Development of an online learning environment to enhance field trip communication

Dr Robert Jackson, School of Biological Sciences
r.w.jackson@reading.ac.uk

Overview

An online learning environment was developed for a module, Microbiology Field Course (BI3B67), within the School of Biological Sciences (SBS). This online learning environment was used to facilitate staff and student communication while on a field trip, and was greatly successful, with students responding well to the use of technology to enhance their learning.

Objectives

  • Provide digital learning support.
  • Facilitate communication before, during and after the fieldtrip.
  • Provide a supportive and collaborative learning environment.
  • Encourage students to reflect on their experiences and think critically, in order to inform their study.
  • Encourage students to consider their social media and internet usage in terms of developing their professional identities.

Context

A field trip within the SBS has been in place since 2012, travelling to Iceland between 2012 and 2014, and Colombia in 2015. While the 2012 field trip to Iceland was a successful experience, it lacked an effective communication system, and students had independently created online communications facilities. As the 2014 trip was to be larger in scope, it was imperative that effective communication was implemented.

Implementation

The development of an online learning environment was made possible by the collaborative work of staff across the SBS and the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development. Dr Alice Mauchline was able to contribute expertise in using mobile technology for field research, and she and Dr Becky Thomas had previously collaborated on investigating how students use the internet to engage with their learning.

Students were provided with iPads so that they all had equal access to the digital learning facilities that were to be used. In order to ensure that all students were equally proficient in the use of these technologies, iPad teaching sessions were created before the field trip, providing students with training in how to use the specific applications which would be utilised on the field trip. Additionally, support was provided on the field trip, with all teaching fellows available to provide guidance on the use of the technology. As a result of this training, students were able to use the iPads to take photographs and video, these being used to create a video presentation as a legacy of their work, with these videos then being posted to a field trip blog. Students also used the iPads as a tool for their lab work, for note-taking, for editing and for communication.

A private group within the social media platform Facebook was set up, providing staff and students with a supportive online learning environment. On the trip, the Facebook group was used to direct student learning and promote critical thinking: questions were posed to students on Facebook, with students encouraged to consider their response before discussing these in class, thus flipping the classroom; students then posted their answers to Facebook, allowing further discussion to take place after class.

Students taking BI3B67 are assessed in four ways. While on the field trip itself, students undertake data collection through field and lab work. Using these results, in groups they create a presentation, which is then given at a symposium held during the field trip. Students also create a blog, in which they give a lay account of the data collection methods used during the field trip. After the field trip, students submit the lab book, which collates their results from field and lab work. Finally, 50% of the module’s final mark is weighted toward the writing of a dissertation, which includes a background introduction to the topic, materials and methods utilised, results and discussion thereof.

Impact

Both students and staff responded well to the use of technology on the field trip, especially the development of the online learning environment. Students commented in post-field trip questionnaires that they found having questions posed to them before classes valuable, and that they were encouraged to learn in a deeper manner.

Reflections

Using Facebook to flip the classroom saw students’ responses to the questions being asked of them improve. By using a platform with which the majority of students were already familiar, less training was required. As a result, staff and student communication were significantly improved.

Having the students produce a blog with videos was of great value, as this work is made available online for students to use for their professional identity when applying for jobs, thus demonstrating of their talents and enhancing their employability.

Setting up an online learning environment through Facebook is something that would be possible for others at the University to implement. As there are a number of experienced staff members at the University, expertise is not hard to come by.

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