Planning alternatives to fieldwork

A group of walkers walking on a muddy hill towards a monumentMany departments are currently unable to organise fieldwork courses or visits. This guidance will help you to consider how you can still provide some aspects of the field experience, and support students to develop their fieldwork skills, through curriculum design and the use of digital learning tools.

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Introduction

It may be true that there is no real substitute for going “into the field”, with all the sights, sounds and rich experiences that a field visit brings. However it is possible to use digital tools to emulate or simulate some of the learning experiences that students can gain in the field. There are also ways to support students to develop many fieldwork skills, without being physically located in the field.

Of course, it is important to manage student expectations around this, and acknowledge that they may not be getting the exact experience they hoped to have.

However, using digital technology to simulate, supplement and augment the experience of the field offers a wealth of opportunities for the learning journey too that may extend beyond the current pandemic situation. Fieldwork may become more accessible for some students, leading to a more inclusive curriculum. Fieldwork may also become more environmentally sustainable. It is even possible that digital technologies might allow us to provide more idealised visits to certain locations, or to locations that are otherwise inaccessible. Fieldwork is often expensive and resource-intensive to organise, and technology can help to make it more effective.

If you are planning any type of fieldwork that is non-virtual, please refer to the University’s guidance for fieldwork during the pandemic.

On the next page we have detailed guidance on specific digital tools that could be used to support the provision of fieldwork alternatives.

Digital tools to support alternatives to fieldwork

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Learning outcomes

When reviewing fieldwork or trips, start with the learning outcomes for the programme, the module, and the activity itself.

There are two broad types of field trip:

  1. Where the location is the object of study
  2. Where the location is a context or container for learning activities

There may be situations where the two are combined.

Fieldwork can also be broadly divided up into three main components

  1. Pre-trip preparation
  2. The trip to the location itself
  3. De-brief/post trip activities

Each of these will have their own learning outcomes and you should spend some time articulating what they are in order to begin to consider how and whether you can still achieve them. Technology can enhance all three components.

1. Pre-trip

The learning objectives for the pre-trip phase might include:

  • Orientation to the study area itself - where is it, what will we learn by going there, what kinds of things can we expect to see?
  • Introduction to and practice of key field skills (e.g. surveying, interviewing)
  • Planning the field visit (e.g. experiment design)

How can we still achieve these learning outcomes and how can technology help?

  • Photographs and rich media can be used to familiarise students with the study area and what they could expect to see.
  • A flipped model could be applied here - videos demonstrating key skills could be shared with students in advance (many of these may already be available online, or you could record one yourself). If it is possible for small groups of students to meet, then key skills could be practised in a suitable and accessible location for them. If that is not possible, then think about how individual students could practice their skills in the location that they are in. Could you provide some simulations or problems to be solved?
  • If students are expected to plan some elements of the field trip beforehand, they could do this in groups using collaborative tools online.

Example:

Gardom’s Edge: journeys through a landscape was created using both StoryMaps and RoundMe. It offers students a map and an immersive tour that enable them to become familiar with the site and surroundings prior to a visit.

This is a video made by staff in the Department of Archaeology demonstrating a key fieldwork skill for students. 

2. The actual trip

The learning objectives for the trip itself might include:

  • Observation - what does the place look and feel like?
  • Interaction with the field environment (e.g. excavation, interviewing, measurements, recording)
  • Collaborative working in groups

These objectives will be the most challenging to achieve if access to the field is not possible.

How can we still achieve these learning outcomes and how can technology help?

Think about what exactly the students will be observing. If the location is totally inaccessible, is it possible to observe the same things using videos of the location, or other digital tools?
Are there pre-existing data sets from the site that you could contextualise for the students and somehow lead them to ‘discover’? Are there any ways you could simulate the fieldwork experience? It may be possible to learn from colleagues in lab-based disciplines who have been tackling similar challenges over the past year.
Would it be possible within local restrictions, for students to visit the location individually or in small groups - e.g. if the location is within walking distance, outdoors? Could you provide students with some instructions in advance to enable them to make the observations or collect the data they need? If the original planned location was further away, is there a suitable closer location? If your student cohorts are in mixed locations, could you provide some advice on finding a suitable location for study close to their own homes?

Example:

A field trip to Neepsend was created using the ActionBound app. This app enables you to create a virtual ‘scavenger hunt’ so students can answer questions or solve clues to explore an area individually or in small groups.

3. Debrief/post-trip activities

The learning objectives for this phase might include:

  • Collating information (e.g. if different groups have been working on different aspects/locations)
  • Synthesising information - e.g. producing a report
  • Reflecting on experiences
  • Sharing learning - e.g. presentations

How can we still achieve these learning outcomes and how can technology help?

Use technology to share and collaborate on the findings - any collaborative technology will work here e.g:

  • Sharing photos.videos on Blackboard/Kaltura
  • Google forms to collaborate on data analysis
  • Google Docs

Organise some synchronous class time for debrief and reflection, and further synchronous class time for presenting findings.

Example

Fieldwork experiences could be collated into, for example, a Google site, like this example. Students could produce a report, presentation, or reflection based on their experiences.

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Examples of alternatives to fieldwork

This detailed case study from the Department of Geography shows how a whole 5 day fieldwork experience was changed to a virtual fieldwork experience.

Another case study from Geography shows how four different field classes within the International Development PGT programmes have been run with overseas partners.

This case study from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning shows another approach to managing a 7-day virtual field trip to Durban, South Africa, using Blackboard.

This case study from the School of East Asian Studies shows how a whole field-based module was redesigned for remote, non-field based work.

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Further support available

If you would like to discuss your challenges in providing alternatives to fieldwork in detail, please do not hesitate to book a one to one appointment with our advisers, or email elevate@sheffield.ac.uk , and we would be happy to work through your planning with you.

On the next page we have detailed guidance on specific digital tools that could be used to support the provision of fieldwork alternatives.

Digital tools to support alternatives to fieldwork

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Further information

Useful resources