Providing Learning Support for Blind or Visually Impaired Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities
The Available Options
Field study strategies
There are three broad educational strategies that can be taken when considering the participation of blind and visually impaired students in fieldwork activities:
- expect them to adapt to an unchanged programme of field study
- accommodate them by making various modifications to the field study experience
- provide an alternative form of study to the field experience (e.g. library or laboratory exercises, virtual fieldwork).
It is no longer acceptable to adopt the first of these strategies. Indeed, it runs contrary to the mutual adjustment model proposed elsewhere in this guide. Nevertheless, elements of all three approaches may be usefully adopted on a pick-and-mix basis as needs dictate.
So, what kinds of broad-brush approach can be adopted when planning fieldwork by visually impaired students? The approaches outlined below are provided as suggestions to guide initial planning. They are not meant to be mutually exclusive; for individual students it may be useful to adopt more than one approach.
- Waive participation in fieldwork by visually impaired students
- This is the 'easy option', and might have been considered an acceptable approach until relatively recently. However, it is no longer either acceptable or necessary. The remaining options described below represent possible alternative approaches.
- Replace fieldwork with non-fieldwork activities
- For the visually impaired student, some fieldwork activities may be difficult (e.g. handling field surveying equipment), impossible (e.g. landscape sketching), or dangerous (e.g. wading across a river or taking samples from a cliff face). If the field activity does not need to be undertaken in the field in order to yield the required learning outcomes, then there is no reason why substitute activities might not be adopted. In order to decide on appropriate substitute activities, the learning outcomes will need to be carefully analysed.
- Remember, however, that the blind and visually impaired are neither helpless nor incompetent. Indeed, there are many examples of people who have accomplished an enormous amount in the outdoor world, despite lacking the ability to see. A famous example is 'Blind Jack', or John Metcalf, who was born in eighteenth century Knaresborough, in Yorkshire. Despite losing his sight at the age of six through smallpox, he became an accomplished musician, guide and road maker. Starting when he was over fifty, he built hundreds of miles of roads and bridges in the North of England, using special tools such as a specially adapted 'viameter' for measuring distances, which he was able to 'read' by touch (http://www.knaresborough.co.uk/history/town/parttwo.htm#blind).
- Replace real fieldwork with virtual fieldwork
- Some elements of the traditional fieldcourse — e.g. the 'look-see' coach trip — can be less than fulfilling for visually impaired students. In such cases, a great deal more can be obtained from studying the field location using a variety of electronic study aids — 'virtual' fieldwork activities, Web sites, interactive CAL software, or surfing the Web. What each of these activities has in common is that they can readily be made accessible to the visually impaired student, by adopting the kind of accessibility technologies discussed elsewhere in this guide . (See the Assistive Technology and Web Design documents.)
- Undertake virtual fieldwork. Digital resources of various kinds may be available to provide substitutes for some conventional field activities. (They can also be used to provide briefing for conventional fieldwork.) One of the most recent examples of 'virtual' fieldwork facilities is the JISC-funded Virtual Field Course Project based jointly at Leicester University and Birkbeck College (http://www.geog.le.ac.uk/vfc/). This has produced a range of computer-based facilities, some of them tailorable and extensible by users, which are designed to enhance the field experience. A potential problem with this kind of resource is that it is designed primarily for sighted students — it is difficult to know, for example, how the 360-degree panoramas provided for various locations on Dartmoor can be usefully viewed by blind or partially sighted students.
- An important requirement of virtual fieldwork is that it should provide the visually impaired student with an opportunity to carry out realistic primary investigation — e.g. undertaking environmental measurements, or carrying out social surveys. The Soil Surveyor software developed by the CLUES project provides students with exercises in geographical sampling involving field locations, where the field activity is replaced by air photographs and Ordnance Survey maps. Another example is the GeographyCAL unit which introduces Social Survey Design, in which various sampling exercises are provided as an adjunct to guidance on the broader process of planning a survey. There is a pressing need for other software of this kind to be developed.
- Surf the Web. A great deal can be learned about the geography of a given study area by surfing the Web. However, although this might allow the visually impaired student to unearth a considerable volume of factual information, it will have to be carefully planned by the tutors to ensure that appropriately challenging learning objectives are set for them. For example, they might be asked to undertake an in-depth evaluation of the effects of regional development policies on the economy of the local area. An additional Internet resource is the webcam — small video cameras which send regular images to Web sites. These have been placed at numerous urban, roadside and tourist locations around the world, and extensive lists of webcams are available at http://www.webcamworld.com and http://www.earthcam.com. However, despite their apparent potential as 'windows on the world', staff should take time out to select those which have clear educational value, and especially which might be useful for undertaking desktop fieldwork. An example of using a webcam for a practical exercise might be undertaking screen-based traffic counts in a tourist area. Again, some thought will need to be given to ways in which visually impaired students can make effective use of these highly visual information sources.
- Another useful resource is the 'Web essay' describing the geography of a particular area. Some of these have been created by commercial organisations or tourist boards, but an increasing number of geography departments have built Web sites around their field courses (examples are provided in Shepherd, 1998). In several cases these grow annually as repeat visits are made to a particular field location, and examples of the results of student practical work are often included. With careful thought, these might be 'raided' and used as a basis for field-related study activities without the need for an actual field visit. Blind and visually impaired students should be able to use screen reader software to access the text in these essays, and should be encouraged to contact the authors if images have been included without textual descriptions (e.g. through appropriate 'alt' tags).
- Provide field activities at alternative locations
- If field activities prove problematic on account of the venue, and if a visually impaired student might be better able to undertake the activities at other locations, then an alternative venue might be substituted for the main field venue. An example might be the undertaking of a shopping survey on a village high street. For the blind or visually impaired student, part of the problem in undertaking such a survey would be the 'foreignness' of the village selected for the survey. If the visually impaired student was able to undertake the same survey at a shopping centre well known to them, then they might be better able to carry out the work with greater safety. Against this benefit is the problem that the visually impaired student would miss out on socialising with the other students in their cohort.
- Accommodate visually impaired student needs during the regular fieldwork
- Change routes and paths taken in the field to make them easier and/or safer for the visually impaired student to follow.
- Modify selected field activities to make them more 'do-able' by the visually impaired student. For example, rather than asking the student to undertake a questionnaire survey by visiting a sample of residential addresses, they might be asked to question people at a fixed location — e.g. in a shopping centre or at a community centre.
- Ensure that the visually impaired student has a buddy to accompany them while in the field, and help them take field notes and record field measurements and observations. (See also the Buddies document.)
- Provide additional time to get around in the field and undertake required activities. Where group work is involved, careful planning and briefing will be needed to keep the other students on side.
- Enable students to present the results of their field investigations in non-visual, or perhaps multi-modal, formats.
- Abandon fieldwork for all students
- A radical approach might be to replace fieldwork for all students by alternative learning activities. One way of doing this might be to use virtual fieldwork, as described above. Another might be to undertake the study activities normally undertaken in the field locally — e.g. on campus. At the heart of this suggestion is the idea that the field is a venue for exercising skills, rather than being a specific skill per se. If this is the case, then the skills exercised in the field may be undertaken on campus equally well. Among the incidental benefits to students are that this might involve less cost and disruption, especially for those who are supporting themselves through college, or those who have significant family commitments.
Strategies in practice
It is interesting to review how UK geography departments treat visually impaired students in relation to students with other disabilities. The following table summarises some of the responses currently taken by geography departments.
Departments' actions/responses to disabled students undertaking fieldwork (numbers of departments) Source: Hall et al. (2001)
|Action / response
||Blind / visually impaired
||Deaf / hearing impaired
|Modification to teaching / learning / assessment
|Modification to travel / accommodation / sites
|Ensuring extra / appropriate on trip support (overt and covert)
|Discussion of individual's needs / disclosure of disability
|Exemption from fieldwork
© Geography Discipline Network/authors, 2001
ISBN: 1 86174 115 4