Virtual fieldwork and equivalent experiences

I thought I’d left this debate behind a while ago, but recently I noticed that “reasonable adjustments” and “equivalent experiences” have appeared in learning technology discussions. I should say that I think learning technologists have the best of intentions, but I also think that there are approaches that will lead to two tier provision, either on accessibility grounds, or on financial. As someone who started his HE career in virtual fieldwork, I am very protective of keeping fieldwork in the field. Discussing these issues with James Clay, we identified that some of the real benefits of VR and AR for fieldwork are actually not about accessibility, but about inaccessibility; we can collect  data from some of the most remote and dangerous places in the world such as pacific trenches, inside volcanoes and other planets. Creating rich interactive virtual field trips for these places, rather than places that are just a bit too hard to get to may both be more stimulating, and also teach us more about the technology we are using.

The text below is from a paper I wrote before I spent 5 years working in technology and disability, building the TechDis service and trying to apply the social model of disability to practice.

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 fieldwork, 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 field courses 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”.

This extract is from an editorial, written at the request of the late John Butler (University of Houston), published in August 2001 in Computers and Geosciences. John was a pioneer of the use of technology in teaching of geosciences and we discussed the motivations for developing virtual fieldwork;  it worries me that learning technologists are still developing “virtual field courses” and using the equivalent learning experience as a reason. More worrying, is that I wonder at the times that this has been used retrospectively as justification to develop technology approaches because we (learning technologists) wanted to ensure further funding, or time, on a project. The social model of disability shows us that it is society that disables the person, not the disability; when we invest in equivalents that keep students out of the field, we are telling them they can never do fieldwork, that should not be the purpose of higher education.


That 5am Fieldwork feeling (after a few beers the night before) is hard to replicate in a simulation



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