Virtual Field Trips for iPads

2012-12-06aDuring the GSA meeting I mentioned that Brett and I had presented a poster about virtual field trips for the iPad, but I didn’t go into a lot of detail at the time because the first trip wasn’t completed. But now that it’s finished and available, I can talk more about what we produced and why.Teaching geology to community college students can present some unique challenges. Brett and I both feel that to learn geology effectively you need to spend as much time as possible where the geology is: outdoors. Field trips really need to be an integral part of a geology curriculum, even in introductory courses.

But at a school like Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC, where Brett teaches), many of the students are euphemistically labeled “non-traditional”, meaning that they are not between the ages of 18-22. Many of these students have families to care for, and many of them have full-time jobs. These students simply don’t have the time or financial resources to leave town for extended periods on a field trip (Brett does require her students to participate in local field trips that take place during regular class time).

That was our motivation for developing a series of virtual field trips. We wanted to focus initially on trips for historical geology, to sites representing times or settings that we can’t see in the Martinsville area. Brett received a small grant from the Virginia Community College System to develop some proof-of-concept trips. We decided to start small, with a trip to Oakes Quarry Park in Ohio. We spent last summer collecting shooting photos and videos for these trips.


2012-12-06cThere were several things we considered when making decisions about how the trips would look and function:

1) Brett intends to integrate these trips into her historical geology curriculum. Therefore, we needed to focus on topics and content that was appropriate for the audience (high school to college undergraduate). Along the same lines, we had to pick the aspects of the story we were going to tell and stick to them. Field sites have so much information that it’s easy to include so much detail that the “big picture” is obscured to introductory students.

2) We needed to produce these trips quickly and cheaply. The VMNH Paleontology department consists of two people, and the PHCC Geology department is one person. We needed something we could produce by ourselves, and with little or no budget. We also want to make more than one field trip, so we didn’t want to take forever to make a single trip.

3) We wanted the students to be able and willing to do the trip independently. We also wanted the student to have to do more than just read a narrative. So we wanted to include text, video, images, and self-check quizzes so the students could ensure that they were getting the important points.

4) We wanted to minimize the need for a reliable internet connection, which can be a significant obstacle in rural areas such as those served by PHCC.

With all this in mind, we decided to write the field trips in Apple’s iBooks Author software. This is a free program for producing multi-touch textbooks for use on iPads (it is platform-specific). It allows the inclusion of slide shows, videos, external links, and matching and multiple-choice exercises, and is all drag-and-drop with a minimal learning curve. There are some significant limitations on what iBooks Author can do, but the things it can do it does very quickly and easily. The resulting ebook can be downloaded from Apple’s iBookstore.


Once downloaded, the field trip is almost completely self-contained on the iPad. The only exception are the included Gigapan images. The Gigapans allow students to view an outcrop from a distance and then zoom in to explore details (see Callan Bentley’s posts at Mountain Beltway for discussion and lots of examples of Gigapans).

So how quickly can we put a field trip together? All the video and photography for the Oakes Quarry Park trip were done in one day by Brett, Tim, and me. It took about a week to edit the video and write the text, and then get everything into iBooks Author (this was the first time we’d ever used it). The field trip was basically done by the end of the summer. We spent a lot of time testing the different features and getting feedback from various people, then we had to wait 3 weeks for Apple’s approval process for listing the trip in the iBookstore. We finally received approval last night. The Oakes Quarry Park field trip is completely free and is available now for download. Note that you must have an iPad or iPad mini, with iBooks and iOS 5 or greater, to view the field trip.

As for future plans, we have already taken photos and video for field trips to Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, and Carmel Church, and hope to have those available in 2013. We’ve also started planning locations for our second round of trips, and hope to begging filming this summer. We’re planning to introduce some additional, more complex interactives starting with the Black Hills trip. We may also develop some exhibit interactives using the same format. Before anyone asks, we don’t have any plans for producing an Android version, but hopefully someone will take on that task someday.

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3 Responses to Virtual Field Trips for iPads

  1. Grenda Dennis says:

    I am downloading the book. Need to sign up for a course.

  2. Doug says:

    sounds fantastic. Too bad i don’t have an ipad (or any tablet device for that matter). From what you have said it sounds really detailed and in depth. I wish i could create something like that for some of the places here in California.

    and now for something completely different: what do you think of the proposed and often touted non-existence of the genus?

  3. altondooley says:

    Genera are as valid as any other higher taxa.

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