General Comments

International Perspectives on Fieldcourses

Comment from Received
Robert Ford 19 February 99
Mick Healey 20 February 99
Susan Hardwick 2 March 99
Eleanor Rawling 4 March 99
Iain Hay 5 March 99
John Stainfield 8 March 99
Pete Fisher 8 March 99
Janice Monk 11 March 99

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Robert Ford, Westminster College of Salt Lake City, USA


The questions raised in this paper are numerous, detailed and very insightful. There is much more to reflect on than I can cover in this initial commentary. I will focus on a few key issues that were raised in my mind.

First, a brief background on my own experience leading fieldcourses:

I have led over ten international fieldcourses to Central and South America, the Caribbean and Mexico with different types of students and for diverse purposes (and many within the US). The students involved have included middle-aged school teachers involved in the US Geographic Alliance program to undergraduates and graduate students in geography, anthropology, public health and agricultural development. All my fieldcourses were organized as "capstones" to other related coursework taken prior to the trip. All the fieldcourses had both academic (cognitive) learning as well as experiential/behavioral goals in mind. Overall, I have felt that the benefits gained by students in fieldcourses far outweigh the problems and this type of learning needs to be increased in geography. I have struggled with some of the questions raised in the paper, e.g. issues of empathy, cross-cultural perceptions, costs, etc. But I still think they are worth it though there have been times I swore I wouldn't do them again.

This coming May (1999) I am leading a group to Honduras that will have two principal goals: a) participation in reconstruction and relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Mitch, and b) teach field techniques in the analysis of coastal zone hazards in conjunction with local scientists. You can see a webpage related to this upcoming fieldcourse at the following URL:

Some comments on a few selected issues raised by the paper:

Please let me know how I could help.

Robert E. Ford, Associate Professor
Adamson Chair, International Studies, Westminster College of Salt Lake City, 1840 South 1300 East, Salt Lake City, Utah 84093 USA
Tel: +1 801-488-1655; Email:, Homepage:



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Mick Healey, Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education, UK

What is the value of international fieldtrips?

I would like to hear from colleagues who run fieldtrips to countries where few of the residents and few of the students can communicate effectively, because they do not share a common language. What is the educational justification of the trip?

I am sceptical of the value of many of these trips in enhancing student learning in human geography. I can see that if you are taking a module examining the geography of a particular country that there is some justification. If you are teaching a course on the Geography of China, as happens for example at Liverpool John Moores University, there is value in the students visiting the country. The society and culture is so different from that experienced by most students, that a well designed visit using local interpreters can help the students appreciate the diverse human landscape.

I am less convinced of the value of the trips run by many Higher Education Institutions in the UK to European locations in, for example, Belgium, Spain, France, or Italy (chosen often because there are cheap off-season package deals) where the language differences prevent students undertaking most human geography projects which involve interviewing residents and key actors. I have helped run such trips (Costa del Sol, Spain) and have felt constrained by running projects which largely depended on observation or interviewing British tourists or members of the British expatriate community.

I believe in an educational model which involves students actively participating in their own learning and do not want to run a trip which consists mainly of a look-see variety. For a general human geography fieldtrip, which may be the only residential fieldtrip that the students experience, I want to take them to locations where the students can communicate effectively with a majority of the people they will meet. If it is going to be an international trip, which many students demand, locations in Europe, such as Malta (where I went this year), Cyprus, or Holland provide better opportunities for human geography. Otherwise I would rather stay in the UK or go, to say, the Republic of Ireland, or, if a more 'exciting' location is demanded, take them to North America.

So, if you run a general human geography fieldtrip to a location where language differences constrain communication, please tell us what you do on the trip and how you justify it in terms of the student learning experience. Is this a peculiarly British issue? We would particularly like to hear how colleagues based in different countries, who face this situation, feel about the issue.

Mick Healey
GEMRU, Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education, Francis Close Hall, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, GL50 4AZ, UK
Tel. +44 (0)1242 543364; Fax +44 (0)1242 532997; Email



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Susan Hardwick, Dept. of Geography and Planning, Southwest Texas State University, USA

2.5  Ensuring Cultural Tolerance:

Yes, I agree that avoiding field trips that allow "privileged" students to view "underprivileged peoples" is a serious and ongoing issue worthy of more discussion. This can be equally insidious in an urban neighborhood setting where suburban students are brought in to view inner city residents -- as in rural areas where people may or may not have the amenities of nearby cities. The problem becomes even more acute when carried across international borders. Let's discuss ways to enhance opportunities for increasing empathy in our students -- no matter where they travel.

3  A Proposed Action Plan:

I have found e-mail exchanges work quite well in regional geography courses. When I teach the Geography of the Russian Realm course, for example, I ask my students to connect with e-mail partners in Russia. These informants can provide person-to-person information not readily available from other sources -- and this information can also be shared in class with other students.

Field trips via e-mail are often highly personal, meaningful, and may last well beyond the semester a student is actually enrolled in the class.

4  Discussion Questions

Yes, let's talk about costs - I have a grad student who wants to do field work in Malawi and has many contacts there. How to fund this type of work in the late 1990s remain a serious issue - any ideas?

Nairn's Ph.D. research summary: really fascinating stuff here - multiculturalism comes alive - is the full text available yet?

Susan Hardwick
Dept. of Geography and Planning, Southwest Texas State University, USA
Voice: (512) 245-1724; Fax: (512) 245-8353; Email: A HREF="">



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Eleanor Rawling, Oxford University, UK

A useful introduction to the issues about fieldwork in higher education in general, as well as a context for discussion internationally. I found this informative and the Action Plan a good basis for further work.

The most important question for me was highlighted on the first page when the authors referred to "assumptions about whether fieldwork and fieldtrips are valuable experiences".

Given the diversity of fieldwork activities and experiences offered to students in higher education (and in schools), it is vital to ask ourselves 'why are we doing it?' 'what knowledge, understanding, skills and experiences are the intended outcomes?' and, crucially, 'do we know whether these outcomes are actually being achieved?' I would add to the Action Plan the need to promote research into fieldwork -its role, impact and contribution to geography education at all levels. I would also suggest that this is an area where liaison with colleagues in school education would be helpful to both. Note for instance, that the Geographical Association (in conjunction with the Field Studies Council) has just produced a leaflet entitled Progression in Fieldwork 4-19 (contact

Eleanor Rawling
Department of Educational Studies, University of Oxford, UK



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Iain Hay, Flinders University of South Australia

In Australia, we experience some difficulties with field trips. My understanding of the situation is that we cannot ask legally students to contribute to the costs of the field experience as all course costs are expected to be paid through their HECS (Higher Education Contribution Scheme). That is, all field trips costs are drawn from existing departmental budgets. And like geography departments around much of the world, we simply do not have the funds available to sustain that sort of expense.

There are also real difficulties associated with running field courses for a diverse student population (eg full-time, part-time, sole parents), many of whom have a range of family and employment commitments.

Iain Hay
School of Geography, Population and Environmental Management, Flinders University of South Australia, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, SA 5001, AUSTRALIA



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John Stainfield, University of Plymouth, UK

If for the moment we define international field trips as going outside our "European backyard" it is useful to look at a paper by Ternan et al. (1999). Since 1995 there has been each year a long haul destination which has included to date South Africa (1995 and 1998), Hong Kong (1996) and Moscow/Murmansk (1997). The distinctive features of long haul trips are:

Advantages: Drawbacks and limitations: The authors conclude that it is important to manage the field course programme in ways which sensitively encourage exposure to the local culture while maintaining academic rigour and links to the Geography curriculum at both an empirical and conceptual level. A balance which it is not always easy to achieve.


Ternan, J.L., Chalkley, B.S. and Elmes, A. (1999) Long haul field courses: lessons from the Plymouth experience, Science Education Enhancement and Development (SEED) Working Paper 4 (Plymouth: SEED)


John Stainfield
Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Plymouth, Drake Circus, Plymouth, PL4 8AA, UK
Tel: +44 (0)1752 233069; Fax: +44 (0)1752 233054; Email:



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Pete Fisher, University of Leicester, UK

The status of field work and so the role of any virtual field course is fundamental to the issues which are being raised in the discussion of both Field Courses and Virtual Field Courses.

I believe that it is a very peculiarly British attitude articulated by Mick in his comment in relation to Virtual Field Courses. In the US, for example, in spite of Rob Ford's comments, it is very unusual to have any sort of field work as part of an undergraduate course (although there are outstanding exceptions such as Michael Solem's field work in Boulder), and Iain Hay suggests the same is true in Australia. I agree with everything Mick says about field course and the value of field work in the curriculum. Especially about its being unevaluated. It is almost entirely based on hearsay and on assertion within Britain. Elsewhere in the world, academics are teaching geography effectively without fieldwork. Or are they? I too would like to know more of the extent of fieldwork internationally. Unfortunately, the discussion of International Perspectives on fieldwork has moved to a discussion of international fieldwork, which is only one view of the original title.

On the Virtual Field Course project here at Leicester ( we are particularly concerned to follow up evaluation. The problem is that although we can evaluate the effectiveness of our own products, and although we have some benchmarks to work against, they are not very substantial. We also have the classic problem in evaluation of control groups - it is only really rigorous to split the group in two and give each a different experience (with and without the virtual - with and without the real) but what if one is better? So there are problems with evaluation, but we all know that. We do know that the students like it. The evaluations we have done are consistently favourable and enthusiastic, but is the education better, or do the students just like playing with computers, GPS, digital cameras, etc.

On the Virtual Field Course, we are continuing to evaluate and will do so, but quantifying the benefits is very difficult.

Pete Fisher
Department of Geography, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK



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Janice Monk, University of Arizona, USA

The paper raises many practical and conceptual issues about field trips. I would like to add some suggestions to the action ideas.

International field experiences could take more advantage of opportunities for peer interaction among host area students and visiting students than I think is usual. My impression is that the visiting instructor takes the main teaching role, with possible use of local "experts" -- planners, business people etc., and possibly local geography staff, but I think less often (rarely?) are visiting students put into collaborative teams with local students or are local students used to contribute to "insider" perspectives.

Possible modes are group projects, jointly designed (with Internet dialogue in advance); use of local students as field guides for small work groups (and drawing on local field projects they have conducted); opportunities for informal social interaction with local students. Projects developed by the Erasmus Gender and Geography Group could provide some stimulus for such efforts.

With respect to the language issue raised in some comments - interaction with students is more likely to permit dialogue with locals, given the extent to which English so often serves as a common means of communication. Dutch, Swiss, German and Spanish students in field courses/visiting scholar experiences in the US (though my contacts have been with MA and Ph.D students) are certainly competent in English. Erasmus projects by the gender group involving undergraduates have coped with greater English fluency among Dutch and Danish students than among the Spanish and Greek. And then there are those regional British accents which can be a trial for non-English speakers (and for some native speakers of other variants of English too!).

Janice Monk
University of Arizona, USA
E-mail jmonk@U.Arizona.EDU

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