The Managing Visitor Impacts course at Victoria Business School, Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand was designed to deepen student’s understanding of sustainable tourism development by exposing them to the complexities, realities and tensions commonly observed in developing countries. A key part of the course is a group role-play scenario where students take a virtual fieldtrip based on a real Fijian island.
I spoke with Christian Schott from the School of Management at Victoria Business School about how he created and delivers this innovative course.
What is the Managing Visitor Impacts course?
The course was first taught in 2001 in recognition of the fact that tourism as an activity has both positive and negative impacts on the economy, environment, host community of a country or destination. These impacts need to be carefully managed and the course is designed around the concept of Sustainable Tourism Development as the impact assessment as well as the impact management framework. The course also places great emphasis on applying a critical lens when examining current practices in tourism.
What happens during the course?
The students are put into groups of four students to work on a fictional contract with a fictional company, Synergy Tourism Consultants. The team had secured a contract to work on a (fictional) collaborative initiative between the Government of Fiji and NZ Aid to determine whether strategic sustainable tourism development of a remote Fijian island would result in the positive impacts (economic, environmental, socio-cultural) outweighing the negative ones. As part of this fieldwork task students were exposed to many economic, environmental, social and cultural dynamics typical of a developing country as well as the island’s vulnerability to climate change. Students were advised to ‘weave’ what they had learned in the lectures and readings into how they ‘digest’ what they learn on the virtual fieldtrip.
Students started their visit to the virtual island at the same point where boats arrive on the real island and proceeded to the Community Hall in the centre of the village to ‘virtually’ meet the community as part of the customary Fijian ‘I sevusevu’ (welcoming) ceremony by watching an ‘in-world’ video of the ceremony at the same place where it was recorded. After this key piece of Fijian cultural protocol was satisfied, students set off on their fieldwork which included interviewing a range of community members (through videos embedded in the virtual island). Informed by this fieldwork each project team had to decide whether they supported tourism development on the island or whether they would argue against tourism development. The teams working on a sustainable tourism development proposal had to address five key criteria, while the teams proposing that no development should take place were asked to discuss the rationale behind their decision by addressing the economic, environmental, and socio-cultural reasons. Following the group proposal each student was asked to write a reflective essay on this topic: reflect on how the fieldwork on the virtual island impacted on your learning (catalysts and challenges) and critically assess how such technology could be used by the tourism industry.
How is technology used in the course?
The virtual fieldtrip taken by students is based on a real Fijian island which I replicated using virtual reality software. The virtual island was based on extensive research I did in Fiji and accessible for students to explore by using the university computers or their home computer. The project started by using Open Sim software (akin to Second Life) but has since embraced the latest in 3D gaming software by using the software package Unity.
This type of virtual reality technology, which can be further enhanced by using Virtual Reality headsets, thus fully immersing the student in the virtual environment, is very powerful in highlighting both the need for a more sustainable approach to Tourism Management by allowing the students to experience both the negative and positive impacts of tourism in a meaningful context (such as a village), as well as in forcing students to confront the realities and tensions that emerge when a tourism development plan is devised.
In keeping with the philosophy of using 21st century technology, both as a way of accessing information as well as developing skills for a more digitally focused future job market, the student groups reported the outcome of their fieldwork by using a wiki (online collaborative and media enhanced platform which can be accessed from anywhere in the world). Subsequently students write individual reflections about the experience of doing the virtual fieldtrip using a blog tool.
What have been some of the challenges?
Technical support to resolve software and connectivity issues for the multiplayer version has been a challenge over the years; but with an increasing focus on digital technology and digital learning at VUW these issues are expected to become less prominent. A few years ago when I was using Open Sim I was amazed to find that after using the program for about a year it became the victim of a cyber-vandalism which took several weeks to rectify; but the new version is no longer hosted on the web which means that cyber-attacks are luckily no longer possible.
The greatest success has been how the students have responded to the virtual fieldtrip. Each year I do formal research on the pedagogical impact of the virtual fieldtrip and the findings have shown year after year that students respond in a very positive way and feel that it assists their learning about this important topic in a variety of ways. A particularly noteworthy aspect is that the virtual fieldtrip fosters experiential learning which renders the learning process more meaningful and effective than for example reading a book chapter or journal article about the Fijian island instead. There has also been substantial interest from the academic community, which has resulted in the publication of a book chapter and several conference presentations about the virtual fieldtrip and its impact on student learning.
What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?
To align how and what we teach with contemporary society and technology I think that there is a place for virtual fieldtrips in many disciplines; particularly in disciplines where a real fieldtrip would be highly beneficial but is not feasible because of financial constraints or concerns about liability on real fieldtrips. Appropriate resourcing by the institution both in terms of funding for the development of the software and in terms of technical expertise to resolve issues is imperative.
What’s next for the initiative?
I have been running experiments to explore the use of virtual reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift as an even more immersive and effective way of experiencing the virtual island and its communities; I currently use the software as a screen version. There are still some limitations with VR headsets for such a large and multifaceted environment but I will continue to pursue their incorporation into virtual fieldtrips.