Thursday, April 28, 2011

On Crafting Virtual Fieldwork

How do you make a virtual fieldwork experience (VFE)? If you teach Earth or environmental science or history, you've almost certainly already virtually transported your students to another place. Since the invention of the story, teachers have taken learners to places virtually. Over the centuries, technologies have changed, making occasional leaps in the way we can represent the places we wish to teach about. The printing press, the slide projector, film and television, and the personal computer are perhaps the biggest leaps of technological representation used in the teaching of Earth and environmental science.

Computers have made it vastly easier to make virtual environments explorable as opposed to places told about, but it's always been doable. All you really need is a picture and you can begin to productively wonder, "Why does this place look the way it does?" As we noted in our opening post that question drives our work.

We want to perhaps start with wondering productively about a picture or a set of pictures, but we want to use the rich technologies available today to leap beyond that. This post is intended to help educators take a jump in that generative direction. The post addresses aspects of why to create virtual fieldwork and some about how to do so.

Why start locally?
One of the ultimate goals of this work is to have the learner being able to "read" landscapes and tell the stories that brought those landscapes about. We believe that the most logical place to start work on this is the place outside your door. We want to start with the local and familiar so that we can build on things our students know, work on problems that are relevant, and, then use those deepened understandings of the local environment to better understand the global environment.

We also want to start locally as we want the act of preparing the VFE to be a step toward engaging learners in actual fieldwork. While it's possible to develop a VFE without going to the actual field site (this is how many NASA scientists do their work), our work begins with the VFE author doing actual fieldwork. That gives the teacher/author a nudge to explore the local environment with an eye toward doing actual fieldwork. In other words, developing virtual fieldwork for your students is a logical precursor for doing actual fieldwork with your students.

Some tools to get you started
Toward that end, we've developed a set of questions that we think can be asked of any site. The questions support the project's driving question, again: Why does this place look the way it does? Those supporting questions are shown in the graphic organizer below and included in the packet available here. You'll also find them in a checklist at the end of the post.

Figure 1: The VFE Template's Graphic Organizer. All photos in shown in Figure 1 are from Oklahoma's Arbuckle Mountains. You can download the template as a PowerPoint or Keynote file here and replace the photos with those from any site. The questions are intentionally generic so that they may be asked of any site. They may also be changed to highlight special features of your field site.