Bringing the class to the world and the world to the classroom with Immersive Technology

Immersive technology (AR/VR – “XR”, Extended Reality) can assist in bringing field-based learning into large, 1st year classes. With Augmented Reality (AR), it is possible to create self-guided, mobile app-assisted field trips to sites that students actually visit; Virtual Reality (VR) transports students to places impossible to visit. The beauty of AR tours is that they facilitate and augment an actual in-field experience, rather than replacing one (as VR is designed to do). AR further circumvents issues associated with large classes (inability of the instructor to lead multiple trips; variability in the specific expertise among temporary lab instructors; time constraints associated with fitting trips between classes, etc.)

To expand experiential learning opportunities in large, 1st year biogeoscience classes, we (Hurley, Wilson and I) created a mobile-app guided field trip (Forest Explore AR) to a Coastal Douglas fir forest remnant in Pacific Spirit Park, Point Grey. The goal was to have students examine the ecosystem in terms of its woody species composition, function and structure; the role of  human and natural disturbances in influencing ecosystem characteristics, and the successional processes involved. Information about land use history including indigenous vs. settler colonial relationships to the forest was touched on.

* New: We are adding a trip to a nationally (and globally!) significant Black oak savanna ecosystem located in a dense urban setting in High Park, Toronto. Stay tuned!

The Pacific Spirit forest AR tour was modelled on a pre-existing TA-led field trip for a large introductory Geoscience class. The AR adds flexibility to the trip, allowing students to visit the site as their own schedules and weather permitted. With the help of a smart-phone and the free ExploreAR app, students were able to access a pre-programmed tour along a route mapped into in a Google Maps interface, that specified stops and launched way-finding instructions, audio narrations, videos, photos and quizzes.

Student feedback indicates that the AR tour increases accessibility/flexibility over traditional TA led field trips (see sample, below).

Select Student Comments about Pacific Spirit AR:

“… my favourite experience was finding the location the map told us to go and having us stop … to tell us interesting facts. P.S. I really liked the app!”

“…particularly liked the video of the [TA] explaining …”

“the fact that I was able to repeat the audio helps to understand the content better [than TA-led trip that student focus groups had run the previous week]”

In addition to facilitating a flexible learning experience, the AR trip illustrates the potential to address larger pedagogical issue, in this ecosystem tour context. It is illustrative of *:

  • The relationship between Research and Teaching at universities
    • This trip was created by a faculty member in the educational leadership stream, drawing upon her research in forest ecosystems. Research techniques such as dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, were employed to date disturbance events in the forest, emphasizing the importance of faculty maintaining activity in their field of research to foster teaching excellence. This resource provides evidence that there is no dichotomy between research and teaching.
  • The partnership between Instructor and the team of Graduate Teaching and Research Assistants
    • This trip was a collaborative endeavour, with Undergraduate Project Assistants (K Hurley, who programmed materials into, worked on videos, lent her voice to narrations, etc.), and Graduate Student Teaching Assistants (TAs), whose in-person trip experience over the years informed the tour. TA contributions were be embedded in app content (e.g., the instructional video of K Pierce). TA responses to student questions about the related assignment are integral to the student experience. Some of these contributions are embedded within the app materials, making evident the team effort involved in instruction and the development of the app itself.
  • The potential for flexibility and accommodation in instructional materials
    • AR tours facilitate flexible, in-field experiences allowing students to run trips on their own schedules and as weather permits (see above). Because the app allows students to archive content such as audio narrations, and access cotent after the tour, the technology accommodates students with a variety of learning styles and the English-second-language students who benefit from audio re-play.
    • But what if a student is physically unable to visit the field site? At a pinch, the trip may be run remotely (virtually) via “warp” mode, which triggers tour content including photos, videos and narrations along the mapped route. A recent GEOB 102 student whose sports injury prevented her from walking the trail, ran the tour in warp mode, and successfully completed the associated lab assignment — with high marks! Perhaps a better result than no trip at all or with only reading material to instruct about the ecosystem.
  • The Indigenous/settler divide, and the nature of the Anthropocene
    • The tour features examples of extractive post-settler activities (clear-cut logging; land clearance for building construction) as well as more sustainable, largely non-destructive forest use practices of the Musqueum Peoples (cedar bark stripping; small scale timber harvest) upon whose traditional ancestral land this tour occurs. Students can observe the obvious contrasts in land-use practices, and consider how these complex land-use histories interact with, and influence the forest ecosystem. They may further consider that this little piece of Douglas fir forest represents an altered remnant, and is thus illustrative of the Anthropocene.

* These ideas were presented earlier at a paper presentation,“Ecosystem Education with Augmented Reality: Value-Added Learning or Student Disengagement?” American Association of Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting, Washington DC, April, 2019 (Hewitt, 2019).

READ MORE: about the AR tour here and here. Access the Forest Explore AR here

Project Lead: Nina Hewitt, Assistant Professor of Teaching, Department of Geography

Undergraduate Project Assistant: Kelly Hurley, BSc. Candidate, Land and Food Systems, Global Resource Systems

Collaborator: Brian Wilson, Curriculum Manager, Vantage College; Emerging Media Lab Staff Liaison (Former EML Supervisor)

Acknowledgements: We thank Siobhán McPhee for encouraging Nina to pursue AR technologies for Geoscience education, and for insights from her own experience of AR-assisted learning; Samantha Peng, EML Student Assistant, for consulting on the pilot version of the App. We gratefully acknowledge the financial support for this project provided by UBC Vancouver students via the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund and a UBC Work Learn grant.

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