General Comments

International Perspectives on Virtual Fieldcourses

Comment from Received
Robert Ford 19 February 99
Mick Healey 23 February 99
Iain Hay 5 March 99
Pete Fisher 8 March 99
David Rich 13 March 99
Dominique Vanneste 18 March 99

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Robert Ford, Westminster College of Salt Lake City, USA


Many excellent questions and issues are raised by this paper. I will not comment on most of them but note a few key points which stick-out, in my opinion:

  1. There is definitely a need to increase visibility and academic recognition for the creation of this type of document/resource. Currently, the time and effort put into them does not afford sufficient academic merits for advancement. Integrating their production into an international network and organizational effort could help provide standards for measurement as well as recognition that are sorely needed.
  2. Collaboration in selection of sites/projects (VFTs) would help provide a broader geographical coverage and would ensure that many different types of audiences are met as well as a diversity of sites/places (physical geography-focused, economic/social, cultural, historical, problem-issues, etc.)
  3. Though some quality control, evaluation, standards would be helpful, I believe they should not be too restrictive. I'm convinced there is room for many different kinds of VFTs that address different audiences and pedagogical goals. What is necessary is a clear enunciation by the producers of who the targeted audience is and how to best use the VFT.
  4. More collaboration across the discipline of geography would increase the visibility of these efforts and decrease frustration in getting access to resources, particularly visual images. Maybe the VGD (Virtual Geography Department) or other organizations could become clearing-houses for image copyright issues, build a database of images that are free, etc...that could be used by producers of VFTs without copyright infringement. Many field geographers might be willing to donate imagery, data but who don't have the time, skills or inclination to put the resources together in a web-based field tour.

I heartily endorse any efforts to enhance the production of VFTs.

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 role of VFCs?

It strikes me that it is important to distinguish three possible roles for VFC:

  1. Enhancement of existing courses
  2. Experience of locations which cannot visit
  3. Replacement of existing field visits

There is a need to separate these roles because the arguments for and against the role of VFCs differ according to which of these roles is being considered. Some of the often quite heated debates about the advantages and disadvantages of VFCs, do not seem particularly fruitful because the proponents in the argument are assuming different roles. From a viewpoint concerned purely with the quality of the student learning experience the first two roles of VFCs seem convincing. Of course, the cost of developing VFCs has to be balanced against their benefits. We need to find ways of evaluating the benefits of both virtual and non-virtual field courses. Most, though not all, geographers in the UK assert that fieldwork is an essential component of a geography degree, but we have little hard evidence. The effectiveness of student learning in the field is mainly a statement of faith and is based largely on anecdotal evidence. What is the experience in other countries? How integral is fieldwork in geography degrees in other countries?

Given the value that most geographers place on fieldwork, it is the third possible role for VFCs which is the contentious one and needs debate. A key question is: 'Can VFCs designed to meet the first two roles also meet the third role effectively?'



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Iain Hay, Flinders University of South Australia

I would be very interested to know how we might be able to defend traditional 'real' field courses (RFCs) if VFCs are integrated into curricula. Would they not serve as an 'excuse' for those who hold the purse-strings to further curtail funding for RFCs?

In its final questions the paper raises an issue that needs to be addressed in Hawaii - how do we distribute learning resources in ways that eliminate 'free -rider' problems without yielding other difficulties associated with inequality, educational imperialism and intellectual property rights?

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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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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David Rich, Macquarie University, Australia

1)  International Perspectives

Picking up on Pete Fisher's point that we should consider international perspectives on field work as much as perspectives on international field work, I would like to add some fairly casual observations on the Australian situation, based in part on my own largely unsuccessful efforts to introduce more field work into the Human Geography program at Macquarie in the mid 1990s.

In general, it is probably true to say that field work is less prominent in Geography in Australia than in many British departments; however, there are huge variations in the amount offered, both between and within departments in ways which are difficult to summarise quickly and accurately. Likewise, my perspective is that many of the field trips, particularly in more junior years and in Human Geography, tend to be very short, often no more than two nights away. Nevertheless, there are important exceptions, and in some Physical Geography programs in particular, the field experience is still central. Further, in some Honours (fourth-year) programs which are centred around individual research projects students sometimes spend weeks or months in the field collecting data.

Why the relatively limited focus on 'the field experience'?

2)  Discussion Questions

John Stainfield and his co-authors have identified some interesting and important questions for discussion. It is clear that many of the issues raised are not specific to virtual field work but apply, perhaps in slightly different form, to many other attempts to use information technologies to enhance teaching. Issues like cost effectiveness, copyright, the desirability of peer review, open access or protection of sites, formats and standards, templates and evaluation are all central to debates about the future of teaching. This is not to deny their importance in the context of field work, but to suggest that we can begin to look for some answers with respect to field work in the wider current debates.

3)  What are Virtual Field Courses?

Reading the paper and considering some of the examples cited, it struck me that there is no common model. There is a huge range, from attempts to develop sophisticated 3-D virtual reality experiences (which may, in fact, provide a more diverse and fulfilling 'experience' than reality itself) to little more than a collection of text, data and photographs. Each variant probably has its place, but in our discussions we need to recognise this diversity and to be sure that we have common terms of reference when exploring issues and outcomes.

4)  Why Have (Virtual) Field Courses?

I suspect that, whatever the overt rationales, there is a complex set of educational, experiential, philosophical and psycho-social reasons for a commitment to live field trips. A perhaps even wider range of issues - adding at least resource and technological questions to the previous list - may influence the use of virtual field courses. Attitudes to one or the other manifestation of field work may well be coloured by a diverse range of perceptions, preferences and circumstances, beyond simple educational issues. Teasing these out is likely to be important in understanding the potential for and evaluating the impact of virtual field work.

At a more straightforward level, John Stainfield and co finish their paper by urging us to consider the potential to use virtual field trips to enhance the live experience in the field; this is, of course, only one model, albeit perhaps the most attractive one. There are others. Increasingly, for example, the electronic experience may be a direct substitute, implemented for cost or other reasons, or may allow a shorter time in the field. Alternatively, it may be a means of opening up new educational experiences not readily available in other ways; another paper in the symposium points to the possibilities of cross-cultural and collaborative work raised by the new technologies, for example.

David Rich
Centre for Flexible Learning, Macquarie University, NSW 2109, Australia
Phone: + (612) 9850 8390; Fax: +(612) 9850 6590; email:



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Dominique Vanneste, Catholic University of Leuven (K.U.Leuven), Belgium

Since I visited the Virtual Geography Department at the University of Texas at Austin last year, I am working on a project of VFC.

My problem is dual:

  1. what should a VFC be: preparatoy in addition to a real field trip that can never be replaced by a virtual one (for some examples in the paper, this has been stressed) or a real alternative for a real field trip (ref. paragraph about the future)

  2. what about a precise distinction between a virtual geographical field trip and a virtual touristic field trip; a lot of the efforts are underestimated because a VFC is often associated with virtual tourism! In a sense critics are right because I experience difficulties in lifting up a VFC-product above the level of a good slide show.


About the remark "little examples about Asia, Europe..." Maybe there are more examples than one presumes but there is the inevitable problem of language and the difficult choice between a product for ones own students and courses (by preference in the own language) and a product (also) for international use (in English); this comment is reaching far beyond the topic of VFC but it is a general international network-problem that may not be underestimated.

Dominique Vanneste
Institute for Social and Economic Geography, Catholic University of Leuven (K.U.Leuven), Belgium
Tel: 016/32 24 42; fax: 016/32 29 80; E-mail:

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