Leading Change:

Virtual Field Trips Inspire Immersive Learning

A story that uncovers teaching innovations at UBC — driven by faculty, backed by research and squarely aimed at leading new thinking.

The days of the closed-door classroom are over. Now, learning stretches beyond the traditional lecture theatre, which in turn eliminates barriers and generates opportunities for more open (and equal) education.

By taking students into the field, even when they’re sitting on the bus or waiting for a plane, UBC is making research and science more accessible than ever. Students can access new knowledge independently, making it possible to learn on their own terms in and out of the classroom.

Student schedules are demanding, making it tough to get a whole class out for a weekend field trip but UBC Geography has engineered a workaround that fits everyone’s schedule. If students can’t attend a given field trip, they can head out into the field another time and the ‘lesson’ will still be waiting for them to experience. The rich and interesting topography along the Sea-to-Sky route that connects Vancouver and Whistler, for instance, makes it an ideal outdoor classroom for geography students to explore.

At designated points along this geographically rich corridor — such as the Cleveland Dam, the Stawamus Chief and the Britannia Mine — students can hop out of the car, whip out their smartphones and experience a virtual field trip through a 360-degree photosphere — sometimes even more than one at a time — all without their instructor being there. Hosted on FieldPress, the photospheres give learners a 360-degree view of the area, adding to their own on-the-ground experience by allowing them to pan back or zoom in on certain features, or see them under different seasonal and weather conditions. Visually rich and accompanied by relevant audio, each photosphere includes pop-up information bytes, additional images, and links to videos and quiz questions so instructors can ensure students are completing the course requirements.

Explore a 360-degree image of the Sea-to-Sky region​​.

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Explore a 360-degree image of the Sea-to-Sky region​​.

Engaging, accessible and wholly flexible, the virtual field trips take away the time crunch, making out-of-the-classroom learning convenient and fun.

Imagine strapping on a viewfinder, taking up two hand controllers — and finding yourself standing right in front of Stanley Park’s legendary Hollow Tree. A raven swoops past, its raucous caws making you jump. Aim your controller at the bird and it lights up: there’s information here. You click, and a clear voice explains the ecological connection between these birds and the surrounding western red cedars.

Turn your attention back to the Hollow Tree and your learning takes a different direction as you browse the options screen that pops up in mid-air. Go ahead, dig deeper. Walk around the tree. Examine it close up, now step back and take the long view. What was this place like 1,000 years ago, when the Hollow Tree was just a sapling? You’ll go straight there with a click of the controller. Suddenly you’re immersed in the sights and sounds of the land on which and from where the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-WaututhFirst Nations once lived, fished, and buried their ancestors.

Among global post-secondary institutions, UBC is at the fore in using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology to augment its teaching.

Explore a 360-degree image of Crown Mountain, with views of the UBC Vancouver campus​​.

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Explore a 360-degree image of Crown Mountain, with views of the UBC Vancouver campus.


For us, it’s about getting students into the field and applying and experiencing what they’re learning in class to the real world.

“For us, it’s about getting students into the field and applying and experiencing what they’re learning in class to the real world,” says UBC geography instructor Loch Brown, whose team is busy creating augmented and virtual reality experiences of places such as Stanley Park, UBC’s Vancouver and Okanagan campuses and the Sea-to-Sky corridor. “We want students to see what we’re talking about so the learning becomes embedded.”

The augmented reality field trips — whether in the form of a 360-degree photosphere, a 360-degree video viewed through a VR headset, or a full VR/AR experience — allow much more flexibility for geography students to head out into the field when it’s convenient for them. “All the architecture of how we’re designing it is so students can access the field trip through their mobile phone and do it when it fits into their schedule,” says Brown. “And like all open learning at UBC, it’s for everyone. Anybody around the world can put on their headset and take the UBC tour of Stanley Park.”

Explore a 360-degree image of Granville Island​​.

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Explore a 360-degree image of Granville Island.

Whether it’s a self-paced field trip accessible through a smartphone or an immersive virtual reality experience that crosses time and space, the new shape of information delivery is flexible, multisensory and interactive — and gives students the opportunity to curate their own educational experiences. It’s just the start of 360-degree learning at UBC.

UBC Geography Department

The Geography undergraduate program is divided into three fields: physical, human, and technical. The Department offers a wide range of courses leading to a Bachelor of Science Degree in physical geography or a Bachelor of Arts Degree in human geography. Technical courses are incorporated into both degrees.

The Department of Geography at UBC is widely acknowledged as one of the leading departments in the world in terms of its research accomplishments. The scholarly interests of faculty members and graduate students encompass a wide range of subject areas, philosophical approaches, methods of analysis, and geographical locations.

Story Credits

Special thanks to our story partners:

Loch Brown, Instructor, Geography Department.

Team credits: Communications & Marketing — Cindy Connor, Online Producer; Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Michael Kam, Web Developer; Adrian Liem, Manager, Digital Communications; Mark Pilon, Communication Designer; Jamil Rhajiak, Communications Coordinator; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer; Matt Warburton, Manager, Graphic Design; Alex Van Tol, Writer; David Leidl, Copy Editor.

Published: October 2016