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Virtual Site Visits: emerging evidence from History classrooms

Written by: Carmel Bones
4 min read

Note: the author of this article is director of Carmel Bones Education Ltd, an organisation offering chargeable consultancy services to schools.

Hands up if you fancy going on a school trip? Site visits are often amongst the highlights of a student’s school career – the jewel in the crown of many history departments. Due to recent developments in virtual reality technology, students can now enjoy an immersive experience from the comfort of their own classrooms. The use of 360° virtual reality (VR) tours of historic sites, commissioned by Hodder Education, has been of particular benefit to GCSE history teachers.


Graphic showing the six steps of a "How to guide" to set up a smartphone 360 degree experience, using a mobile phone and a cardboard box.
Image source: Teaching History 169 (Dec, 2017). Reproduced with permission of the Historical Association.

A study of a historic environment is now a compulsory part of GCSE history and, in some cases, teachers must get to grips with an annually changing specified site. Geographical constraints can sometimes limit actual visits, so virtual visits have provided a cost-effective, practical solution, although the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. The use of 360° tours is not about replicating or replacing real-life experiences; it’s about breaking new ground by optimising the use of technology to shape and influence learning, potentially across all stages and subjects.

Collective efficacy to reduce cognitive load

During the recent transition to 9–1 GCSEs, the benefits of using VR 360 as a cost-effective and inclusive teaching tool (which can readily be referred back to) have been felt by both teachers and students. This approach to curriculum delivery has enhanced the collective efficacy of the history team at Pleckgate High School in Blackburn, Lancashire. They worked together with the intention of deepening their substantive and disciplinary knowledge of an unfamiliar site – Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire – using the interactive technology for teacher and learner education.

The virtual tour formed part of a scheme of learning, with teachers being mindful of the students’ need to remember information and the interplay between the working and long-term memory. Teachers planned to cover site-specific information in advance using the VR 360. Use of the virtual visit was designed to try to reduce cognitive load, thus avoiding split attention (EEF, 2018), by integrating carefully selected vocabulary for labels, sound clips and visuals. Particular attention was paid to where to place emphasis, in terms of specification requirements to focus on second-order concepts.  The department organised a site visit for Year 10, which further aroused curiosity and capacity for new knowledge – an important step towards more complex understanding through elaborative interrogation (Counsell, 2018) on the part of both teachers and students.

Democratising: The Martini Principle – history anytime anyplace, anywhere

Issuing the VR 360 link or QR code meant that distributed and distance learning could thereafter take place. Learners could personalise and consolidate their understanding, going beyond the ‘bricks and mortar’ through spaced review using mobile phones and iPads.  Reflections from learners at both Pleckgate High School, Blackburn and Mount School, York reveal that they enjoyed the mobile nature of the ‘360 experience’: ‘It’s fun to go back to Hardwick Hall’; ‘I realised I had forgotten stuff already’; ‘I like being able to control where I go’. They could revisit the site ‘anytime, anyplace, anywhere’. This ability to retrieve information and become immersed was facilitating deeper understanding.

Teachers saw the ‘levelling’ effects of the VR 360, meaning that all students had equal access to the ‘site’, irrespective of finances and school location. At Pleckgate, students who had never previously visited a historic site have now been motivated to do so. The immediacy of the immersive technology has helped to ‘unlock passion’, ‘build confidence’ and ‘bridge gaps’, according to head of department Martyn Bajkowski.

The reiteration of information led to a bespoke experience, allowing learners to be self-regulating to meet their own needs. As Professor Brendan Walker argues (2017), one of the unique qualities of VR is that it is ‘democratising’, allowing access to larger groups in different contexts. At Alder Grange School in Rawtenstall, the VR 360 link was shared with parents and carers via parent mail to increase parental engagement and enable more students to have a chance of success.

The increased competency amongst teachers and learners led to intrinsic motivation, and the teaching team at Pleckgate were further enthused by their shared goals to pay closer attention to disciplinary knowledge. Using VR 360 as initial stimulus material in lessons, argumentation was improved, with students developing claims and counter-claims linked to factors affecting the development of Hardwick Hall. This inspired further teacher innovation, with departmental staff creating and developing materials to embed and test learner understanding through check-tests using Kahoot, Quizlet and Socrative to further close gaps.

New 2019 virtual visits have been commissioned by Hodder Education for Elizabethan England, Norman England and castellology. The technology and wrap-around content provided through teacher webinars offer a cost-effective CPD solution, with a directly relevant positive impact on classroom practice.

With thanks to Nathan Ashman, co-collaborator, and also Martyn Bajkowski of Pleckgate High School, Blackburn and Helen Snelson of Mount School, York, for trialling the digital materials.


Counsell C (2018) Taking Curriculum Seriously. Impact 4: 6–9.

Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2018) Improving Secondary Science. Available at: (accessed 23 September 2018).

Walker B (2017) Why I love VR: Confessions of a thrill engineer. In: Raindance. Available at: (accessed 9 January 2019).

Further reading

Ashman N (2017) Hardwick Hall – Outside. In: Thinglink. Available at: (accessed 9 January 2019).

Bones C (2017) Triumphs show: ‘Stirred, not shaken’  – how some history departments are getting to grips with the challenge of the GCSE Historic Environment study by using cutting edge 360 virtual reality technology. Teaching History 169: 16–19.

Carenza  L (2017) The Martini Principle. Keynote presentation, Schools History Project, Trinity Leeds University, July 2017.

Kavanagh S, Luxton-Reilly A, Wuensche B et al. (2017) A systematic review of Virtual Reality in education. Themes in Science and Technology Education 10(2): 85–119. Available at: (accessed 9 January 2019).

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