Decades of geoscience field trip reports bear witness to the importance of field-based learning experiences, but most instructors can take students to only a handful of field sites in person. Students with mobility constraints, as well as those with childcare, eldercare, or work responsibilities outside of classroom hours, may find physical fieldwork impractical if not impossible.
Even students who are able to attend field classes may be distracted and miss their instructor’s comments in the outdoor environment. Furthermore, K–12 students and those in community colleges, historically black colleges, and tribal colleges or students pursuing degrees via distance education have very limited opportunities for in-person field experiences.
A worldwide digital geoscience field experience can provide access for people at all educational levels and life stages, from elementary school through graduate school and from informal education settings such as museums, planetariums, and aquariums to assisted living communities. To make this virtual geologic experience more effective for formal and informal lifelong learning, we have created EarthQuiz.
Integrating Existing Resources
EarthQuiz leverages Google Street View™, Photo Spheres, GigaPans, and Google Maps™ satellite view imagery to enable crowdsourced creation, Web-based delivery, and autoscoring of interactive geoscientific exercises. Viewers are challenged to identify and locate geologic features around the globe through a series of game-like questions.
The concept originated when we noticed that Google Street View™ and satellite view scenes often showed geologically relevant content: rocks and structures exposed in road cuts or other outcrops; landscape features, including mountains, lakes, and coastlines; surface processes such as landslides, glaciation, and erosion; and even underwater scenes of marine environments.
Instructors can organize EarthQuiz questions into regional or topical collections, create course modules, and assign homework that is autoscored by the computer, which also gives automatic feedback written by the instructor. These are “learning objects” as defined in the education research literature [McGreal, 2004]—small chunks of digital data and metadata that are extensible, malleable, and reusable and have built-in assessment and feedback.
Google Street View™ imagery is amazingly pervasive around the globe. Street View™ cars document innumerable roads. Bikers, hikers, and snowboarders record off-road tracks; Street View™ even goes underwater in photos captured by scuba divers. Nevertheless, Street View™ is not available for many locations of great geologic interest, including countries where Google has not been allowed to record views. Additionally, some Street View™ imagery is of insufficient quality for outcrop-scale identification of features. Fortunately, there is an abundance of other digital imagery, including Photo Spheres (360˚ panoramic photographs), GigaPans (deeply zoomable gigapixel images [Piatek et al., 2012]), and Google Maps™ satellite views.
Google Maps™ satellite view provides images of many types of geologic structures (Figure 1). Fractures in Utah’s Zion National Park and vertical dikes around Shiprock, N.M., are best viewed from an elevated vertical perspective. Spectacular fold examples near Alice Springs, Australia, and oceanic fracture zones and transform faults west of Mendocino Point, Calif., also appear clearly from this perspective.
These and countless other locations are even better viewed in Google Earth™, with its ability to incline the camera angle (see, e.g., this guide from Carleton College’s Science Education Resource Center). We did not include in EarthQuiz a Google Earth™ option, however, because the Google Earth™ browser plug-in and application programs interface (API) is deprecated—the existing plug-in will no longer be supported for any Web browser after December 2015. However, Google has promised a plug-in-free API in the future, at which point we will explore a Google Earth™ views option.
The EarthQuiz Experience
EarthQuiz challenges website visitors to answer multiple-choice geoscientific quiz questions and to estimate image locations (the locational part was inspired by Anton Wallén’s GeoGuessr.com). Activities emphasize exploration, adventure, and interpretation. The EarthQuiz user manual and video tutorials are provided on the Web.
In the sample question in Figure 2, users are presented with an image of an actively erupting volcano on the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia and a two-part challenge: Evaluate the temperature of the erupting lava and pinpoint the location of the volcano. Users can pan and zoom but cannot exit the image and see the map view until they submit an answer. The computer autoscores submitted answers, offers feedback, and loads the next question.
At the K–8 student level, instructors may want students to learn important locations such as the Grand Canyon using an inverse scavenger hunt approach that could be fun and educational for younger students. In a scavenger hunt, students search for prizes hidden in unknown places, whereas we show students the places and ask them what they are.
At the college level, however, the exact location of a site may be less important than its geologic province or provenance. Recently erupted basaltic lava looks pretty much the same in Hawaii or Iceland, for example, but is not likely to be found in Florida. Students at this level ought to be rewarded for identifying a provenance and not penalized for selecting a distant, geologically near-identical place. Therefore, instructors have the option to invite students to choose among predefined regions or to make locations part of the quiz, for example, “Is this an image of (a) Granite from the Sierra Nevada, (b) Limestone from Bermuda,” etc.
The Instructor Interface
Professors, schoolteachers, and other credentialed geoscientists can create sites and group them in collections for use in course modules. Instructors can choose from Google Street View™, Photo Sphere, GigaPan, or Google Maps™ satellite view imagery. They compose questions and tag them with an educational level. They can also evaluate and comment on colleagues’ creations. A course module management system allows instructors to enroll students, assign homework, and view autograded assignments.
A curatorial board of credentialed professionals manages the collections to ensure quality control and make sure that questions address appropriate geoscience themes without rewarding invalid responses (e.g., Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, etc.). This is a necessary precaution in any crowdsourced system. Curators do not have access to student work to maintain the students’ privacy.
The Google Earth for Onsite and Distance Education (GEODE) research team currently serves as EarthQuiz’s curatorial board. However, we are looking for qualified instructors with expertise in other subdisciplines to serve as curators.
Implementation and Results
EarthQuiz is a potentially transformative vehicle for educational instruction and research. Field instructors could use the website’s collections for formative assessment of pre–field trip preparation and posttrip reinforcement. This resource greatly broadens the range of field settings that students can experience beyond in-person class trips. Virtual sites cannot fully replace physical presence in the field, but they offer opportunities to develop global awareness in asynchronous, distance education, and informal education settings.
Coba et al.  found that in large general education classes, virtual Google Earth™ tours produced more learning gains than plain text and images. However, further studies are needed to assess long-term learning outcomes. Anecdotally, our experience shows that a coordinated series of exercises (a “learning progression” from one topic to the next so that students gain practice with the interface and with geoscience concepts) is likely to yield the best outcomes.
Our interests are mainly in hard rock geology, and many of the existing 700 or so sites fall within that category. However, there is significant content overlap, such that a structural geology collection might inspire geomorphology instructors to create questions using the same locations. EarthQuiz content is mostly crowdsourced, where the “crowd” consists of geoscience educators with a vast range of expertise [Whitmeyer and De Paor, 2014]. Thus, future collections could include such disciplines as biogeography, phenology, and marine ecology.
We envision EarthQuiz contributing to the development of “inverse massive open online courses”—small classes or even individual students who benefit from the wisdom of massive numbers of instructors [De Paor et al., 2013].
Generating EarthQuiz content has been not just an exercise in building teaching resources but also a personal learning experience for all of us. We anticipate that future EarthQuiz contributors and users will find it to be a learning experience too.
We thank the editors and anonymous reviewers for excellent comments. This work was supported by National Science Foundation DUE-1323419: “Google Earth for Onsite and Distance Education (GEODE)” and by Google GEO Curriculum awards to D. G. De Paor and S. J. Whitmeyer.