Providing Learning Support for Students with Mobility Impairments Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities

Strategies for Fieldwork

Don't do real fieldwork, do virtual fieldwork instead

One of the possible advantages for the so-called virtual fieldwork is that it removes the need for students to visit the field. Instead the field experience is, to at least some extent, replaced by ICT-based simulation of the field, usually but not exclusively based on Internet technology. A full survey of virtual fieldwork is beyond the scope of this guide, and only brief guidance can be given here. Virtual fieldwork can range from simple use of live cameras relaying their images on Web sites (webcams), to fully-blown virtual field courses. There are thousands of webcams now operating, although few have any real geographical significance. They range from the potentially useful, such as those monitoring environmental hazards or city centre locations, to the frankly bizarre sites enjoying cult status, such as the eponymously-named Jennicam. Any list would date quickly, so the best source is portal sites such as the Earthcam listing. Some sites now have streaming video, and it should be possible to construct a virtual field project at least partly around the use of a webcam, although we know of no cases where this has been done.

Virtual fieldcourses offer a more realistic alternative than webcams to conventional fieldwork. They can be used for briefing or follow-up work in addition to conventional fieldwork, or more arguably as a substitute for fieldwork itself. For example, the JISC-funded Virtual Field Course Project developed a range of hardware and software tools to address learning outcomes across a range of field-based disciplines, with the aim of enhancing rather than replacing the field experience. A more radical step is to use virtual fieldwork to actually replace work in the field. Again, however, careful consideration needs to be given to the learning outcomes of the fieldcourse. Virtual fieldcourses may be quite effective at imparting predictable factual information, but it is more challenging for them to be effective at imparting a full range of sensory information, information on views and attitudes, or in facilitating the personal development of individuals. It is also difficult for them to provide genuine experience of carrying out techniques of primary investigation, whether it be making physical measurements, or carrying out social surveys. Thus a learning outcome of "to be able to give an account of the geography of xxxxx" would be more likely to be more reasonably addressed by a virtual fieldcourse than would a learning outcome of "to be able to use appropriate field techniques to test hypotheses concerning the geography of xxxxx". Phipps (2000) briefly discusses some of these issues.

The same principles apply, in general, not just to activities actually in the field, but also to other activities associated with the fieldcourse. Thus activities such as computer- or laboratory-based analysis sessions need also to be considered in the context of participation of students with mobility impairments.

The five broad strategies outlined above are not, of course, exclusive, in that it might be necessary in the case of a particular student to, for example, both change the location and provide additional time. The most important point is to consider very carefully what the learning outcomes of the activity actually are. There is no point in going to enormous lengths to get a party of mixed ability to a specific location simply for them to stand in the cold and rain (or blazing sun!) and listen to a lecture which could have been delivered elsewhere, and more effectively. There is no point, at least as far as fieldwork is concerned, in going to a location simply because it is there. Access to a location must be coupled with some meaningful activity which is enhanced by being at that specific location. This is not to deny, however, that great personal development, satisfaction and self esteem can be gained by students with physical impairments who overcome physical barriers to do things like climb peaks, abseil, canoeing or whatever, simply in their own right.

The above strategies have been presented implicitly in the context of staff-led day or residential field courses, but in essence the same strategic principles apply to independent fieldwork for example in fieldwork, leading towards a dissertation or project. In these cases the student will usually have more freedom to choose a topic and/or area which are accessible to them, and will have a greater degree of control of timing. Safety will always be an important issue, and consideration might have to be given to providing field assistance on this ground alone.

Whatever the strategy adopted for fieldwork, it is important to check periodically with the student that everything is satisfactory, in terms of both the nature of the arrangements made, and whether the student is coping with them. It is best not to wait for the student to flag up issues, which will probably result in crisis management. It might be advisable to assign a named tutor or member of staff, or a student mentor, providing personal support to the disabled student(s) and with whom a rapport can be developed. This would need to be in addition to any personal assistance/helper the student brings.

Page updated 14 December 2001

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