How to conduct field teaching with students scattered around the world?

How to conduct field teaching with students scattered around the world?

The pandemic stopped the field plans for the geology course AG-222 – but it did not stop the authentic exercise. The course teachers organised a virtual field excursion instead, which was conducted online over two days in Mid-April 2020.

Text: Kim Senger, Aleksandra Smyrak-Sikora, Tom Birchall, Peter Betlem and Julian Janocha – the UNIS AG-222 course teaching team.

Mid-March 2020: The world crumbles under the Covid-19 pandemic and associated restrictions. All of us are affected – some more, some less. Universities in Norway turn to digital teaching almost overnight, and many exchange students worldwide are asked to return to their home countries.

In Svalbard, the University Centre in Svalbard cancels all intensive courses for the remainder of the spring and most of the summer semester. Ongoing full-semester courses, however, are to be offered digitally. Instead of observing, touching and smelling the world-class exposures during field excursions in Svalbard, the 18 UNIS geology BSc students are now spread in various home offices around Europe, trying to complete their studies digitally.

Mid-April 2020: This week we should have visited the Billefjorden Trough on a snow-scooter based excursion, staying in the Russian ghost town Pyramiden. The students were to integrate previously gained knowledge of the trough with their own observations from the excursion, in order to put together a fictive application for drilling a petroleum exploration well in the area.

A preparatory phase involved giving the students access to various data packages, including geological maps, terrain models, literature, virtual outcrop models, sedimentary logs, profiles, drone overview imagery, satellite imagery and much more (much of it available on the Svalbox.no portal).

Fortunately, we had visited the area numerous times before in spring and summer and had a resident expert on the area. Because of this we could provide comprehensive digital field notebooks and photographs of the outcrops. Students, working in groups of 3-4, were asked to present a “geological stop” to the rest of the class using a video – all uploaded to YouTube and forming the backbone of the virtual field trip.

Remarkably, without ever physically having visited the field sites, the students managed to provide impressive compilations from their respective field sites.

AG-222 students in the field in a course video from 2018. Screenshot from AG-222 video on Vimeo.

AG-222 students in the field in a course video from 2018. (Screenshot).

During the virtual field trip, the videos were watched in plenum and debated with the teachers online. Key ​aspects of the stops were summarized by the teachers, as would have been done in a traditional field excursion. In some stops, all students were given the opportunity to expand their field sketching ability by sketching from photographs.

Following the virtual trip, the students compiled their claim applications using the provided data and concepts they deepened during the virtual field excursion. The delivered applications were all of high quality, similar to those delivered by students from previous years who had the benefit of the actual field excursions.

Of course, such virtual field trips cannot replace traditional field work that is the heart of all courses offered at UNIS. But our experience illustrates that the active use of emerging technologies – in particular digital outcrop models – coupled with seamless integration of data and information, can provide significant value for organising such virtual field excursions.

We are already planning to use the experience and workflows learnt during the Covid-19 pandemic in the coming years – in preparing the students for the field-based education that we hope returns to UNIS soon!

This article was first published on geoforskning.no.

Link to the AG-222 course page

AG-222 from Rakul Johannesen on Vimeo.

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