Flipping fieldwork, at a distance

A post about overcoming the challenges of teaching field science through distance education by Drs Philip Wheeler, Julia Cooke and Kadmiel Maseyk from The Open University.

We have developed fieldcasts, which are an online student-led field study experience for distance education students, that are as authentic as we can make them.  The following describes why we wanted to do this and our adventures so far.

In recent years, the idea of the flipped classroom where students take the lead and lecturers facilitate, has become mainstream. In fieldwork we have seen a shift from the cook’s tour to student-led enquiry. However, many academics are still more comfortable with being the gatekeeper of knowledge than the channel by which students might learn how to find things out by themselves. In a distance-learning institution letting go can be even harder. If you’re not there to correct a misconception, answer a question or redirect a line of enquiry, students can go off on tangents and dissatisfaction and confusion can take hold. The temptation is to provide certainty, facts and structure; to tell students what they need to know and precisely how they should do it.

Fieldwork at a distance is a further challenge. How do we convey the interest, excitement and challenges of finding things out in the field when students are miles away? One way is to get into the field with them. At The Open University (OU), we take part in annual residential field-schools with our students who love the opportunity to meet academics and each other in a learning environment as well as get their hands dirty. But not all distance-taught students can get to residential trips or have limited opportunities to do so.

We sought to recreate something of that experience for these students. There are virtual field trips [here for example], some of which we use in our teaching, where students lead themselves through staged activities. While allowing exploration and discovery, virtual trips lack the live interaction with academics, and the opportunity to find out something novel which is such a key part of the fieldwork experience. Faced with this challenge and surrounded by technical expertise in broadcasting and technology enhanced learning, we came up with another solution: live, interactive broadcasts from the field. They are a bit like the television show Springwatch, but with more interaction and more about the scientific method.

20160511_183454.jpgFig 1.Broadcasting from the field means we have to be ready for any weather. Note it is the technology that is protected, not the presenters!

The OU has pioneered broadcasting live, interactive practical science sessions from its labs, but we chose to take it one step further to run interactive sessions from the field. This presents more pedagogic and technical challenges: we don’t know what we are going to find, we’re dependent on mobile cameras and streaming live video over a 4G mobile phone connection. What could possibly go wrong?!

Using the ‘Stadium Live’ interface, developed by Dr Trevor Collins and colleagues in the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute, which has easy to use interactive widgets, a live video stream window and a chatbox we ran a series of live broadcasts (fieldcasts) from a species rich meadow on the edges of the OU campus. As experienced field scientists, we knew we could handle the ecology, but had no idea about the technology. Fortunately, we could rely on our in-house camera people and educational technologists to give us the technical support to make the fieldcasts work; Trevor’s expertise in wifi networks in the field gave us the technical capability. Our job was to design an activity that let students take control of a field investigation and make them feel like they were active participants without the whole thing descending into chaos.

We structured the fieldcasts around the scientific method (observation leading to hypothesis, investigation, analysis and reflection) and to take students through that process, but to give them the freedom to choose what to investigate and how. In three sequential half-hour evening slots (Mon/Wed/Fri) students were introduced to the field site and a set of options to allow them to develop their own hypotheses, methods and analysis. We used a combination of hi-tech interactive widgetry and very low-tech whiteboards and pens to give us the flexibility to take the investigation wherever students wished. The activity was simple but authentic. We judged half an hour to be a safe limit for students’ attention and for the reliability of the 4G connection.  Splitting the activity over three sessions allowed students time to reflect, and us to adapt to their choices.

Screen Shot 2018-02-05 at 16.14.27

Fig 2. Low-tech whiteboards (top) and high-tech interactive widgetry (bottom) give us the flexibility to take the investigation wherever students wish.  We prepared this whiteboard in the field in response to earlier student choices and held it up to the camera for students to see.  They can then vote using pre-prepared widgets.

So, did it work? On one level, yes. We’ve now successfully run two sets of fieldcast in which student choice led to two very different studies. We’ve produced live broadcasts with students actively participating, collecting and analysing data and with very positive feedback from those who joined in. What we don’t yet know is whether students feel the experience benefits their studies and most importantly their confidence in carrying out their own scientific investigations in the field. We are currently evaluating the fieldcasts, funded by The Open Univerity’s STEM education innovation unit, eSTEeM to answer these questions and help us improve future fieldcasts (see video below).



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