Monthly Archives: October 2020

Virtually in the Field

Dr Lynda Yorke, Bangor University.

Geography by its very nature is a field-based discipline. However, as the new academic year has begun there have been increasing concerns about the practicalities of undertaking in person field teaching, and both staff and students have health issues that prevent them from participating with in person teaching.  Potential conflict exists between ‘town and gown’, with locals wary of students that may be Covid positive. Taking a group of socially distanced students into the field can require multiple re-runs for staff because group numbers are limited by Government regulations. Thus, a virtual alternative can remove these issues.

Inclusive for all

In the last six months there has been a greater debate about Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) in Geosciences field teaching. There is recognition that under our existing teaching practices the very nature of field teaching can be exclusive. How do you create parity of experience if the alternative to going in the field is simply writing an essay and not participating in the data collection nor the field report your peers are undertaking? It is telling that the pandemic is forcing a long overdue shift in our approach to delivering field teaching that is inclusive and accessible for all. A synchronously delivered, virtual field trip or course enables all students to have the same experiences in real time and in essence does not exclude* anyone.

StoryMaps and Google Earth for Remote Teaching

At my institution I run several locally based field days in Semester 1. Due to my own health risks I am not in person teaching so I needed to develop new alternatives to traditional delivery. This has come in the form of StoryMaps, which is an ESRI product available through ArcGIS Online, and Google Earth. The premise was simple, I wanted to recreate the feeling on being on the ground and in the field, whilst teaching remotely.

Geographical field work is about making observations, collecting data and teamwork. My virtual, remote alternative provided all those aspects. I combined StoryMaps and Google Earth to create an interactive package for my students to engage with. I used the web version of Google Earth (GE) to create a project that combined GE’s aerial and Street View imagery with place markers, lines and shapes, with additional videos and contextual notes. Once the project (series of slides) was created I was able to export the project as a .KML file. Students could add the .kml file into an open GE window and view it via the Present mode. This works best with GE for the web; Google will be discontinuing the GE Pro in the next few years. I used only a fraction of the capabilities available within GE that could be included for enhanced remote teaching, see Google Earth Outreach.   

Screenshot of the Google Earth project.

To complement the GE project, StoryMaps allowed me to create a story comprising existing field work content to create activities for students to work through. In StoryMaps I created a series of slides that contained basic maps (created in ArcGIS), clickable data (NRW Flood Risk Maps) and embedded videos/images. The StoryMap I created included the academic content in the form of brief notes, embedded links to short articles, and associated questions or tasks. This worked particularly well with links to data sources like the National River Flow Archive, where the students could extract data and work on it during the breakout group sessions. To access the StoryMap, students only needed to log in via our institutional URL. StoryMaps can be published in the public domain but I have kept this within my institution. There are many options with StoryMaps, see ArcGIS for virtual field trips.  

Screenshot of the StoryMap with the embedded link to NRW Flood Risk Maps for Wales.

Timetable the Day

The virtual field day was spilt into discrete sessions, combining whole cohort teaching or discussion, with group breakout activities and external speakers. Approximate timings were given for each session ahead of the trip, and a scheduled lunch break was included as time away from the screen is vital.

The Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)

I ran the virtual field trip via Blackboard Collaborate. This allowed for group interaction as well as breakout group activities. It also enabled me (the moderator) to join any of the breakout groups. This was prefect for emulating lecturer/student interactions in the field. In smaller groups, students switched their cameras on and interacted more naturally. As the day progressed, students gained in confidence and were actively speaking out rather than contributing via the chat box. However, the students really liked the ability to ask questions via the chat box.

Issues and Reflections

The principles of good pedagogy must remain in place when designing a virtual field trip. Thus, thinking about the audience, their capabilities and the learning outcomes are a must. Time at the start of the session should be dedicated to unfamiliarity with software. Students using Macs needed to run Google Chrome to access ArcGIS online. I needed a Google account to create the GE project.

Consideration must be given to connectivity issues, and the need for students to access a laptop/PC. Digital inequality is a significant barrier to online delivery. However, running a virtual trip can mean 100% inclusivity* for all participants. Students highlighted wi-fi connectivity varied between student houses meaning sometimes interaction was not always easy. However, they liked being able to request staff help at the click of a button!

The students can re-visit the trip at any point during the module because the materials remain on the VLE. Students highlighted that they had a positive experience, and it was a good substitute under the current circumstances.

Finally, students found it easier to understand the key information through the supporting materials. They liked the fact they could simultaneously interact with online data and resources, whilst also listening to staff insights on the topic.

* I fully acknowledge that there is digital exclusion as we pivot to online delivery.


Recasting the human geography dissertation in lockdown

by Dr. Laura Smith, University of Exeter

The Coronavirus lockdown has greatly disrupted the research ideas and plans of undergraduate geographers. It has also recast, for many students, what ‘fieldwork,’ ‘research,’ and ‘data’ looks like. This is my second year as convenor of Exeter Geography’s B.A. Dissertation module, and while many fundamental aspects of the module remain familiar, much has had to change. The dissertation module has undergone a substantial overhaul over the summer, in response to the shifting research dynamics imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, a small group of us were already meeting as a departmental Dissertation Working Group to review the human geography dissertation modules (Exeter Geography offers both a 45-credit and a 30-credit dissertation module), but that review was soon repurposed around discussions on how to navigate and negotiate undergraduate geography research in an escalating pandemic, with social distancing protocols and lockdown orders. The overhaul began at the close of Term 3, after the spring exam period. The final two weeks of term in the Year 2 B.A. Geography calendar are usually set aside for ‘Research Planning Fortnight: Getting Dissertation Ready’—a transition space for students to begin exploring dissertation research ideas, and to submit (and receive feedback on) a dissertation proposal before the summer vacation. It’s also an informal handover between the Year 2 module, GEO2328 Geographies of Consumption: Doing Human Geography Research (convened by Dr. Matt Finn) which also introduces (and does some of the earliest work in setting up) the dissertation, and the Year 3 modules GEO3311/GEO3312 B.A. Dissertation that I lead on. But the lockdown summer of 2020 meant that even an online Research Planning Fortnight had to be postponed. Ongoing uncertainty about just what the dissertation and ‘dissertation research’ (and dissertation support) might look like by September, and a careful effort to ensure consistency and coherence in our correspondence with students, together with a challenging extended summer assessment and marking period, all fed into pausing the fortnight’s sessions and activities. The summer also saw the department introduce a short set of research restrictions for all human geography dissertations completed in the 2020-2021 academic year:

  • No face-to-face research
  • No travel or visits as part of your research
  • No research that involves live participants. This means no interviews, focus groups, or surveys (online, by phone, or by post), and no ethnographic encounters that involve other participants
  • No research should take the current Coronavirus pandemic as its focus or primary context

We pushed the content—and ethos—of the Research Planning Fortnight into Term 1 of Year 3, embedding it into the start of the B.A. Dissertation module delivery. The dissertation proposal submission still went ahead as planned, and students still received feedback from dissertation advisors, but follow-up conversations with advisors, and all summer ‘research’ (and ethics approval), was pushed until the start of the new academic year. It’s not unusual for students to begin their dissertation research at the start of the autumn term—if summer vacations are filled with combinations of holidays/travel, summer jobs, work placements or internships, sport, caring and family (or other) commitments, or if the nature of their research project requires students to be on campus/in Exeter, or if students change their dissertation idea. What is unusual is that for this year, the autumn term signals a universal start for our dissertation cohort. A module-level ethics application was submitted and approved by the department’s research ethics committee over the summer, and students must now only use the methods/materials outlined (and pre-approved) in the new Ethics Pack. The sample of past dissertations that we’ve made available all demonstrate the revised methods, materials, and analysis that students will be working with this year, even though the earlier research conditions were very different.

The University of Exeter has committed to a mix of synchronous (e.g. ‘live,’ whether on campus or online) and asynchronous (or ‘Anytime Anywhere,’ e.g. pre-recorded) module delivery and learning. The human geography dissertation module is usually delivered through fortnightly dissertation tutorials across Terms 1 and 2 (with the dissertation submitted at the end of Term 2), and a short series of lectures in Term 1 to support students in working through the different stages of a dissertation research project. This year, we’ve expanded and reconfigured the ‘lecture’ provision around a fortnightly set of online resources and activities that alternates with an online dissertation tutorial programme (which has also expanded).

Over the course of the first term, students will work through collections of online materials that variously explore: Selecting a Topic or Finding a Puzzle, Literature, Sourcing Materials and Analysis (Quantitative and Qualitative), Employability and Your Dissertation, and Writing Up Your Dissertation, together with Ethics and Risk Assessment tasks. This sits alongside a research timetable template that tentatively recommends that students use Weeks 1-6 of Term 1 to focus on refining their topic, research questions, and research approach, and Weeks 7-12 to move on to gathering research materials, preparing materials for analysis, and maybe beginning to develop their analysis. In Term 2, the focus will shift to drafting, redrafting, and writing up.

Figure 1. GEO3311/GEO3312 Week 2: Selecting a Topic or Finding a Puzzle online resources and activities.

Although led by different human geography academics, each of these packs of resources and activities follows the same format and rhythm—each section begins with a ‘Coming up this week…’ summary, and a ‘What should I do this week?’ introduction and checklist, followed by a short video capsule to introduce the ‘big questions’ and things to think critically about,[i] a ‘How do I…’ curated reading list that invites students to select one text to explore in more detail (whether individually, or collectively in their dissertation tutor groups), and a practical activity that encourages students to translate and apply some of these principles to their own evolving research projects. The completed activities can then be incorporated into tutorial discussions the next week. There are also opportunities for feedback and review on the module, with three online Q&A sessions scheduled throughout the term.

I’m excited to see how the module unfolds this year. And I cannot wait to see the dissertation research projects that emerge.

[i] Many of the videos and curated reading lists were originally produced by Dr. Matt Finn for GEO2328, as part of his 2019-2020 Exeter Education Incubator project, ‘Online resources and narrowcasting the curriculum.’