As a lover of the outdoors and advocate for virtual reality, I run through this dilemma quite often: Why go outside when you can virtually experience places in the comfort of your own home? This came up once again when I recently viewed VRSE’s Waves of Grace experience. It takes place in Liberia, showing scenes of crowded markets, apartment buildings, and dusty fields and playgrounds. At one point, I thought, “Great! Now that I’ve seen this in VR I don’t feel the need to travel to Liberia” (Now, honestly, I’ve never felt the desire to travel to Liberia. But still…). Does the VR experience encompass enough to fulfill the senses as if you were really there? Of course not. At least not yet.
Pertaining to schools, I would hate to see field trips thrown out the window and replaced by only virtual ones. Even if those virtual ones took kids to Mars and Afghanistan and similarly dangerous places, the “normal” places that are field trip destinations don’t need to be virtual. You just don’t get the smells, tastes, and tangible feelings that only come with the actual location.
However, that doesn’t mean that virtual field trips to mundane places shouldn’t be done. In the journal International Journal of Instructional Media, Gail Tuthill and E. Barbara Klemm argue that “because few students actually go on any field trips, many students lack opportunities to explore and investigate real-world settings”( p. 464). Additionally, virtual field trips make great pre- and post-trip activities. They can be used to prep the students before going on a trip to reduce cognitive load and to reinforce what was experienced as a debrief lesson (p. 459).
While I can’t wait for the day when Ernest Cline’s vision for VR in Ready Player One comes to fruition, I also know that nothing beats the real thing. I guess the real lesson is that kids just need to go on more field trips, whether they are virtual or not.