MicroCPD: Virtual Fieldwork

This week Dr Lesley Batty and Joe Berry talk about how digital technologies can be used to increase inclusivity.

Removing barriers to learning is a key goal for the University of Birmingham but it is often difficult to see how this can be achieved for some core learning activities. Advancements in digital technologies provide us with a range of methods that can help us move towards the social model of disability.

Many degree programmes require the completion of what we term practical work.  This can encompass a wide range of activities, from conducting experiments within a laboratory, to carrying out fieldwork in urban and more remote settings.    Whilst historically we have assumed that everyone taking those subjects should be able to cope with these activities, research particularly that conducted around fieldwork has shown that many students do not feel comfortable in those environments and can feel excluded from those subjects as a result.  

There are many reasons given for exclusion from field work which can range from lack of fitness and physical challenges, to drinking culture in residential settings to anxiety around open spaces and travelling abroad.  Unfortunately, in many cases, the answer to these issues is avoidance, and students are often set alternative assessments that are essay based and therefore preclude them from core skills and experiences. Instead of avoiding these activities, we can consider ways in which we can support and prepare students so that they can all access these very valuable learning experiences.

It does not always have to be very dramatic changes that need to be made to activities in order to make them inclusive.  It can be as simple as ensuring that students have been provided with sufficient information in order for them to prepare fully and to consider ways in which adjustments can be made.  This should be seen as a genuine partnership as students will often have a range of tools and approaches that can make the activity accessible.  The type of information that can be helpful can be as simple as how long each activity is, weather conditions, the type of terrain involved, distances for walking/travelling, whether group work is necessary, location of toilet facilities. 

Technology can help us to provide this type of information and to allow students to experience the new environment, before they are required to face it for the first time.   Fortunately, developments over recent years have generated many tools that we can use whilst also becoming more affordable. 360 degree cameras that capture video and imagery, interactive worksheets and virtual reality are just some of the tools that we can use.  Here in GEES we have been using this technology to allow students to experience laboratory and field work, allowing them time to prepare both mentally and physically for the activity in a safe environment.  By including interactive quizzes and worksheets we can also provide more academic engagement before the practical work, facilitating deeper learning.

The link below will provide you with a good starting point and you can get support from your college digital education team.

Further Reading

Cliffe, A.D. (2017) A review of the benefits and drawbacks to virtual field guides in today’s Geoscience higher education environment. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education 14: 28.  Available from : https://doi.org/10.1186/s41239-017-0066-x

GEES Virtual Winnats Pass Field Trip https://www.thinglink.com/video/1018131882727964675