Field studies with 21st century digital tools: Part 1


Beginning in 1984 Asian Field Study Centres Pty Ltd (AFSC) commenced operating a field study program.

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach the company provided field study opportunities for Australian, New Zealand and US students at various locations throughout Indonesia, although its principal focus was in Bali. Field study programs extended from eight to 21 days. While most programs were of relatively short duration they adopted a holistic and interdisciplinary approach employing the ideas of both Maslow and Bloom offering students a program of rapid, experiential, active learning (REAL).

By the time of the program’s demise in the wake of the first Bali bombings of October 2002, it had developed a tool kit of strategies for applying both constructivist and situative pedagogies in the field. The founders of the company, of whom I was one, often referred to their approach as providing learning for REAL.

Learning about digital pedagogy
Although an early adopter of digital tools, acquiring my first Mac in 1984, during the period of winding up the company’s field study operations, my learning took a leap. I was fortunate enough to work for The Learning Federation (TLF), a subsidiary of the Australian Curriculum Corporation. Initially TLF were searching for teachers of Indonesian. Now this was not my formal teaching area. I had only a four year certificate from Sydney Technical College in Indonesian language, history and culture. Back in the 1980s and early 90s, amongst my age peers who had studied the language at universities, there seemed to be more than a deal of sceptism about AFSC’s approach to Indonesia at large and language teaching in particular. Traditional pedagogy appeared to offer a highly formalised approach to language and a somewhat static view of culture. It seemed to eschew emerging social, cultural, economic and technological trends, presenting Bahasa Indonesia mainly as a literary pursuit while cultural studies were confined to the more traditional.

REAL: the pedagogical strategies
The REAL approach was unavoidably situative. It aimed to provide students with learning tasks that exposed them to varieties of real-life situations necessitating interaction with social, cultural and biophysical environments. Language became a tool of necessity. Acquisition and consolidation of new fluencies was rapid. Most noticeable was the rapid acquisition by many student who weren’t language students, whose main focus was the social sciences or the arts.

The other dimension to the program was constructivist with some elements of associative pedagogy. This active experiential learning involved building and testing hypotheses and finding new links between concepts. To this end students completed self directed field assignments in small groups, finding their way to various locations, interacting with people and context while gathering data and experiences. After each period of self directed activity, findings were presented in plenary sessions bringing the processes of social constructivism into play.

Students also chose a specific project to complete, these included wood carving, stone carving, batik painting, painting and drawing, music or dance. These projects were undertaken in context with artists or craftspeople at their studios or places of work and involved travel to and from the venues. The realistic contexts also provided many opportunities for real life inter-cultural learning.

A basic foundation to the program was the understanding that in an immersion experience it is necessary to learn to see and feel as well as listen and speak. Since students were crossing cultures it was essential to convey a sense that often what we think we see may not be what is there, just as what we tend to feel may not lead us to action that is culturally appropriate.

Culture shock as a positive experience
Culture shock was a unavoidable, yet is was an invaluable dimension to the program. Responses to the environment, whether bio-physiological, cognitive, affective, or spiritual, have an intrinsic relevance and unavoidable immediacy. The interaction between self and context became the substance of each moment in the field. As facilitators, field workers and teachers were in a constant dialogue with students around such matters.

Field study programs were developed using an epigenetic approach, the basic premise being that people need to “crawl before they can walk” while bearing in mind that when inspired in the field passage through developmental stages can be rapid. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provided important guidance in program development.

Meeting David Loader
In 1996 an art teacher from MLC Melbourne booked a 12 day Bali based program with AFSC. This set up a sequence of events that took us to the inspiring MLC campus in Melbourne. Head of school, David Loader, was and remains a visionary. He later remarked to me that it was important to be thinking at least 10 years out when scoping future directions for a school. David lived according to this principle. Visiting the MLC Melbourne campus in late 1996 I was first struck by the array of satellite dishes on the roof, then delighted to discover that I had entered my first ever 1:1 laptop school. Professional development for this bold initiative was led by Dr Gary Stager.

David also understood the importance of Asia literacy and preparing young Australians for their futures in a rapidly globalising Asia Pacific region

Later I travelled with David in Java as we searched for opportunities set up a sister school connection, and scoped out ideas for a field study program involving students from MLC, the following year. Eventually the program went off without a hitch. Students spent three week based in Yogyakarta, exploring the region and extending their studies into Central Java. Bearing 1:1 laptops they posted their experiences back to the school each night, notwithstanding the glacially slow Internet speeds available in Yogya, at the time.

All good things come to an end
Where this might have developed is hard to say, but like all good ideas whose time has perhaps not yet come, both the 1:1 use of laptops in the field and AFSC faced critical challenges as the New Order Soeharto regime began to crumble, and violence broke out along the archipelago the following year. Fortunately there were other things to do but it was not till 2001 that field study activities resumed in earnest.

By now global communications were becoming much easier and the rice field by our Indonesia based office suddenly sprouted an Internet Cafe. Sadly this was a short spring with the Bali Bombings bringing operations to an end as schools and educational systems closed the curtain on field studies in Indonesia.

Digital responses to field study
In my next post I will outline some of the understanding that I’ve developed in conducting an urban field study and then examine the development if a virtual field study. Both of these were conducted at Sydney Secondary College Leichhardt Campus and funded through the Australian Government’s Digital Education Revolution.

Subsequently, I will explorer several digital tools and strategies that employ cloud computing and collaboration that permit a more explicit connectivist approach in field work.


This post mentions constructivist, social constructivist, associative and situative pedagogical styles. There is an excellent working definition of these pedagogical approaches in JISC ” Effective Assessment in a Digital Age – A guide to technology-enhanced assessment and feedback.”

2 thoughts on “Field studies with 21st century digital tools: Part 1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s