Immersive experiences using virtual reality are seen as a future trend in education for the next two years (Lübcke, 2017). While corporations such as VW and Audi use virtual environments first and foremost for training purposes or customer experience, VR in formal education aims to promote subject-specific skills. In particular, new opportunities are opening up for geographic education: The virtual experience of locations enables an apparent real life, whereby the immersive, perceptual technology strongly influences attributions of meaning and impulses for spatial perception and construction, because the VR format is a particularly powerful form of geographical visualization: depending on the immersive degree, experiences in virtual space can be perceived as authentic and strong emotional reactions as well as changes in one's own perception of identity can be evoked (Maister, Slater, Sanchez-Vives, & Tsakiris, 2015). The design of virtual realities also triggers communicative and perceptual processes that influence the construction of specialist knowledge. Therefore, professional and didactic concepts are required to ensure a pedagogically-didactically goal-oriented spatial experience and a professionally appropriate gain of knowledge.
The qualitative study addresses this need: Within the framework of a university course, geography teaching students were put into the role of designers of a geographically demanding VR environment. The aim was to create VR excursions as a form of immersive learning environment based on 360-degree images and videos, reflecting on one's own spatial experience and the construction processes associated with this design process. In September 2018, a one-week geographical excursion on the topic of "Sustainable City" was conducted with 11 geography teacher students in the city center of Vienna and the lakeside city of Aspern. In the role of the researchers, the students first worked out relevant findings on sustainable, green and smart urban development and continuously reflected their own body-related perceptions of the local situations. They then switched to the role of designers by creating their own virtual reality excursions on the basis of their researched information and 360° photographs.
First findings show that the change of role from researcher to designer provoked a change to a deeper reflection of the spatial experience. The need to make one's own approaches and understandings of the subject-specific impressions of Vienna visually 'visible' by means of 360-degree photography and videography evoked deepened spatial insights and promoted geographical action competences. Due to the fact that virtual reality can evoke a very physical experience and a feeling of embodiment (Maister et al., 2015), an important aspect was that the students also had to deal with their own body experience in the city of Vienna during the construction of the VR excursions (cf. Segbers & Kanwischer, 2015). Thus, the process of research-based design alone promotes the acquisition of both specialist and didactic knowledge and skills, with a strong reference to one's own body experience and perception. In addition, qualitative methods (based on the 'go-alongs' according to Kusenbach, 2003) are currently being used to investigate how the VR excursion can be used as a medium of spatial construction and reflection for students involved and uninvolved in design in the context of geographic higher education.
The overriding goal of the study is to elevate Virtual Reality as an immersive learning format to its own research object for geography and geography didactics. On the basis of the findings of this explorative study, the potentials, framework conditions and influencing factors for geographical mediation via VR are to be discussed and a technical-didactic concept for competence promotion via VR in geographical learning settings is to be developed.
Mohring, K., Brendel, N. (angenommen): Vom Ort zur virtuellen Welt - Studierende designen in Wien eine VR-Exkursion zu nachhaltiger Stadtentwicklung. In Hof, A. & Seckelmann, A. (Hrsg.) Exkursionsdidaktik in der Hochschullehre. Springer.