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Field trips and field work are a valuable and essential component of the Geography curriculum in Higher Education (Kern et al., 1997; Pawson & Teather, 2002). Importantly, the Subject Benchmark Statement for Geography recognises: 


“Geography is intrinsically a field-based subject. Field experience is an essential part of geographical learning and all geographers require the opportunity to plan, undertake and report significant fieldwork during their course” (QAA, 2019, 7)


Additionally, there is strong evidence that exposure to the natural world, especially during childhood, can promote positive environmental attitudes and behaviours in the long-term (Evans et al., 2018; Braun & Dierkes, 2017; Chawla and Derr, 2012). This suggests that field trips may not only be desirable for the benefits of effective learning and environmental engagement, but indispensable in Geography (Christian and Page, 2020). 



It is crucial to acknowledge that field trips are not always accessible and inclusive, particularly for those with disabilities (Elleven et al., 2006; Stainfield et al., 2010; Çaliskan, 2011; Mead et al., 2019). Firstly, physical disabilities can sometimes prevent students participating in the field trip, which often has further knock-on effects around delivering alternative forms of teaching and assessment and which make them feel further excluded (Healey et al., 2002). Secondly, students can also feel excluded by the cost of optional field trips, both in terms of the travel and accommodation costs, but also the hidden costs of purchasing clothing and equipment (Stokes et al., 2012). Additional limitations to physical field trips include travel distance, time use, safety and the complexity of real-world environments (Caliskan, 2011).


Moreover, in higher education, the largest sources of travel emissions come from student field trips and research-related travel (Hoolohan et al. 2021). With this, the number exotic field trips have increased as they can be seen as a competitive advantage or recruitment tool to attract more students to a course (LSE, 2019). However, the carbon emissions associated with field trips, both local and abroad, are rarely considered or managed, which could play a considerable role in the wider carbon footprints of Universities (Arsenault et al., 2019; Osborne et al,2019). This could also have the indirect impact of normalising the act of flying as a form of transport, in which ultimately has an immense impact on the environment (Flight Free UK, 2019;). 


With this, the current use and application of environmental field trips, especially compulsory field trips, can be recognised to have an element of “climate hypocrisy” (Higham and Font, 2020), in which there is growing calls for academic communities to adopt low-carbon forms research and teaching (Williams and Love, 2021; McCowan 2020). Indeed, it is not sufficient to solely rely on carbon offsetting, in which carbon emissions must be reduced at source (UNEP, 2019; Climate Seed, 2020) and it is widely suggested that the higher education sector requires systemic material and cultural change toward a decarbonization agenda (Hoolohan et al., 2021).


Importantly, it could also be predicted that this may become a demand amongst a new generation of climate-savvy students applying to University, in which current Higher Education students can be seen as having a greater awareness and scientific certainty of climate change (Wachholz, Nancy, and Douglas, 2014; Osborne et al., 2019).





Since the 1990s. Virtual Field trips (VFTs) is a term used to describe a wide range of multimedia experiences (Robinson, 2009). Over the last decade, technological advancements in communication techniques have permitted the significant development of VFTs, especially across the US (Stumpf et al., 2008). In combination with this, many field trips have been postponed or cancelled due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, and there has been a significant shift in demand for digital-based learning which has been projected to remain elevated (Li and Lalani, 2021). As a result, research indicates that the use of VFTs within education will continue to increase in future (Qui and Hubble, 2002).


Although there is the general consensus that VFTs have become popular amongst university students and teachers (Pugsley et al., 2021), it is important to emphasise that VFTs should not replace or eliminate field trips completely (Gilmour, 1997). With this, they could be viewed as an ‘additional resource’, such as useful aid for preparation or revision purposes, to enhance Higher Education learning experiences (Spicer and Startford, 2001).


The main challenges of VFTs are that they do not convey the non-visual and aural feelings of touch and smell, the social aspect is eliminated and they can be complicated to use (Qui and Hubble, 2002; Gaillard & McSherry, 2014; Tuthill and Klemm, 2002). As well as this, VFTs are not effective in simulating the same psychological benefits (i.e. mood enhancing) achieved by real nature, even with high-level immersive technology such as virtual reality (White et al., 2018; Browning et al., 2020). Crucially, the obvious disadvantage of VFTs is that they are less effective for providing field-based skills (Shroder et al. 2002). 


Alternatively, research suggests there are undoubtable opportunities with VFTs (Stainfield et al., 2010). The main benefits include that there are no restrictions on time, weather, distance or physical strength (Çaliskan, 2011). Additionally, a larger number of students can participate at minimal cost (Hirsch and Lloydm 2005), which could make field trips more efficient and cost effective (Christian and Page, 2020; Kaokela et al. 2005). Indeed, studies have also found that VFTs can be as effective in achieving the desired learning outcomes as physical field trips (Puhek et al., 2012; Garner and Gallo, 2005). As well as this, it provides the additional opportunity of multi-disciplinary learning through engaging in various resource mediums (Jacobson et al., 2009) and it could ensure that the students focus more effectively on the content with fewer distractions (Holland, 2006).


One particular area of research that requires development is the digital sustainability of a VFT, in which there is a wide range of estimates related to the carbon footprints of digital technologies and systems; implying further research is needed to evaluate the potential impact (The Royal Society, 2020). Yet, it could be indicated that VFTs provide a carbon sensitive alternative to learning and research (Williams and Love, 2021; Schott, 2017; Versteijlen et al., 2017).


Ultimately, VFTs have the potential to play an important role within the Geography curriculum, yet there is a clear demand to develop better and more engaging VFTs to address the current challenges and to enhance the opportunities further (Qui and Hubble, 2002).