Open Source Field Trips

A new app allows students to independently venture into the field and learn about physical geography first-hand

Physical geography needs to be taught with opportunities to go into the field and engage with the subject matter first hand, according to Athabasca University assistant professor, Frédérique Pivot. In the past, Athabasca University, which operates as an on-line post-secondary institute, only offered theoretical physical geography courses. But Pivot knew students needed to solidify their knowledge by actually seeing the land masses, soil structures, and forests that illustrate the points made in textbooks. Physical geography is a field course, after all, she says, and she knew the field trips would also increase passion in the subject.

But she didn’t know how she could create those opportunities in a distance learning setting until she attended a meeting with her faculty. At the meeting, Professor Qing Tan with the School of Computing and Information Systems at Athabasca University was presenting the Mobile Virtual Campus, a mobile application that allows distance learning students to connect.

“It was a platform for our students to be able to connect with other students—and to see which other students were living nearby, taking the same courses as them, and had the same kinds of interests,” says Pivot.

Pivot realized she could create a similar app that would allow students to take independent field trips using the same framework as the Mobile Virtual Campus. So, Athabasca University applied for funding through the Open Educational Resources Initiative. When the project was accepted, Pivot knew she’d finally be able to provide a way for students to go into the field. The app can be used by anyone, and is a free resource—it’s even available in an off-line format so that the extensive information does not burn through students’ data plans.

Currently, the app—which has been created for use with android, iOS or HTML5—is set up with 18 different field trips located in various spots around Alberta including cities and provincial and national parks. In Banff, students can inspect how mountains formed; in Drumheller, they can look at striking geological formations such as the hoodoos and at Crowsnest Pass, they can examine a major landslide.

The app uses GPS, which will help the students to find the location of the fieldtrip features. Once they reach the destination and are alerted by the app, an instructional video will explain what they’re seeing. Then, there will be a tools for students to profile the soil type, to help identify the main trees and shrubs in Alberta and to help them examining weather including air temperature, air pressure and cloud coverage.

The app is set up so that instructors will be able to add fieldtrips over time. And ultimately, Pivot would like to see field trips across Canada, and even internationally. But for now, the goal is to have students in Alberta understand in the field the theory they learned through introductory courses Geography 265 and 266.

Pivot would also like to create more of a community of students who are able to connect through the app—they will be able to see which other students are in the same area and have done the same field trips as themselves. That way, they can connect and discuss some of the things they’ve learned. They can also take photos through the app, and connect on Facebook where they can post the photos and ask the advice of other students.

Pivot is excited because she knows more and more universities are switching to online education, and she hopes the technology will provide a tool that could be applicable to many post-secondary institutes. She also acknowledges the need for innovation since recent years have seen field work budget cuts, particularly for first and second year students.

“But it’s incredibly important for new students to do field work. There is a lot of theory, and if you give them the opportunity to connect the theory to what they’re seeing in field, then you have that click,” says Pivot.