Comparison of in-person and virtual Grand Canyon undergraduate field trip learning outcomes
Field learning is fundamental in geoscience, but cost, accessibility, and other constraints limit equal access to these experiences. As technological advances afford ever more immersive and student-centered virtual field experiences, they are likely to have a growing role across geoscience education. They also serve as an important tool for providing high-quality online instruction, whether to fully online degree students, students in hybrid in-person/remote programs, or students experiencing disruptions to in-person learning, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic. This mixed-methods study compared learning outcomes of an in-person (ipFT) and a virtual (iVFT) geoscience field trip to Grand Canyon National Park, each of which highlighted the Great Unconformity. Participants included introductory and advanced geology students. In the ipFT, students collectively explored the Canyon through the interpretive Trail of Time along the Canyon rim, guided by the course instructor. In the iVFT, students individually explored the Canyon and studied its geology at river level. 360° spherical images anchor the iVFTs and serve as a framework for programmed overlays that enable active learning and allow for adaptive feedback. We assessed cognitive and affective outcomes in both trips using common measures. Regression analysis showed the iVFT to be associated with significantly greater learning gains. The ipFT students had significantly higher positive affect scores pre-trip, reflecting their excitement for the trip. Overall, our results provide clear evidence that high-quality iVFTs can lead to better learning gains than ipFTs. Although field trips are employed for more than just content learning, this finding may encourage greater use of iVFTs in coursework.