For the past several years, our introductory geology courses have been so big (400-500 students) that having field trips became a logistical impossibility. In fact, it was not until the beginning of their third year that our geology students were getting their first field experiences. We decided that we needed to change this.
We wanted to help students develop some of the process skills of fieldwork without actually having to be in the field to get them. Recent developments in technology have pushed the tools for teaching in directions that were unthought of even a decade ago. One of these is the advancements in global positioning systems, virtual reality, and photographic imagery, to name a few. This has allowed for the development and use of virtual outcrop models (VOMs) and giving students virtual field experiences (VFEs).
Many have written about the importance of field experiences for geology students. In no way were we seeking to replace actual field experiences, only supplement student instruction to fill a hole in instruction. However, especially in light of the recent global pandemic which canceled many geology field schools, the VOMs and VFEs developed for students gave at least some continuity in these unprecedented times.
VFEs also allow a more inclusive setting for those who are differently-abled for whom travel into the field might not be a possibility. Using VOMs and VFEs has become very popular due to the circumstances surrounding their recent development, however, there is very little research on their efficacy as a pedagogical tool.
We are seeking to see how students use VOMs as a tool for learning, and how VOMs might fit into the overall instructional picture.