STUDENTS PREFER LOCALLY-FOCUSED VIRTUAL FIELD TRIPS; SOCIAL MEDIA DELIVERY IS A LOW-COST WAY OF CREATING THEM
The high-cost and technological requirements of producing virtual field trips (VTFs) using virtual reality or interactive multimedia environments lead many users turn to “off the shelf” tours, instead of creating locally-focused experiences. In the fall of 2020, during the COVID-related shift to online learning, a novel format was trialed at Cape Breton University to substitute for in-person field trips: using social media (WhatsApp and Twitter) to allow students to “accompany” the instructor in real time to a series of local sites in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. This alternative approach has almost no production costs, is compatible with low bandwidth (since it uses only compressed video, images, and text), and can be accessed on smartphones. It can be used to support both synchronous and asynchronous experiences, including real time question asking and discussion. Archived versions of these tours (hosted as a thread on Twitter) were also used in 2021 winter classes. In both semesters, students had strong positive reactions, reporting enjoyment, increased course engagement and interest in geology, enhanced learning, and a desire to visit the sites in person in the future in anonymous end of course surveys. The demographics of the courses differed strongly, with two courses dominated by international students enrolled in engineering programs and one by domestic students enrolled in Arts programs. Both domestic and international students preferred the courses’ focus on VFTs of local sites, over a hypothetical focus on high-profile national or international-level sites (e.g., Grand Canyon), with three times as many students reporting a ‘strong preference’ for local tours even in the international-student dominated courses. In open-ended responses, supporters of locally-focused VTFs most commonly cited an ability to visit the sites themselves and the importance of understanding one’s own environment; variety and a desire to learn about new places were cited by the minority who preferred non-local tours. The social media-hosted format also allowed the tours to be easily accessed by the public after course completion, aiding community education and geotourism efforts.