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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    2001 Blackwell Science Ltd, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 17, 345-354

    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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    2001 Blackwell Science Ltd, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 17, 345-354

    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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    2001 Blackwell Science Ltd, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 17, 345-354

    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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    2001 Blackwell Science Ltd, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 17, 345-354

    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 a...