Facebook, iPads and ‘extreme’ microbes in Iceland by Dr Becky Thomas, Dr Alice Mauchline and Dr Rob Jackson

This post relates to activities carried out on the EU ERASMUS Intensive Programme grant awarded to University of Reading to fund 10 students from each of Belgium, Germany and the UK, plus 5 staff in total from the three countries, to travel to Akureyri in Iceland. Once there, the grant funded a 2-week residential field course, including Icelandic students and staff, plus other lecturers from Reading, Iceland and Spain.

In July we set ourselves the challenge of combining technology enhanced learning, with a field trip to Iceland to sample ‘extreme’ microbes, with 34 students, many of whom had very little field experience. Also mix a multi-national environment with students from Belgian, German and Icelandic universities and you can see why we wanted to develop an effective online learning environment. The field trip had taken place previously in 2012 (see:http://ow.ly/A0EBo) and 2013, but this was the first year with so many nationalities involved. Our general objectives were to bring this diverse community together to teach them about microbiological techniques and processes, and to introduce them to environmental microbiology, by taking them into the extreme environments of Iceland to collect their own samples.

Group photo at Aldeyjarfoss waterfall

Group photo at Aldeyjarfoss waterfall

 

 

 

 

 

 

We chose Facebook as our platform for an online learning environment as we had experience in using it in previous modules, and with 1.23 billion active users, we hoped it would be something that many of the students were already using! We created the private group in February, and invited the students to join (making it completely voluntary). Initially we wanted to use it as a way to prepare everyone for the trip, posting relevant information and encouraging the academic staff who were involved in the trip to participate so that the students had a way of getting to know them before their arrival.

In the next stage we wanted to see whether we could use this Facebook group as a way of getting students to feel comfortable in preparing and posting a reflective blog post about their experiences on the trip. To do this we staged their learning, asking them to add short reflective posts within the private Facebook group, which could include photos and links. Not all of the students did this at first, but by the end many of them had done, or had at least commented on other peoples posts. The group also became useful for so many other aspects of the course. Simon Clarke ran a seminar, where students broke out into small groups and answered questions within this group by posting on the Facebook page. Simon was then able to discuss each group’s answers with the class, leading to some very active discussion. We also posted ‘breakfast quizzes’ which again lead to some very interesting discussion between the academic staff and students.

One element that worked very well was the use of iPads on the trip. We benefitted from investment made by the School of Biological Sciences into purchasing iPads, so that we were able to provide each student with their ‘own’ iPad facilitating many aspects of the field and lab work. For example we geo-logged each sampling location enabling students to record the conditions where their samples were taken, which helped when they came to interpret their findings.The iPads also meant that the Facebook group remained inclusive, not disadvantaging anyone who hadn’t brought along their own laptop, smartphone or tablet device.

Students using iPads in the field

Students using iPads in the field

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of the trip we ran focus groups with the students and staff to evaluate their perceptions of the use of the Facebook group during the trip. We are still going through all of the results, but the feedback was generally positive from both sides. The students and staff created their own safe learning environment, enhancing the experiences of both groups and enabling a different kind of learning which we couldn’t achieve otherwise.

As part of the assessment for the Reading students we set them the task of writing a short blog post about the benefits of fieldwork for microbiologists in a multi-national setting. They also produced short videos to demonstrate the process of collecting their samples through to their lab work. They created these entirely on their iPads and the results are really impressive. If you are interested then the blog posts are available here: http://ow.ly/A0OrW and we are currently organising a TEL showcase where we will discuss this project more, later in the new academic year.

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