Fieldwork without getting cold feet

Fieldwork without getting cold feet

Top image: Birds-eye, 360°- degree view of a fieldwork location in Svalbard. The VFGs help students prepare for fieldwork, and gives them the opportunity to revisit locations. 

By introducing virtual field guides, the Arctic Biology Department at UNIS is trying to increase learning outcome from fieldwork. By using elements of virtual reality technology they reduce the gap between theory and reality. Thus, they enable both better preparation of fieldwork and possibilities for repetition of lessons learned in the field. 

6 February 2022
Text: Maria Philippa Rossi

The project focuses on creating virtual field guides (VFGs). These are 360°-pictures combined to tours in various locations around Svalbard, containing relevant information for the specific locations students can visit.  

Pernille Bronken Eidesen, a former Professor at the AB department and now the leader of Laboratory School in Biology at the University of Oslo, is one of the forces behind the virtual field guides. She has a strong interest for improving biology education, and enjoys testing and examining new ways of teaching. The idea of making VFGs emerged when she was trying to  improve field her field teaching. 

Fieldwork is a fantastic opportunity to give students hands-on experience with a range of exciting phenomena. On the other hand, the well of new experiences – and distractions – may overwhelm students and make it difficult to focus, Eidesen says.  

Overview of Ekmannsfjorden

VFGs are 360°-pictures combined to tours in various locations around Svalbard, containing relevant information for the specific locations students can visit.

Great tool, but not a replacement

Eidesen explains that proper briefing and debriefing of fieldwork is important for learning. VFGs can be used to prepare students for fieldwork,  and create a better understanding of the real-world complexity. It also gives the students the opportunity to revisit the place afterwards, and repeat what they learned in the field.  

– Planning for fieldwork is always hard priorities for a course responsible. In Svalbard, fieldwork comes with a high cost, logistic challenges and safety concerns. And most of the archipelago is hard to reach. The cost of developing a VFG is low in comparison to fieldwork, the guides are always available and gives students insight into environments they may never get to visit. There is also a need for a method to evaluate a student’s skills when it comes to fieldwork, and such guides can potentially be used during an assessment situation, Eidesen says. 

She emphasizes that a virtual experience never can truly replace hands-on fieldwork. VFGs may help students practice on reading the landscape, but practical skills like using an instrument, cooperate under challenging conditions or how to deal with taking notes in strong winds requires physical presence and learning-by-doing.  

Helps prepare for fieldwork 

Tina Dahl, teaching advisor for bioCEED, says that the VFGs can be a useful tool when preparing for fieldwork.  

– The time from students start preparing their fieldwork to they are in the field is very short. By using VFGs, the students can mentally explore the places they need to visit for fieldwork and in the end gain a better learning outcome, she says.  

One venue students can explore from the comfort of their classroom is Kapp Nathorst in Dickson fjorden. The 360°-tour of the location enables students to move and look around. There is added information about elements students should look out for, like plant species. A lot of different species were covered, as the images were collected during a plant biology course.  

– We got feedback from students who felt it was super helpful, and helped them be better prepared. Using the VFG gave them a more realistic idea of what would meet them in the field. It helped them plan their own projects, Dahl says.  

The VFGs is part of the open e-learning platform Learning Arctic Biology which provides material and information about Arctic ecosystems and organisms with a special focus on Svalbard. If you would like to explore Svalbard’s habitats in 360° you can visit our site here. For more information about the development of the VFG tool you can visit our FieldPass homepage

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