger on that point of interest for a second then an arrow appears in all the children’s viewers so they all start looking at it and this is represented on my tablet as a series of smiley faces! I then paused the viewing at which point you get the whole class going ‘oh’ I apologize and read some information about the Taj Mahal and ask set questions with answers which are included in the software. We then carried on viewing the Taj Mahal and moved onto the other wonders e.g. Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, The Collosseum and The Great Wall of China etc. I made sure I paused every now and again to read, ask questions and give their eyes a break so that they thought about what they saw (and did not vomit as some children have done in other schools!).


After the 30 minute virtual reality session with myself and my Year 7 class

Student reflection, feedback and homework

Immediately after the session was finished the students went away to have their morning break time but the next time I saw them was a few days afterwards and this gave us time to reflect. I asked for student feedback on the session and the following is a selection of their statements firstly the ‘what went well’ positive comments: - ‘ was very exhilarating’…’it was one of the best lessons ever’…’outstanding…I wish I could do it again’….’it was fun and exciting because I saw many places that I have not been to’…’we got to see the Wonders of the World’….’spectacular’…’it felt like I was flying’…’it was a really good way to learn’….’it was extraordinary’…’it was really exciting I could feel the emotions and object…I would have liked to get through a bit more and see more of the world than we did.’

Subject Genius, Rouna Ali, The virtual geography field trip versus learning outside the classroom?

Secondly, the ‘even better ifs’ constructive comments were mainly centred around time constraints which meant that we could not look at anything in particular depth. Some of my Year 7 students also said that ‘the pictures were really clear but it was not as realistic because it was animated. There was no sound.’ The volcanoes expedition was a bit disappointing because you did not look inside a real volcano but a 3D image of one instead. The sounds and shakings of earthquakes and volcanoes are unique so just viewing these natural hazards using your eyes is only experiencing a fraction of the real thing. So if one were to say that the virtual reality can be a possible replacement for the real thing I would argue that it most definitely is not! When it came to climate change you were shown all the things that could be adversely affected by it such as The Great Barrier Reef as it exists now when I was expecting it to show London or New York under water or droughts plus hurricanes or how the greenhouse effect works. Perhaps there were other expeditions that showed this as this was only a first introduction in using the app and its associated equipment. Furthermore, some students said that ‘it would have been better if we found out the back stories of all these places. Plus if we could have chosen what we saw. Another downside is that if you are not sat down and view for too long and look down! you can succumb to motion sickness. Others stated that the cardboard viewer is not very hygienic after a while, not comfortable and would be better if it had an elastic band to fit around the head.


Teacher’s feedback, reflection and possible future applications of VR when teaching geography

After looking at and marking the homework they had all done in relation to this virtual reality session I could see that most of the information came from the internet, none of them referred to what they saw within the VR session, some wrote about wonders of the world that we did not view using the cardboard viewers and others chose wonders that were not on my list such as The Shard building in London and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Note to self – must update this teaching resource and task!). Did the virtual reality experience help the students to produce super good homework? This is what I was hoping for with all the hype that comes alongside any new pieces of technology but in the end I don’t think so. The students’ feedback as stated, written above, was very good and to the point. The whole exercise was brilliant as a visual aid, a viewfinder, looking at panoramic pictures, 360 degree views and so most of the positives about this app are the facts that it is amazing for children who are visual and kinaesthetic learners so that they can see all kinds of things close up and in 3D. The children thought ultimately that what they saw was amazing and on the whole wanted to see more and thus created a fantastic ‘geographical hunger’. However, in terms of what did the children learn? That is a different question entirely and is where us teachers come in because this is very early days and after we have had the chance and proper time and space to familiarise ourselves with this app and its equipment it has the potential to possibly enhance the learning and teaching of geography at secondary level.

For example, to address one of the student comments about receiving a ‘back story’ a lesson prior to a VR session could better prepare students and be about a particular earthquake case study and then the VR session the following day could show all the various impacts and responses to earthquakes with students completing a task and case study notes whilst using the equipment. This would be one way of embedding the VR into a programme of study to enrich learning. Another example could be to view cold, desert and tropical rainforest and other ecosystems and see how plants, animals and people have adapted to those environments. Once again a lesson before any VR session to prepare the students and one after for feedback, homework and reflection would help to put it all into a learning context. The options and possible future applications of VR in geography I feel are endless.


Learning outside the classroom versus the virtual geography field trip?

However, finally in terms of learning outside the classroom I do not think VR could ever replace a real geography field trip. This is because at the moment a lot of the VR mentioned here are still pictures not films / moving images with sound. The volcano session above illustrates this because you cannot smell the sulphur, hear the earth rumbling or feel the ground shaking as the volcano erupts. Similarly when studying coasts the students would be able to see beaches and pictures of coastal landforms (with the teacher pointing them out using the tablet) but you would not be able to witness the natural processes of longshore drift, smell the sea air, hear the waves crashing etc. As geographers we love travelling which involves all 5 senses and we want our students to catch the travel bug too but even though VR definitely has its place within the teaching and learning of geography, it is a partial reality and so therefore could never re-place the real world that we study so diligently.


Rouna Ali is a geography teacher and careers adviser in the London Borough of Hillingdon.