Another Node On the iNternet : ANON


Reflections on Virtual Fieldwork


Lawrie Phipps

Learning and Teaching Support Network

Genesis 3

Innovation Way

York Science Park

Heslington , York  YO10 5DQ




This editorial stems from discussions with lecturers, educational developers and technologists and a presentation given at the Geological Society of America Summit 2000. The intention is to raise issues that will start a dialogue about Virtual Fieldwork and where (perhaps) it should sit in the current learning and teaching environment. It is prudent to identify what is defined, in the context of this paper, as a virtual field course. Suthren (1998) points out that a virtual field course has been run in the ‘Introduction to Geology’ module at Oxford Brooks for over 20 years albeit a paper based exercise with hands on samples. However, for the purpose of this paper it is enough to say that the focus is on 'virtual' as implied by the use of communication and information technology.


The Importance of Fieldwork

The use of C & IT in teaching and learning has received a mixed press and issues of ‘labelling’ (or in some cases branding) these types of resource have already been the subject of some debate. With the term virtual being often seen as synonymous with replacement, academics involved in fieldwork teaching have sometimes been fiercely opposed to this form of development. Stainfield et al (2000) tried to clarify the position by using the phrase “digital alternative representations of reality”, however, this label cannot be applied to most of the VFC’s available and is inaccurate when taken in light of many of the various projects’ learning outcomes. Further, this description may actually serve to fuel the 'replacement - enhancement' debate by using the term 'alternative'. In addition, what is it we mean by fieldwork? In defining field learning Lonergan & Andresen (1988) state that it is “where supervised learning can take place via first hand experience, outside of the four-walls constraints of the classroom setting” (p. 64). Therefore we can broaden the meaning to include, for example, aspects of laboratory work or, at the extreme end of the definition, Suthren's paper-based and real samples virtual field course.


Much as been written on fieldwork especially in the biological and ecological, environmental, earth and geographical (both physical and human) sciences in assessing the relative importance of fieldwork Williams et al (1999) p. 3 assert:


“… the content of campus-based lectures and practicals seems to fade from students’ recollection all too rapidly. Fieldwork, by contrast, is memorable; and particularly so when it takes the form of residential fieldcourses. These offer an exceptionally intensive educational experience which often brings social as well as academic benefits.”  


Nevertheless, in spite of the immense educational benefits (in terms of both discipline specific and transferable skills) fieldwork is under threat due to many factors. Whilst recognising the importance of fieldwork, Ternan et al  (1999) point out:


“It is one of the paradoxes of higher education, however, that as the educational benefits of fieldwork have become still more prominent, so too have the financial and logistical obstacles which increasingly threaten to prevent or impede this form of teaching and learning.”


Ford (1998) suggests that in the United Kingdom it is the financial aspects of providing fieldwork that have resulted in the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), being ‘as concerned with economy as with quality of education’, to fund projects which aim to ‘replace some fieldwork with computer-based materials’. This approach does not suggest an agenda for the replacement of undergraduate fieldwork rather that some fieldwork is less necessary and some skills can be developed using computer-based materials.


The Development of the ‘Virtual’ Field Course

Kent et al (1997) reviewed changes in the styles of fieldwork in geography, identifying some of the key milestones. These ranged from the ‘Cook’s Tour’ or ‘look-see’ approach of the 1950’s and 60’s (essentially non-participatory or passive), through to the ‘problem-orientated’ or ‘project-based’ approach of the 1970’s. The progression has been cumulative, with elements of the ‘Cook’s Tour’ still playing an important role, the development has been characterised in the main, as a shift from passive to participatory or from non-interactive to interactive.


This development of traditional field courses has largely been echoed by virtual field courses. Originally what aspired to virtuality was merely a collection of text and images made available by innovative academics in an electronic format. With the onset of the ‘Internet Age’ possibilities for more interaction and for more delivery methods have increased. Currently various computer packages aimed at reducing the programming aspects of developing software (such as Aysemtrix Toolbook, Illuminatus and Macromedia Authorware) are being used more and more by academics in creating resources. These programmes enable developers with limited programming skills to add greater interactivity to their learning materials. Many of these packages are able to deliver their end product via the Internet and therefore other materials can be linked into existing information. Perhaps, inevitably learning and teaching developments will mirror those currently being developed in the field of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) data acquisition, launching students into the realms of wearable computing and augmented reality (Pundt and Brinkkötter-Runde, 2000).


Why do we need Virtual fieldwork?

The reasons for building a VFC can be many and as diverse as the actual number of individual resources available, ranging from giving a student specific experience of carrying out an ecological exercise to a general overview of a region. It may be fair to say that all staff involved in VFC development strive to improve the overall student learning experience, driven by various considerations including academic, administrative and financial. Whilst the provision of these resources may well bring benefits there can be no doubt that in the initial stages of either development of a new resource or the implementation of an existing resource a cost will be incurred in both labour and finance. However, the benefits, as well as impacting upon learning and teaching, can have other roles such as improving the management of a field course.  It could be argued that the provision of virtual field courses is a natural progression in the increase in interactivity previously identified by Kent et al (1997), trying to engage students in another form of communication in what is to all intents and purposes another environment. It may be in the future that as the Internet becomes more interactive, using Lonergan & Andresen’s (1988) fieldwork definition, students spend time interacting and studying ‘cyberspace’ as a field course in its own right!

However, in terms of building virtual field courses, as we know them at the moment it is worth considering various questions.


·    Is the resource a new development or the embedding of an existing package? If the resource is new, is the development expertise available? If the resources is being embedded are there site licensing or copyright issues?


·    What are the labour costs of creating and maintaining the resource? What are the financial costs of creating and maintaining the resource?


·    Is the resource intended to replace or enhance a field experience? If the resource is a ‘replacement’ will it meet all the existing learning outcomes? If the resource is an enhancement will all students be able to benefit? For example does the resource meet usability guidelines? or do all students have access to the resource? If the resource is an enhancement how will it be integrated into the curriculum? For example is there space in the timetable to introduce the resource to the students and do the fieldwork?


These are a few of the basic questions that should be asked at the outset of any project. One problem that has been identified is the ‘not invented here syndrome’, where academics from different institutions have been reluctant to embed the developments of a ‘rival’ institution. In the sphere of communication and information technology (C & IT) development, this may have been more prevalent than other provinces of academia because of the relative youth of the field (perhaps less than a decade). In some cases the discipline specific innovators of C & IT may have been working alone (or in small groups). Bates (ILTAC 2000) used the term ‘Lone Ranger’ to describe academics in isolation developing C & IT approaches to their teaching. When working in isolation or even in small groups it is not always possible to step away from the project and focus on learning outcomes and some of the other meta questions which underpin the reasons for development. In many examples it would not be unkind to say that some VFC’s have been technology driven rather starting with the learning outcomes and using the technology to achieve them.


The Future of Virtual Fieldwork

The idea that virtual fieldwork as an enhancement tool for 'real' fieldwork is becoming embedded in departments and institutions, and more importantly the minds of academics involved with fieldwork.  Examples of good practice can be found at a myriad of web-sites across educational cyberspace. Increased interactivity and widening access will no doubt accelerate the rate of development beyond that which is already prophesised.


One new area being developed at some universities is the concept of providing a fieldwork experience for students who are unable to access the real field course for various reasons including disability, financial or, in the case of some mature students, family commitments. This is a noble pursuit and worthy of the academic ideals for which all involved in education should strive. But in an educational climate of parity for all students, a virtual field course should in principle contain the same learning experiences as that experienced by students in the field. In providing a comparable learning experience for disabled students the same experience, in a climate of parity, must be offered to able students. In the United Kingdom it is common that students pay at least some of the costs toward residential fieldwork and that these residential field courses often make up a single module of a degree programme. Students in the UK are under increased financial pressure, and they operate within a system (modules) that encourages 'strategic' learning i.e. learn only what they need to get through a particular module or stage of the course. If virtual fieldwork offers the same outcomes and is comparable with real fieldwork, at least in terms of learning objectives, then it should be expected that students will opt for the virtual field course, given the academic and financial pressures.


For those involved in the teaching of fieldwork the development of virtual resources for the ideal of providing a field experience for all must be tempered with the knowledge that there is a 'real' world out there. And for students to truly become familiar with the concepts of our disciplines (be they geological, geographical or even social) we must place an emphasis on fieldwork in the field. Students must experience that which they study first hand.


Funding for learning and teaching development is a valuable commodity in UK higher education. Therefore, before developing fieldcourses in cyberspace perhaps we should revisit the reasons that attract students to the disciplines. If a course offers fieldwork, rather than finding a way of substituting it electronically for disabled students, we should perhaps think about using the funding to break down the barriers which prevent a disabled student going 'into' the field. For example identifying field sites that are accessible for students with mobility issues, equipping university transport with wheelchair access or providing a 'helper' when in the field. This approach enables both able and disabled students to experience fieldwork.  Education for all is a right, in our disciplines we should acknowledge that fieldwork is an essential part of that education and ensure that we have ways of making it accessible to all in the 'field'.




Bates T (2000) Thinking Digitally, Restructuring the teaching environment for technological change. Keynote speech, Institute for Learning and Teaching Annual Conference (ILTAC 2000) 27th June 2000


Kent M, Gilbertson DD, Hunt CO (1997) Fieldwork in Geography Teaching: a critical review of the literature and approaches, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 21 pp. 313-332


Lonergan N and Andreson LW (1988) Field-based education: some theoretical considerations, Higher Education Research and Development, 7, pp. 63 - 77


Pundt H and Brinkkötter-Runde K (2000) Visualization of Spatial Data for Field GIS. Computers & Geosciences 26 pp. 51-56


Stainfield J, Fisher P, Ford B and Solem M (2000) International Perspectives on Virtual Fieldwork. Symposium on International Fieldwork, Journal of Geography in Higher Education. pp.


Ternan L, Chalkley B and Elmes A (1999) New developments in fieldwork. SEED Publications, Faculty of Science, University of Plymouth


Williams C, Griffiths J and Chalkley B (1999) Fieldwork in the Sciences. SEED Publications, Faculty of Science, University of Plymouth


John C Butler

                                                                                    Associate Editor


                                                                                    University of Houston

                                                                                    Houston, TX  77204