Fieldwork, broadly defined, can be described as a structural and relevant learning experience which takes place outside the classroom. For certain kinds of students with disabilities, this form of learning can pose particular challenges different from (and often in addition to) those which occur in conventional, on-campus situations. For students with dyslexia, for example, there can be problems in taking good notes while working in the field. For students with 'hidden' medical conditions, such as asthma or epilepsy, fieldwork can pose health concerns. Obviously, the severity of the problems depends very much on the individual's circumstances and on the nature and location of the field tasks being undertaken. However, the very fact that such concerns exist raises the question, particularly for the most seriously affected students, of whether fieldwork is really necessary. And certainly there will be cases where the answer has to be "No" for health or safety reasons. Nonetheless, there is a strong case for fieldwork, not only on the grounds of offering parity of experience but also because of its substantial academic merits. Computer-based simulations ('virtual' fieldwork) cannot provide a fully satisfactory alternative.
In disciplines such as geography, earth and environmental sciences, fieldwork provides a particularly important learning opportunity in that it involves studying landscapes, earth processes and environments at first hand. Many undergraduates find this form of experiential study highly effective because it promotes "deep learning", that is learning which lasts and which becomes part of the student's working knowledge. Fieldwork can also be used to develop skills in research methods, data collection and the use of specialist equipment. It develops students' observational abilities in landscape and environmental interpretation, and it promotes the development of a range of key skills, particularly in team-working. For these reasons many courses in geography, earth and environmental sciences include, in addition to local field days, either one or two residential field trips, typically of a week's duration. There are, of course, financial pressures tending to curtail fieldwork but the importance attached to it in the relevant QAA benchmarking statements (QAA, 2000a, b) means that it will continue to occupy a significant place in the curriculum and in the assessment system. It is therefore imperative that, in so far as is practicable, measures are in place to ensure equal opportunities for students with disabilities and the provision of forms of support tailored to meet their field-course needs.
For departments and institutions, these matters have recently been given added urgency by the publication of the QAA Code of Practice on Students with Disabilities (QAA, 2000c). Precept 11 of the Code focuses specifically on fieldwork and study overseas. It states that
"Institutions should ensure that, wherever possible, disabled students have access to academic and vocational placements including fieldtrips and study abroad". As a result, when institutions and departments are reviewed by the QAA, they could be asked to demonstrate that appropriate fieldwork provision and support is being made available. The Precept's phrase "wherever possible" is, of course, open to interpretation but it is none the less the QAA's clear intention to open up more and better fieldwork opportunities for students with disabilities. This in turn will mean that in future more detailed consideration will need to be given to the question of how such students are to be supported and assisted.
Page updated 14 December 2001
GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock
© Geography Discipline Network/authors, 2001
ISBN: 1 86174 118 9