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Are virtual visits an effective way of engaging learners?

Project leader(s): 
David Conway, Christine Gardner and Janet Hughes
Academic Services and STEM

Insight visits and field trips have wide ranging benefits to higher education students including reinforcing and expanding upon taught learning (Jakubowski and Marie, 2003; Streule and Craig, 2016), improved ability to relate theory to practice (Elkins and Elkins, 2007), encouragement of social learning (Claiborne et al., 2012), increased sense of belonging to a university community (Fedesco et al., 2011).

Distance learning is appealing to many students due to its potential to fit around their life priorities (Butcher, 2015; Rasheed, 2020). However, circumstances such as geographical location and disability, as well as time poverty caused by factors such as employment, can prevent distance learners from participating in extracurricular activities such as insight visits (Roosmaa and Saar, 2006). An inability to engage with extracurricular activities whilst studying can decrease a student’s learning experience and may negatively impact student retention, progression, completion and graduate outcomes (Butcher, 2015; Baxter, 2019).

Advances in technology mean it is now possible to deliver live virtual visits which have the potential to produce many of the same benefits as visits in person. However, the concept of virtual visits has not been fully exploited.  Online virtual visits are commonly passive and do not typically provide participants with social learning opportunities. For example, online virtual visits of the Science Museum and National Gallery in London involve use of Google Street View (Science Museum, 2021; National Gallery, 2021). Through utilising interactive technologies which influence the onscreen virtual visit experience, live virtual visits may widen access and participation and enhance distance learner university experience.

The Open University School of Computing and Communications (C&C) has over 15,000 distance learners who are located across the world (Open University, 2021). Many C&C students are interested in the World War II codebreaking that took place at Bletchley Park (BP) and how it relates to present day computing and IT. C&C student demographic data suggests the majority would find it difficult to visit BP museum in person due to geographical location (Open University, 2021). Furthermore, approximately 20% have a declared disability which could further restrict their ability to visit the museum (Open University, 2021).

The aim of the project was to investigate if a live interactive virtual visit to Bletchley Park Museum using onscreen technologies such as onscreen polls, multiple choice questions and a chat box was an effective way of enhancing C&C student experience.

The virtual visit had 164 participants, of which 101 were students from Level 2 C&C modules. Results indicated that 42% of students were identified as residing in the lowest 50% of the index of multiple deprivation and 64% were estimated to reside over 2 hours in travelling time from Bletchley Park. 139 participants interacted with presenters and other participants using the onscreen technologies.  Participant survey data revealed that 54% would find it difficult to visit BP in person, yet 100% of students now want to visit BP in person and 100% of students would participate in a relevant future virtual visit. Student qualitative feedback was positive overall, although some commented they would have liked more time to ask questions to onscreen presenters. It is unclear from student survey results whether the virtual visit enhanced teaching and learning. However, survey results did indicate that the webcast enhanced the participants motivation towards study and their overall OU experience. Reflections from individuals involved in the project delivery found that they felt the virtual visit was successful and that similar visits could be delivered by other organisations, even during a pandemic. However, reflections also indicated that increased audience interaction opportunities were required to ensure the whole audience felt involved in the visit.

Results indicate that virtual visits may be an effective way of exposing students to real world environments that they would normally not be able to access in person. Furthermore, virtual visits may be an alternative promotional strategy for museums and recruiters to increase visitor numbers and diversify talent.

Related resources

Conway, D., Gardner, C. and Hughes, J. (2021) Are virtual visits an effective way of engaging learners? eSTEeM Final Report (PDF)

Conway, D., Gardner, C. and Hughes, J. (2019) project poster (PDF)

Conway, D., Gardner, C. and Hughes, J (2020) Are virtual insight visits an effective way to engage learners? Best poster winner at the 9th eSTEeM Annual Conference, 29-30 April 2020. (PPT)

Are virtual insight visits an effective way of engaging learners? Video produced for the Architecture Media Politics Society (AMPS) April 2021 Virtual Conference, Online Education: Teaching in a Time of Change. 21-23 April.