Imagine driving through a desert 250 million years ago, watching dinosaurs graze and roar all around you. Imagine flying through outer space, exploring distant planets that humans have never before set foot on. Imagine traveling inside the human body, learning about organ systems and anatomy in more detail than ever before. In real life, these adventures would be impossible. There’s no way to travel back in time, or fly to Neptune and Pluto, or shrink yourself down to the size of a human cell. But with the help of virtual field trips, imagination can become (extended) reality.
More and more educators and parents are seeing the value of virtual field trips, which enable students of all ages to have fantastic learning experiences like these. But what are the benefits of virtual field trips? How are virtual field trips helpful in education? And why use virtual field trips in the classroom?
Research continues to emerge about the powerful potential of virtual field trips. In this article, we’ll explore the many reasons why virtual field trips can be such a wonderful educational tool:
- Virtual field trips can enhance students’ learning.
- Virtual field trips can keep students more engaged.
- Virtual field trips are more accessible for many classrooms and kinds of learners.
- Virtual field trips allow for collaboration and connection between different students, different classrooms, and different schools.
- Virtual field trips create pathways to social emotional learning.
What is a virtual field trip for education?
Before diving into the benefits of virtual field trips, let’s start with a virtual field trip definition. After all, educational virtual reality (VR) is a relatively new phenomenon, and the metaverse is home to many different kinds of virtual experiences.
A field trip is defined as any “group excursion for the purpose of firsthand observation” or “an educational trip away from the classroom, as to give students firsthand experience.” Most students take field trips at some point during their educational careers, especially when they are in elementary school.
Virtual field trips, though, empower classrooms to travel farther away than their nearby park or local museum. As the name implies, a virtual field trip is a field trip that occurs virtually — that is, somewhere on the extended reality spectrum. Virtual field trips allow students to have experiential learning opportunities and go on educational excursions using the power of immersive digital technologies.
Of course, virtual field trips are not one size fits all. Let’s extend our virtual field trip definition by exploring the different forms of extended reality.
What is extended reality?
Extended reality, broadly speaking, refers to the many forms of immersive experience included in the metaverse. Extended reality is the space where the physical world and the digital world overlap.
Extended reality comes in many forms. It’s helpful to divide extended reality into three categories on the “spectrum of virtuality,” ranging from least virtual to most virtual: augmented reality, mixed reality, and virtual reality.
- Augmented reality has a low level of virtuality. It comprises experiences with limited interaction between virtual and physical objects. For example, a student might use a mobile device to overlay an image of an Egyptian pyramid on top of their classroom table. Or they might use their phone to scan a plant they see in their backyard and have detailed information about the plant’s biology, scientific name, and medicinal uses pop up on screen.
- Mixed reality has a medium level of virtuality. Mixed reality is close to augmented reality, but involves more lifelike interactions between the physical and the virtual. For example, a student could wear a see-through head-mounted display and watch a pharaoh walk around their classroom and sit in a chair next to them.
- Virtual reality has a high level of virtuality. Virtual reality refers to fully digital experiences, in which users interact with a wholly computer-generated world. For example, a student can put on a virtual reality headset and be immersed in ancient Egypt, where they can walk around and explore their surroundings alongside their classmates.
Virtual field trips can occur in any of these three settings, but the benefits of virtual field trips vary based on their level of virtuality, and different kinds of virtual field trips will have different uses in the classroom. It’s just like in the real world: a student can benefit from having a speaker visit their school, just as they can benefit from visiting a museum or historical site, but they will have different takeaways from each learning experience. Similarly, kids can learn from seeing projections of historical figures interact with their classroom space and from being fully immersed in a far-off digital world. Different types of virtual fields might be best for different kinds of learners, different school subjects, and different ages: virtual field trips for kindergarten are not the same as virtual field trips for high school, and a virtual field trip that aligns with a Black History Month curriculum will differ from a virtual field trip focused on chemistry or biology.
What are the benefits of virtual field trips?
Now that we understand what a virtual field trip is, let’s explore the benefits of educational VR. Although there are practically countless reasons why virtual field trips are helpful in education, we can divide the benefits of virtual field trips into a few main categories:
- Virtual field trips can make for improved learning experiences and help students understand concepts more fully.
- Virtual field trips are more engaging than traditional learning experiences for many types of students.
- Virtual field trips are more accessible, especially in remote learning contexts, and can give students access to experiences they would otherwise not be able to have.
- Virtual field trips allow students to collaborate across boundaries, learn about far-off places and work with people from other regions.
- Virtual field trips provide opportunities for students to develop social emotional learning skills and reflect on their experiences.
Let’s dive into each of these types of benefits in more detail.
Learning Benefits of Virtual Field Trips
Virtual field trips can improve the learning experience in a variety of ways. On measures of comprehension, retention, and skills-based learning, students often perform better after learning in a virtual environment or taking a virtual field trip.
One reason for this is that some things are simply easier to learn in immersive virtual contexts. This is especially true if you are attempting to learn a concrete or manual skill: a virtual learning experience can engage your senses more fully and provide a more realistic simulation of the situations in which you might be expected to perform a task, without requiring the expense or risk that real-life training scenarios can incur.
Increasingly, the scientific literature is validating the common intuition that it’s easier to perform a skill once you’ve tried it out in a simulation. A 2019 study from professors in California and Denmark evaluated the effectiveness of immersive educational VR for the purposes of laboratory safety training for undergraduate college students. Students who underwent the VR experience performed significantly better on behavioral transfer tests: that is, after completing the VR training, they had improved risk evaluation skills in a real life laboratory. Notably, although a fully immersive VR experience led to the greatest improvement in behavioral skills, a desktop VR module also led to a significant improvement over traditional teaching methods. This is just one piece of evidence that virtual field trips can have significant benefits, especially for skills-based learning.
A broader literature review from researchers at the University of Sao Paulo found evidence that virtual field trips are also helpful in K-12 education. They identified multiple studies in which head mounted display-based virtual reality education contributed to learning improvements. Although the greatest gains were in “‘skills-based’ learning outcomes,” educational VR also appeared to have positive knowledge-based results, contributing to greater information recall and learning comprehension compared to non-VR education settings. Immersive virtual environments also seemed to improve learning outcomes for students with special needs.
The same researchers found studies of educational VR in the following school subjects:
- STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math)
- Social sciences, particularly history
- Social and emotional learning skills
They noted that virtual field trips might be especially appealing in STEM fields, because they avoid the safety hazards and high costs of using real lab equipment. KaiXR, for example, offers a variety of VR field trips related to health and science, including an immersive tour of the human body and a field trip in which students witness a volcano explosion. However, the researchers also pointed out that virtual field trips have potential for social studies, the arts, and many other subjects. KaiXR already provides a range of arts and humanities virtual field trips, including activities about Amy Sherald’s Obama portraits and tours of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Engagement Benefits of Virtual Field Trips
Perhaps even more significant than VR’s ability to contribute to students’ learning is its ability to increase their engagement with classroom activities. It makes sense: actually taking a tour of the White House sounds much more exciting than reading about it in a textbook, right?
Multiple studies back this up, repeatedly finding that virtual field trips enhance students’ attention, enjoyment, and intrinsic motivation to learn. For example, one investigation of a virtual interactive simulation about gravity for middle school students found that the simulation had positive impacts on all of the following:
- Student enjoyment
- Self-perception of learning
- Presence and engagement
The researchers found that embodied interaction is particularly crucial for student engagement: when students can use multiple sentences and truly interact with their learning material, they tend to be more excited about and engaged in their learning. We all know what it’s like to have to sit and listen to a boring lecture without having any meaningful way to participate. Virtual field trips provide the complete opposite experience, deeply immersing students in the material.
Virtual field trips also have the potential benefit of improving inclusivity and diversity in the classroom. It’s important that students see themselves represented in their coursework and that they learn about subjects relevant to their own history and culture. That’s one reason why people have been advocating for more inclusive curricula in both online and offline settings. Although not all educational VR experiences will promote inclusion, companies like KaiXR make it a priority. Our virtual field trips represent a range of cultures and societies, taking students from ancient Mayan temples to modern-day Syria.
Accessibility Benefits of Virtual Field Trips
Virtual field trips don’t just have the benefit of helping students learn more — they also make learning accessible for more students. Virtual field trips are a cheaper way to see far-off destinations, and they’re more flexible, more adaptable, and more accessible than most traditional field trips. That means virtual field trips can be a great option for all of the following:
- Students with mobility restrictions
- Students who are immunocompromised
- Remote learning environments
- Classrooms with limited funding for field trips
One reason virtual field trips are so helpful in education is that they allow you to visit far-off destinations that would otherwise be totally inaccessible. All the money in the world won’t let you take an elementary school classroom to the top of Mount Everest or make it possible to tour the solar system. But with KaiXR, those field trips are possible with any mobile device, from a smartphone to a VR headset.
Many other field trips are theoretically possible, but would be prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of people. You could, for example, take a classroom to the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial as a Black History Month activity. But unless you live in Washington, D.C., taking your students to a distant museum would likely be too expensive. Virtual field trips allow classrooms to visit a wider range of destinations from the comfort of their own school building.
And students don’t even have to be in the school building — virtual field trips are also a great option during periods of remote learning. Scholars at the University of Lincoln have described virtual field trips as one means of “future-proofing” education when in-person field trips are canceled or classrooms have to move online, whether for public health reasons or otherwise.
That doesn’t mean virtual field trips should be seen as a worse alternative to in-person field trips. One scholarly article in the International Journal of Instructional Media described many advantages that virtual field trips can have over in-person ones, many of which relate to their increased flexibility and individualized nature. Those advantages include all of the following:
- More learner-centered: Students can adapt virtual field trips to suit their own needs and style of learning. For example, students can often pause virtual field trip activities or complete them at their own pace, allowing them to get as much out of the learning experience as possible.
- Geographic and temporal independence: In many cases, students can access virtual field trip materials whenever and wherever they like. Virtual field trips also don’t create the logistical and scheduling difficulties that traditional field trips usually do.
- Control of content: Many platforms allow teachers and students to design or adapt the experience of virtual field trips, allowing teachers to create field trips that more closely align with their curriculum and giving students more autonomy over their learning.
- Easily adapted and reused: Unlike in-person field trips, which usually cannot be significantly changed and which are harder to repeat on a regular basis, virtual field trips can generally be changed more quickly if students and teachers identify possible improvements for future iterations.
In addition to the inclusivity benefits mentioned earlier, educational VR also makes field trips accessible to a wider range of students. One professor from Temple University has pointed out that virtual field trips are fantastic options for movement-restricted or immunocompromised students, who may not be able to travel long distances to inaccessible areas. Thus, virtual field trips can be a powerful force for equity in education.
Lastly, virtual field trips have the unique benefit of being more climate-friendly than many in-person field trips, which often require students to travel on greenhouse gas-emitting buses. Some researchers argue that this makes virtual field trips especially beneficial for climate change education, which can provide educational benefits without harming the planet.
Collaboration Benefits of Virtual Field Trips
The Internet can be a powerful tool for collaboration and building community. This is especially true of virtual field trips, which have been used to help students and academics communicate in a variety of fields. Virtual field trips can enable collaboration in multiple ways:
- Students from different classrooms can communicate by sharing in a virtual field trip experience. Internet-based field trips enable students to interact with each other’s avatars, even if they’re not in the same classroom.
- Teachers can share and adapt the same virtual resources. In comparison with in-person field trips, which often need to be planned based on a specific school’s location and resources, virtual field trips are generally easier to change and can be shared between schools.
- Students can learn from and interact with experts who live in other regions and countries. They have access to a broader range of resources than would be available in their immediate area.
Virtual field trips have a huge range of benefits, from improving students’ learning and engagement to enabling collaboration between students and teachers around the world. Now that you know the benefits of virtual field trips, it’s time to explore your options! Check out KaiXR’s vast library of virtual field trips today.
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