Issues in Providing Learning Support for Disabled Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities

Barriers and Strategies

Virtual field course: part of the 'solution', or sidestepping 'the problem'?

One approach that in particular may meet the needs of students with mobility problems is to provide access to fieldwork through virtual fieldwork courses (VFC) or environments. A VFC is where the computer creates virtual environments through static and/or moving images, and provides access to databases/resources. VFCs, though still somewhat experimental, are now taking an increasing role in many departments and a JISC/JTAP project developed a range of software and ideas on how to integrate VFC into the disciplines (Virtual Field Course Project, 1999). In most cases VFCs are seen as complements to 'real' fieldwork. VFCs have several critical roles:

  1. preparing students by considering such virtual environments before they go into the field;
  2. while in the field they enable students to quickly analyse data and relate it to wider data sources; and
  3. on return from the field further analysis is enabled and the resultant projects can then be readily accessed by other students/departments.

VFCs also enable students and staff to analyse environments that are inaccessible to all because of distance or cost, the environment is in the past, or access is not possible ( (Jenkins, 2000). As Roger Suthren, a geologist at Oxford Brookes, states:

"I can't take any of my students to the crater of Mount St Helens or the mid-Atlantic ridge, or the Ice Age in Oxford, so virtual field trips become valuable for all students here"
(Suthren, 2001)

But do VFCs then offer a significant part of the solution to those with mobility (and also those for whom cost and/or domestic circumstances mean that they find going on residential fieldwork difficult)? Some courses/exercises do exist where students complete assignments on virtual environments that they never visit. Thus Mike Ritter has developed a VFC ( on the physical environment of the Colorado Front Range such that his students in Wisconsin (and students worldwide) can virtually visit and analyse these distant environments. The course does not require them to visit the 'real' location (Ritter & Lemke, 2000). To return to the case of the golfer Casey Martin and the Professional Golfer's Association, no local or regional accrediting agent of his courses seem to be saying to Ritter's department that walking in the Rockies for four hours or days is a requirement for graduation!

Box 12: Virtual Learning Environments at Oxford Brookes University

The Geology Department at Oxford Brookes does plan to offer a special programme - Geostudies - for students with restricted mobility by offering them a range of virtual learning environments. The course is still in preparation. They have:

"designed a virtual fieldcourse for SW England, which is backed by laboratory specimens and exercises as well as virtual interactive exercises based on the locations we take the able-bodied students to. This is a stage 1 fieldcourse. In stage 2 the pathway will focus on development of laboratory skills with some visits to 'local' field sites that have good disabled access. At present we are looking to make the virtual fieldcourse available on CD-ROM to other universities."
(Colley, 2001).

You can get a sense of what they are doing by virtually visiting the introductory web-pages for the 'Geostudies' pathway ( Yet Roger Suthren comments on this development provides a linked and questioning perspective:

"My overall feeling is that we should be giving disabled students REAL fieldwork wherever possible, and that it IS possible to devise field trips to a range of accessible localities. … Certainly this will mean additional expense in terms of specialist accommodation, transport, carers on fieldcourses etc. Many of the activities will be the same as on current field trips e.g. students sit on top of a hill and produce a labelled drawing of a cliff or quarry face. It doesn't matter whether this is done outside, or sitting inside a bus (and, on a wet day, it might be productive for ALL students to do it from the bus). And it might involve a lecturer with a radio mike, pointing to salient features, arm waving, bringing samples back to students etc. (even better with 2-way communication). All of this is much better than doing it all on a computer, because the students are actually getting a feel for real geology in the field, the spatial relationships of rock units etc. And there are many locations where disabled students will actually be able to get their hands on the outcrops."
(Suthren, 2001)

The main institutional/organisational obstacle to such activities is funding, not student mobility/access. Given the funding, one could, for example, devise some great field trips to US National Parks, many of which are very accessible.

Another way of using VFCs to meet the needs of disabled students would be for the three disciplinary communities to co-operate nationally and internationally (Solem, 2000; Stainfield, et al., 2000) to create VFCs and linked course materials that enable disabled students (including partially sighted students) to have access to a whole range of virtual environments.

So where do you and your department stand on the role of VFCs and disability; are they part of the 'solution' or do they sidestep 'the problem'?

Page updated 14 December 2001

GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock