Student perceptions of a virtual field trip to replace a real field trip

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  • Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (2001) 17, 345-354

    2001 Blackwell Science Ltd 345

    Student perceptions of a virtual field trip to replace a real field trip J.I. Spicer & J. Stratford Department of Biological Sciences, University of Plymouth/Learning Media Unit, University of Sheffield

    Abstract This study examines student perceptions on the use of virtual field trips (VFT) as part of their university experience and in particular the extent to which they could replace real field trips. While students were extremely positive about the potential of VFT to provide valuable learning experiences (and in particular a VFT constructed by the authors of this paper) nearly all of the students were insistent that it could not, and should not, replace real field trips. Furthermore when the same students were re-approached after having been on a real field trip, these perceptions were strengthened and they thought VFT could be most effective in preparing for, or revising after, a real field trip.

    Keywords: Biology; Field studies; Hypermedia; Questionnaire; Undergraduate; Virtual reality; Zoology


    Biology and the IT revolution Biology teaching traditionally takes place in one or more of three different environments; the lecture theatre or classroom, the laboratory and the field (outdoors). However, with the advent of multimedia technology attempts are being made to translate features of each of these three learning environments to the biology students computer desk top (Ambron, 1986; Strack, 1986; Ambron & Hooper, 1988; Harris, 1994; Newton, 1997; Benbow, 1998; Mudge, 1999; Peat & Fernandez, 2000). The driving forces behind these IT initiatives are complex. Biological educators may see the possibilities and opportunities for opening up whole new and exciting ways of learning and teaching using this new technology. However, those whose concerns are angled more to political or administrative considerations might embrace the multimedia revolution on the assumption that it is a more cost-effective way to deliver courses and modules than more traditional methods. There should be no conflict between these two views as long as the development of multimedia approaches and courseware proceeds hand-in-hand with careful research into how well they work in achieving the aims and objectives, set by the educators. Then, even if the administrators are not getting something cheaper, they can at least comfort themselves in the knowledge that they are getting value for money.

    Some attention has been given to this in the context of electronically replacing the lecture theatre and also providing virtual laboratory environments (e.g. Newton,

    Accepted 10 January 2001

    Correspondence: John I. Spicer, Plymouth Environmental Research Centre, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Plymouth, Plymouth PL4 8AA, UK. Email:

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    1997; Havice, 1998). The integration of text, audio, graphics, still image and moving pictures (or at least three of these elements) into a single, computer-controlled multimedia product is a clear definition (McCarthy 1989). Unfortunately, even basic evaluation of the virtual field trip (VFT) to allow the teaching of biology lags far behind. Given how many of these VFTs are appearing on the web and in the market place this situation is both disappointing and unsatisfactory. Two key questions that are of relevance to both the educational and administration/ decision making perspectives (although possibly for different reasons) are how effective is the VFT and to what extent can the VFT replace the real field trip?

    There is good anecdotal evidence that VFTs may have a role to play in educational establishments. For instance, the 20 or so comments posted on a web site dedicated to VFT ( ) are very positive and enthusiastic. A review of a digital field trip to the rainforest CD-ROM is glowing based on an educator and some of his students just test driving it (Poland, 2000). Finally an educational development research paper giving an Australian perspective on the role of IT in biology education presents a very positive account of the use of VFTs in schools (Peat & Fernandez, 2000) although there is no mention of, or reference to, any formal assessment of student perceptions or the educational value, of VFTs. This anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, there are very few educational studies of VFT effectiveness in achieving authors aims. Certainly there is little published information on whether or not VFT could replace real field trips.

    VFT replacing field trips? The main aim of the present study was to examine the extent to which students perceived that VFT could actually replace field work, with particular reference to replacing field courses. However some historical background is required to understand both the approach taken to the question and why this question is important to educators involved in field teaching.

    Two questions appeared to be key to the way of implementing and using hypermedia. The first was if ubiquitous hypermedia is either needed or wanted? Secondly, many of the hypermedia products available in biology seemed to be based on an established, and rather uninspiring, style of computer aided instruction (CAI). This could be characterised by (a) a heavy reliance on text (b) simple branching structures that took the student to yet more text (c) a basic two dimensional approach that treated each screen as a page in a book, and above all (d) by a lack of design and thoughtfulness aimed at drawing students into the content and engaging them with it. As one of the authors came to the project from a television production background a view was taken that these traditional characteristics of CAI needed to be challenged, and so the concept of video-led hypermedia was conceived. This study investigated whether or not an interactive, but essentially linear, narrative-led television approach could work in a multimedia context. The approach incorporated many of the design features employed by television producers but the educational objectives and desired outcomes would be paramount.

    A hypermedia package was constructed Adaptations to the tide pool environ-ment Tidepools (see with which both questions could be addressed. The next three years were spent assessing and evaluating Tidepools and students responses to it, including whether or not students using the package did just as well in an exam as students taught using

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    more traditional methods. The description of the contents and rationale behind Tidepools together with the full results of its evaluation will be published elsewhere. In brief, it was found that students who used Tidepools did just as well when formally examined on the material (using multiple choice and multiple completion questions) than a similar group of students attending a more traditional lecture-based course (the general and specific learning objectives and course content were identical, only the mode of learning/teaching was different).

    Tidepools allowed students to explore for themselves how a hypothetical tidepool animal might respond to low oxygen encountered during the low tide period before going on to try and predict what four real tidepool animals actually do. Relevant information on each of the four species was gathered by students during a search around a virtual tide pool. Although the main purpose of the hypermedia package was to explore physiological principles, it was set so firmly in an ecological context that students (from four different cohorts) started to refer to Tidepools as a virtual field trip. Indeed many students and staff who were introduced to Tidepools specifically asked if this CD-ROM was supposed to take the place of a field trip. Some of those who asked were extremely interested in the answer as they clearly saw this new technology as a way of replacing what they perceived as an outmoded, expensive, risky and difficult to manage/timetable biology teaching experience, namely the real field trip.

    Two further, but still tractable, questions were considered: do students enjoy using VFTs (specifically Tidepools) and do they see them as a possible replacement for real field trips (specifically the zoology residential field trip)?


    As part of the zoology practical module, at Level 2 (the second year of a three year degree programme), zoology students had to go through Tidepools individually and complete the tasks and objectives described there. Typically each student spent 23 hours on the computer at one sitting. They were then asked to complete a short questionnaire in which they reacted to two positive and two negative features of Tidepools and scored a number of statements on a scale of 15; 1 = strongly agree, 2 = agree, 3 = neutral, 4 = disagree and 5 = strongly disagree. The statements were

    I learned a lot from Tidepools. I enjoyed using Tidepools. Tidepools covers the same sorts of things as one would encounter during a

    field course. Tidepools could be used in place of a field course. It would be good to use something like Tidepools as a way of preparing you

    for a field course. I would like to see more use of virtual reality in university teaching.

    Finally there was a section where students could volunteer their own comments on anything they wanted to include. All questionnaires were anonymous. At this point in their undergraduate career none of the students had been on a university biology field course, although many had at secondary school.

    Those same students were asked to fill in a much shorter questionnaire about 6 weeks after returning from a zoology residential field trip held just before the beginning of the autumn semester of Level 3. Unlike Tidepools, the residential field trip did not cover coastal biology, but it did follow the same problem-based

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    approach that guided the production of the Tidepools CD. In total there was approx-imately 10 months between completing the first questionnaire and completing the second one. The second questionnaire comprised some of the same statements used in the first questionnaire with a section for additional comments. Significant differences in responses between the first and second questionnaire was tested using the MannWhitney U-test. Thirty-one students completed both questionnaires in 199798 and 28 students in 199899, giving a total of 59 responses.

    Results and comment

    Table 1 shows the student responses to the request to write down two positive and two negative features of Tidepools. Responses were included in this table only if they were made by 5 or more students. Generally there were far fewer negative than positive points, with a sizeable proportion of students (just over half) choosing to leave one or both spaces allocated for negative points blank or writing none.

    The feature that came in for most praise as a positive feature was the provision of a field notebook within the hypermedia package. This was at first a little surprising as something so specific was not expected to be singled out by so many students. The field notebook allows students to copy or lift pictures/diagrams and text into their own electronic notebook. They can then arrange the material in whatever way they see fit and can edit and add to the text at will. Almost three quarters of the students commented on this, and some at great length. It is extremely interesting therefore that Ambron (1986) highlighted one of the main strengths of hypermedia approaches as allowing students to browse, annotate, link, and elaborate on information in a rich, nonlinear, multimedia data base . . . explor(ing) and integrat(ing) vast libraries of text, audio and video information.

    The other surprise was that some students thought that the Tidepools presentation was more personal than a lecture. Certainly the approach taken within the hypermedia package was to provide the students with a visible, talking personal tutor who introduced them to tasks and explained what to do, and what could be done. However, it is difficult to untangle what this comment says about the use of multimedia and what it says about students perception of the (modern?) lecture experience. The remaining three comments all show that the students perceive Tidepools to be truly hypermedia in approach and interactive in a way that promotes/allows for independent thought.

    The main negative comment provides evidence for the view that students thought that Tidepools had not gone far enough in taking full advantage of the technology. Ironically the view that there was too much text, together with there being too much

    Table 1. Student responses to two positive and two negative features of the hypermedia

    Positive no. (%) Negative no. (%) Really liked the idea, and practice, of 43 (72.9) Should have even less text and 22 (37.3) putting together their own field book more voice over Video makes the information more 30 (50.8) Easy to get lost in the pool 21 (35.6) interesting You really had to think for yourself, 24 (40.7) Too much information to assimilate 17 (28.8) particularly towards the end of Tidepools Much more personal than a lecture 13 (22.0) Truly interactive 11 (18.6) Total number of students = 59

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    information to assimilate is the complete opposite to that expressed by at least some of the biology lecturers who had gone through sections of Tidepools. Their main criticisms were that there was too little text and not enough information.

    Getting lost in one particular section, where students were asked to hunt inside a virtual tidepool for species, was such a prevalent condition that about one fifth of the students remarked upon it. How a learner can be prevented from feeling lost is a recurrent problem in the use of hypermedia (Marchionini, 1988) and so it was not completely unexpected that students in this one section of Tidepools not only felt lost, but actually were lost! It was found that this problem could be avoided by providing students with a map of the pool, a feature which could be incorporated into the hypermedia package itself.

    Of all the unsolicited comments made 80% of them were extremely positive and enthusiastic about the educational value of Tidepools, in particular the graphics and video and the interactive, thought-provoking approach adopted. The negative comments centred on the lack of time to explore and experiment with Tidepools.

    When asked overall if they learned much from Tidepools the majority said they had (mean score 1 standard deviation was 4.07 0.67, median score of 4) (Fig. 1). Similarly when asked if they enjoyed using Tidepools the majority were extremely positive (mean score 4.57 0.59), awarding a median score of 5 (Fig. 1). Students did not score either of the statements with a 1 or 2. In conclusion it seems fair to say that the students learned and enjoyed learning using Tidepools. They were very positive about this hypermedia approach and comfortable with its use in their undergraduate learning experience.

    Statements 35 on the questionnaire all concerned the relationship between Tidepools, as a representative VFT, and students perception of the nature and importance of field courses. The scores before and after having taken part in the zoology residential field course are presented

    graphically in Fig. 2. Although there was a wide variety of opinion many students (pre-real field trip) thought that Tidepools presented them with the same sorts of things as field courses do (Statement 3, mean score 3.51 0.97, median 4). However, in retrospect the question could have been better phrased because it is unclear what these same sorts of things could or do refer to. It would have been interesting to see if the response had been different if the word things had been replaced by experiences. This said, it is still interesting that following a real field trip, student perception changed significantly (p < 0.001), with a greater proportion now saying that Tidepools did not do the same sort of things as real field courses did (mean score 2.12 1.10, median 2). When it came to whether or not Tidepools could be used in place of a field course, the majority of students (pre-real field course) did not think this was a good idea (Statement 4, mean score 2.19 0.92, median 2). After the zoology field course opinion changed significantly again (p < 0.001), but

    Fig. 1. Students responses to the

    statements given

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    this time their disagreement with Tidepools taking the place of a real field course was even stronger (mean score 1.32 0.57, median 1). All but 3 students disagreed, with 43 disagreeing strongly. Opinion was neutral, before having taken part in the zoology field course, on whether or not hypermedia approaches, such as Tidepools, could be used to prepare for field work (Statement 5, mean score 2.90 0.97, median 3). This changed significantly (p < 0.001) following the zoology field course with students now positive about the use of hypermedia as a way of preparing for field work (mean score 3.56 0.95, median 4). A number of students wrote that they felt that such a hypermedia approach, if properly done, could have helped them make better use of the time they actually spent out in the field.

    Finally the last statement on the questionnaire concerned student perception of the desirability of having more virtual reality teaching in their undergraduate experience. Generally most students were positive about this (Statement 6, mean score 3.64 1.00, median 4) with there being no significant difference in opinion pre- and post-the actual field course (p = 0.290). The only proviso put on their scoring by some of the students was the understanding that virtual reality should not be used as a substitute for field courses or face-to-face contact with tutors.

    Conclusions and perspectives

    VFT good but not a substitute Two major conclusions emerge from this study. The first is that students perceive that using VFT (or at the very least this particular hypermedia approach) is a good and enjoyable way to learn. Many of them were genuinely excited and engaged by the possibilities opened up by the new technology. The second is that,

    Fig. 2. Students responses scored 1-5 to the statements given. Pre-field course responses are indicated by hatched bars and post-field course responses by open bars.

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    notwithstanding the success of Tidepools with the students, they were unanimous in their view that it was not a substitute for a real field course. Clearly the students welcome the use of a VFT as part of their zoology undergraduate experience, but not in place of field courses. Furthermore these perceptions were only strengthened by having recently attended an actual field course. These conclusions are extremely interesting in light of the views expressed by Rintala (1998) who discussed whether or not IT should be incorporated into higher education at all. Rintala (1998) correctly observes that IT is often incorporated into courses without even asking whether or not it is appropriate or indeed without any firm idea for what purposes it should be incorporated. He concludes by advocating that IT be treated as an experiment rather than as a solution. In the case of Tidepools students did enjoy using a multimedia approach, but as soon as the possibility that this approach could be used to replace real field trips was raised, they were unanimous in their disapproval. Here the experiment with hypermedia was in one way perceived as being successful but it was not seen as a solution, a replacement for field courses.

    Effectiveness of VFT vs. more traditional approaches the right question? Examining student perception is an important and valuable exercise. But what would also be revealing is a formal evaluation of the effectiveness of a VFT compared with the traditional field course. The key problem with constructing such an evaluation is knowing exactly where to begin. Generally speaking the effectiveness and educational value of many hypermedia approaches and products vs. traditional alternatives is assumed and so is rarely formally assessed. There are some exceptions. For example, Dary & Richards (1999) have compared hypermedia and traditional approaches to teaching psychology to undergraduates and the results were generally favourable in favour of hypermedia. On the other hand Havice (1998) found that students taught in an information systems class using integrated media did not do as well as a control group taught using a more traditional approach. One of the few formal evaluations of a VFT (although not a biology VFT) is that carried out by Bitner et al. (1999). They found that use of VFT increased the ability of students to solve real world problems and to successfully integrate the use of several applications in the production of multimedia presentations.

    An interesting myth that seems to surround IT and hypermedia is that its use will reduce both cost and staff contact time while presumably maintaining quality (Lookatch, 1997). Certainly Tidepools cost the equivalent of around three traditional in-house video programmes to produce. It could, however, be used autonomously by students. But by far the most positive comments came from students who took the opportunity to discuss with staff the academic issues raised about how animals could and do survive periods of exposure to low oxygen levels (the main purpose of the package). Similarly for many of the truly interactive sections of Tidepools, students noted on the questionnaire that they thought they learned both more quickly and effectively when staff were present to discuss emerging issues. The need for personal contact alongside use of Tidepools was a recurrent theme in unsolicited comments on the questionnaires. The issues of cost and personal contact also come up in the context of a different, but related, virtual reality. Issroff & Eisenstadt (1997) formally evaluated the effectiveness of what must be one of the first ever virtual summer schools. They found that while it was successful in many different ways, it was actually more costly than the real thing. Furthermore, although

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    individual CAL exercises were well received, the summer school would not have been so well received without essential group contact. Rintala (1998) also focuses in on the consequences of the lack of personal contact that could result from inappropriate use of IT including hypermedia. He highlights important areas that need to be considered including social responsibility, community and alienation. Interestingly these are all areas which not only impinge upon the general use of IT but, more strikingly, any suggested use of IT to replace field trips. Field trips traditionally comprise of a variety of complex experiences (Openshaw & Whittle, 1993) which although difficult to quantify are regarded as imparting and developing important academic and life skills (Ford, 1981). These experiences involve the ability to take responsibility and be responsible for yourself and colleagues, to work and cooperate with other people and to make friends and win trust. It is difficult to see how such qualities can be expressed, let alone developed, during a VFT.

    If it is accepted for the moment that the VFT should not replace the traditional field trip, the next question is can it enhance it in any way? Many formal studies have highlighted the importance of proper and effective student preparation for field work/trips. For example Openshaw & Whittle (1993) found that good staff and student preparation before going into the field, minimised the learning difficulties encountered by students during their trip. Killerman (1996, 1998) found that familiarisation with biological material before going out into the field enhanced the enjoyment of the students on the field trip and resulted in better and more reliable identification of organisms by students in the field. Good preparation not just by staff but by students too would seem to be an important component in the success of a field course/trip. So to what extent can hypermedia be used as a way of providing/ enhancing that preparation? Warburton & Higgitt (1997) found that IT could be used effectively to prepare for Geography field trips. Bellan & Scheurman (1998) after discussing the benefits and pitfalls of virtual and real field trips, argue that a virtual field trip can complement and enhance a real one, based on their experience of running both in tandem. Holt (1996) suggests that students may profit by using hypermedia programs to explore familiar territory at their own pace (thus expanding on things seen, and catching up on things missed) and so make field trips a more worthwhile experience. The idea of using VFTs to enhance real field trips is arguably one of the most prevalent views of the worth of VFT. Certainly the students who used Tidepools thought that the approach taken could be used to prepare them for field work, but interestingly only after they had actually been on an undergraduate field trip. This suggests that they encountered experiences during the real field course which they perceived they could have been better prepared for. Furthermore they perceived that a hypermedia approach pre-field course was at least one way in which better use could have been made of their time away. To conclude, instead of allowing VFTs to be thought of as alternatives to real field trips perhaps it would be best to explore how a VFT might either enhance preparations for a real field trip and act as a revision tool after a field trip, both approaches potentially giving value-added to the real field trip.


    The use of VFT is already part of the undergraduate experience in some universities, and this use is likely to grow. From the study and discussions presented above it may be concluded that while increased use of virtual reality (VFTs in particular) was

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    perceived as a positive and exciting prospect by biology undergraduates, they were also quite clear that this should not be at the expense of real field work. Good formal studies of hypermedia approaches and of the strengths and weaknesses of traditional field courses are still required to demonstrate how VFT will serve biologists (with responsibility for field work) in the future. Of course there will always be environments where it is either not possible or safe to take students and here the VFT should come into its own. But the idea of adopting VFTs as replacements for real field work on purely managerial, timetabling and/or economic grounds is a flawed one. The use of hypermedia may enhance some learning experiences, but it is unlikely that it will simulate them to the extent that it can offer a viable alternative. Thus, it seems that hypermedia cannot provide a cheaper learning environment without having a negative educational impact At present one of the most fruitful ways forward seems to be the use of VFT to prepare for, or to revise, real field trips. Such a truly integrative multimedia approach may just improve an educational experience (the field trip) that most biologists would consider to be invaluable to the training of undergraduates from many areas of biology.


    We are grateful to Dr Len Hill, for reading a draft of this manuscript, and to all of the zoology students who took part in the evaluation. This study was funded by an award from the curriculum development fund of the University of Sheffield to JIS.


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