It's an IT field day, but students lose

October 13, 2000

A 'virtual' strategy designed to help immobile students experience fieldwork could lock the whole class in the lab, writes Lawrie Phipps

With a plethora of "virtual" fieldwork projects winning funding, has the death-knell sounded for traditional fieldwork? This is one of many debates for which the National Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences hopes to provide a forum over the coming months.

In many environmental disciplines, fieldwork is seen as part and parcel of the production of well-rounded graduates. Fieldwork develops students' analytical and observational skills and is good practical experience. In addition, students gain a range of transferable skills such as team working, leadership and critical thinking. These benefits were recognised in the recent Quality Assurance Agency benchmarking statements for geography, earth and environmental sciences.

But does fieldwork give value for money? Steve Hill, head of environmental sciences at the University of Plymouth, is responsible for several field-courses for undergraduates, including trips to Malta and Malaysia. He considers fieldwork "to be one of the most valuable aspects of a science education", but at the same time he recognises that it "may also be one of the most labour and cost-intensive aspects of an environmental science programme".

Developers in the field of communication and information technology have been working on ways to bring field skills into the computer lab for years. This process has led to many disagreements - and full-blown public clashes - between those who seek to keep fieldwork in the field and those who seek to develop the electronic versions.

In the 1990s, the term "virtual" became synonymous with any computer program that simulated some aspect of the "real" world. Inherent in these virtual programs was the threat that they might replace "real" fieldwork - heresy to many academics. Yet, paradoxically, the pioneering virtual fieldwork program developers were often the most ardent of fieldwork supporters.

One of the early innovations in the virtual fieldwork arena was the Virtual Field Course project, funded, like so many of these types of development, by the Joint Information Systems Committee Technology Applications Program. This project developed a series of hardware and software tools to address fieldwork learning objectives across several scientific disciplines.

The VFC team at Leicester, Oxford Brookes and City universities and Birkbeck College recognised the potential uses of computer-based resources to prepare students for fieldwork before they arrived on site and to aid reflection afterwards. The materials it developed had the aim of enhancing rather than replacing the student experience in the field.

Dave Unwin, of the VFC project, says: "We had resistance in the beginning because there was a misunderstanding that we aimed to replace fieldwork. Among the team this was never an issue."

In fact, few, if any, "virtual" field-courses have claimed to be truly "virtual" in the sense of attempting to substitute for the real thing. The common denominator is that these pioneering academics did not want their field-courses to be replaced by a computer. The nub of the whole "virtual" versus "real" fieldwork argument is the language used.

If the pioneers had dropped the term "virtual" in favour of, for example, field-course learning aids, it would not have met with nearly so much resistance. But in the past few years it seems that some institutions and academics have decided that virtual fieldwork could usefully replace traditional fieldwork under some circumstances.

Developers are looking at how fieldwork can be substituted in the curriculum. This strategy is usually intended to help students who have accessibility problems or are differently abled and therefore have difficulty participating in a standard field-course.

On the surface this would appear to be a good use of the technology. But if an expensive learning experience can be replicated in the degree pathway for some students without significant impact on their learning outcomes, why not for all? Why not abandon the real field-course entirely in favour of the virtual?

The answer is simple: there is no technology available that can compensate for the interactions of real fieldwork, especially in areas such as personal development, nor is there likely to be in the near future.

This raises a serious issue for those developing "virtuality" on the basis of access issues. Given that the experience does not match reality, might the money be better spent in finding ways to get differently abled students into the field. A second issue arises when university budget-holders ask: why not get rid of expensive fieldwork for all students and replace it with virtuality?

With large undergraduate numbers, tight university budgets and students on limited incomes, fieldwork is under threat from many different directions, only one of which is computing and IT. However, in the minds of many academics, there is a danger that the technologies that were intended to produce an enriched fieldwork experience may ultimately contribute to its contraction and demise.

Lawrie Phipps is computing and information technology manager for the National Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences.

The centre will hold a one-day conference in November on using computers and information technology to support fieldwork teaching. Details: http:///www.gees.ac.uk/

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