The pandemic prepared Ukrainian HE well for a year of war

Developed techniques to create virtual field trips are proving a boon to students’ education and morale, say Simon Hutchinson and Nataliia Popovych

February 25, 2023
Svydovets Ridge, Ukraine
Source: V. Popov
A geography field trip to Svydovets Ridge, Ukraine

Amid the bombing of homes, schools and hospitals in Ukraine, the effects of Russia’s year-long invasion on its higher education system has understandably garnered few international headlines. Nevertheless, mitigating those effects is crucial to the country’s longer-term future.

Higher education has been hugely disrupted, not just as a result of the damage to its physical infrastructure and the loss of life caused by the war, but also through the displacement of staff and students to other parts of the country and beyond.

In many universities, teaching has been forced online, especially in the east of the country, where the front lines are currently located. But in some subjects, such as geography and environmental science, field-based training is an important component of the teaching programme, often run as an extended period of practical training embedded within the course. Under current conditions, and for the foreseeable future, this is no longer possible, threatening significant consequences for students’ learning and research – not to mention their morale.

During the pandemic, student fieldwork stopped across the world, but in some institutions it was replaced by virtual field trips. Using interactive visualisation tools, we were able to replicate aspects of the learning that would have taken place outdoors. At the University of Salford, where one of us is a senior lecturer, these digital resources continue even now to be used to augment in-person field trips, allowing more inclusive participation and reinforcing students’ learning experiences. At V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, where the other of us is a lecturer, virtual field trips are offering a crucial lifeline for geography students who still have no other fieldwork options.

While virtual field trips are usually organised by staff for their students, at Salford we have developed a flipped approach whereby the students are co-creators. This has enabled us to co-organise a series of online workshops that give the students in Kharkiv the skills to construct their own virtual field trips using only smartphone-level digital tools.

But while Salford students co-create their virtual field trips in face-to-face groups, Kharkiv students are often isolated refugees in difficult conditions far away from campus. When asked if there were any barriers that had affected their ability to create a virtual field trip, one student’s answer starkly illustrated daily life’s complications in Ukraine: “Blackout, slow internet.” Although they had completed the task, this student, like many others, had to watch recordings of the workshops, rather than being able to join them live, and had to work at night, when power supplies were more reliable – or else search out places where electricity and internet connections were available.

Understandably, the virtual trips that Kharkiv’s students have produced have tended to use resources and digital media that they already had, such as from field trips in Ukraine before the war. Others are based on material they have gathered in their new “home” environments in a range of host countries, including Poland, Finland, Germany and Portugal.

Despite the need to delay our first workshop when the missile attacks across the country intensified at the end of 2022, the Ukrainian students have produced some excellent first virtual field trips with little training and limited resources, illustrating a passion for learning, as well as tenacity and resilience. Student feedback has been positive, with some insightful comments that will help us improve the workshops and understand how these digital tools are used. Some of the comments are quite humbling: “Thank you very much for the opportunity to acquire new knowledge and skills!” wrote one student.

In the longer term, we hope that virtual field trips will help to enhance the geography curriculum across Ukraine, so that Ukrainian departments and their graduates are well prepared, innovative and ready for the inevitable nationwide reconstruction that will be required once the war ends. Our next workshop will feature additional approaches to geovisualisations provided by colleagues at other UK universities, who are starting to support the initiative.

Other universities across Ukraine have also expressed an interest in running their own virtual field trip workshops, and we are exploring funding for a hybrid-format summer school to provide dedicated staff training for these trips.

Bringing together a cohort of students scattered across Europe by senseless violence is a small consolation amid the daily tragedy faced by Ukrainians. Nonetheless, offering the chance to study, learn and communicate with former classmates is important. And one day they will hopefully be able to reunite in person, as highly trained, digitally accomplished graduates.

Simon Hutchinson is a senior lecturer in environmental science at the University of Salford. Nataliia Popovych is an associate professor in V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University’s department of physical geography and cartography.

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