Featured picture of post "University uses virtual tours to prepare marine biology students for coastal field trip"

University uses virtual tours to prepare marine biology students for coastal field trip

Kyla Ball

In previous years the students had been provided with a simple PDF map as well as links to the location’s website. This year, the department was keen to better convey the entire experience to students before their arrival, to prepare them more fully so that less time would be required for familiarisation during the trip.

The University of Southampton is one of the UK’s top research universities, and a member of the Russell Group of the most prestigious universities in the country. Their Marine Biology degree course is based at The National Oceanography Centre, but the course also includes a good amount of field work elsewhere.


Undergraduate Marine Biology students take part in a week-long Coastal Ecology Field Course in South Wales at the very start of their second year. Around 80 undergraduates attend, as well as staff and post-graduate demonstrators. The undergraduates are taught species identification, basic laboratory techniques and carry out an independent study project. During the week they also travel to a second location on nearby Skomer Island to explore the bird and seal colonies there.

Some of the key skills which the trip has historically helped develop is independent study and time management. Being able to visualise each zone of the study area as well as the accommodation beforehand, would save students’ time and also allow them to ask any questions before arrival. 

A more detailed and immersive introduction would be particularly useful for those students with additional needs such as dietary requirements, anxiety, spectrum disorders or any non-disclosed additional needs. There are also essential health and safety aspects of the trip which the staff wanted to be able to convey to the students to help create as smooth an experience as possible.

A solution presents itself

Dr Sarah Fielding, Team Manager in the university’s Digital Learning Department, had been a user of ThingLink since its inception and had even taken part in early beta testing for the platform. ThingLink appeared to be the perfect solution for the introduction, and Sarah began to plan a comprehensive tour consisting of 360 images of the various locations with the academic Module Lead, Professor Martin Solan.


Dr. Sarah Fielding, Team Manager Digital Learning, University of Southampton

Practical and facility information would be embedded into images of the buildings and locations around the accommodation areas. Meanwhile academic teaching videos of the staff would be embedded into 360 images of the marine environments. The two would be linked via further 360 scenes, some including in-tag information on approaches and helpful tips around data collection and analysis, others practical information covering safety around the sites (such as signing in and out procedures).



An intuitive tool

“The interface is very intuitive. I find that it’s a great way of conveying a lot of information in a way that people naturally process”, says Dr Sarah Fielding, Digital Learning Team Manager at the Southampton University.

Explore a snapshot of the Field Trip  

Team effort

During the 2018 and 2019 field courses, content was gathered. This included videos of the teaching staff giving short but detailed talks and demonstrations of the various species that students would encounter, on location. They also included videos of some of the 2018/19 students providing tips and advice about independent study projects for those future students who would come after them. Videos were recorded in situ using professional-grade equipment, in partnership with a media developer and a learning designer. Back in Southampton, the Digital Learning team put the tour together, with Sarah acting as the Learning Designer for the project, in collaboration with the Marine Biology and Ecology Research Group (the academic team on the field course).

The 2020 Tour Launches
The team have cleverly used the tour to divide their learning content into individual parts.The progressive aspect of the tour, moving on from one scene to another, has been used to separate out the two halves of the week’s learning. The videos introducing the different species are grouped together in one location, whilst the videos which the students will require to guide their independent study module in the latter part of the week are available to watch in another “location”. By filming each teaching video in the exact location within the 360 image into which they are embedded, the tour provides a seamless but extremely engaging and immersive learning experience, transporting the viewer to the marine environment.

The tour was embedded in Blackboard for the undergraduates to access, and it’s also been added into the department’s virtual open days. However the team has plans to develop the tour for next year and beyond. Although the current iteration has simple feedback forms embedded, future versions could also include tasks for the students to complete. The tour was built partly as a proof of concept and its success has meant that the Health Sciences Department have now started using ThingLink to build a tour of their Cardiac Physiology Clinical Lab. The university is also looking at creating virtual tours of labs for both undergraduates and postgraduates.

Dr Fielding’s top tips for creating tours for field trips:

  • One tour can easily combine video lessons alongside practical information. Use scene titles and different icons to differentiate the type of information being presented.

  • Use your tour to create a chronological or linear break between subjects eg learning for Day 1 in the first location, Day 2 on the second and so on.

  • Sharing a tour with students before your field trip can reduce time spent on familiarisation and potential anxiety for students about working in a new environment.

“Provision of content in this way has had a notable impact on the way in which students interact with the content of the course, and enhances their enjoyment of learning, ” says Martin Solan, Professor in Marine Ecology within Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton at the University of Southampton.

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