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.


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