Field studies with 21st century digital tools: Part 2


After the demise of AFSC’s field study program I was fortunate enough to be engaged by The Learning Federation (TLF), initially as a writer in the LOTE 2 projects working with Subject Matter Expert (SME) Emmy Quinn. We were tasked with producing content and interactive pathways for digital learning objects (LOs) designed for students studying Bahasa Indonesia. The approach was based on both constructivist and critical pedagogy. Importantly, the LOs were also intended to embrace the notion of the ‘third space’, a dynamic method for strengthening the constructivist nature of the learning objects. (1)

Subsequently, I worked as a SME in the Studies of Australia project. This embraced history, geography and commerce.

These years were characterised by a very steep learning curve. Such was the intensity of the work that I forgot about the PTS I was suffering, after days of firsthand contact with the victims of the Bali Bombing a year earlier. It was an immensely satisfying, even therapeutic, experience to be involved in a such an innovative project.

All of the LOs that we produced were designed to meet the known parameters for the emerging National Curriculum. All are now available to schools and systems through a variety of data bases such as the Teaching and Learning Exchange (TALE) in NSW. They will all be available through SCOOTLE.

Sydney Secondary College Leichhardt Campus

Joining the HSIE faculty at SSC Leichhardt Campus in 2005 was a step into a context where paper, text books and teacher centered associative pedagogy were to the forefront in the faculty’s particular approach to blended learning. The approach to information computer technology (IT) was similarly challenging, yet my contacts within TLF were encouraging and saw value in me now adopting the role of practitioner.

In 2005, even great middle schools like Leichhardt followed approaches to Information and communications technology (ICT that were distinctly industrial. ICT tended to be quarantined into computer labs. Serious computing was only a tool in Key Learning Areas (KLAs) with a technological focus, or those that explicitly taught students about software.

In most KLAs, students worked from text books and worksheets, supplemented by, slides, overhead projector transparencies, videos and a variety of practical creative activities. There were explicit requirements for the application of ICT in a number of areas, one that stood out was geography. Its ICT requirements, as outlined in part 6 of the syllabus ‘Features of geography learning’ (” study of Geography requires students to have the skills to access and use a range of information and communication technologies”) were substantial yet without a more ubiquitous provision of access, were largely unattainable at that time.

Despite the overall scarcity of digital resources within NSW Government Schools Leichhardt offered one of the best pre-digital blended learning experiences available.

Beginning work at the school I found two experiences in particular most satisfying, from a professional viewpoint. One was working with the senior autism class, the other was working with a special stage 4 class for boys. As often as possible I booked these classes into computer labs and began drawing on the rich array of digital learning objects available through TALE. There were challenges, but it worked, there was engagement and learning. I still recall a most animated conversation with my autism class as we sat in a computer lab and discussed the merits of various computer applications and LOs. Then there were the beautiful digital presentations built by most of my stage 4 boys’ class.

TLF’s learning objects weren’t available to NSW schools at the time since TALE, the local point of distribution, was yet to be established. I requested copies of the LOs on DVD and had them loaded onto the school’s server, complete with the TLFs search facility. A few colleagues started to use them and continued doing so until the full implementation of TALE made this unnecessary.

TALE became central tool in my digital pedagogy. I frequently consulted Ian McKee, part of the TALE team. Ian was always generous with advice and thoughtful about ways that digital tools might be employed.

The Digital Education Revolution (DER)
2009 was a watershed year for NSW secondary schools, it with the beginning of the Digital Education Revolution and the roll-out of 1:1 laptops. Visions of MLC, 13 years before, resonated in my mind. In this period I was very happy to soak up and employ the digital possibilities, joining Twitter, building a digital personal learning network (PLN), starting this blog, beginning the construction of digital projects, struggling with Moodle and finally abandoning it, embracing Edmodo, Delicious and, of course, Facebook. Later I became an enthusiastic viewer of Brekkie with a Tekkie broadcast out through the Education Department’s connected classroom network and digital desktop sharing facility Brigit. The guiding force was Pip Cleaves. In these sessions, organised under the slogan of ‘ Connect- Collaborate-Create’. Teachers and sometimes students demonstrated Web2 tools that could be used on DER laptops in the classroom.

DER was a game changer. It was an amazing opportunity to lift the pedagogical strategies employed in NSW secondary schools into the 21st century, taking with us the best of our existing blended learning practices and strategies. When it became apparent that the Sydney region was offering grants for teachers to develop digital approaches, as well, I was prompt in submitting an expression of interest, and subsequently a submission, to develop a digital tool kit for conducting stage 5 field studies in Geography.

Geography, with its highly systematic syllabus and detailed ICT requirements, lent itself to a digital approach. The syllabus was infused with requirements to develop rich skills sets. Teachers were already fostering these, particularly in the practicalities of field work and the research action model. Applying the principles of digital pedagogy was relatively simple. Encouraging colleagues and students to adopt them was a different challenge. I found my colleagues very receptive to my ideas but at times somewhat mystified by my enthusiasm.
The research cycle followed in the Stage 5 Geography course

Urban growth and decline was the topic selected for the digital project. An obvious choice given the school’s urban setting.

Students were able to document elements of urban processes before embarking on the formal field study activity. They were encouraged to use DER laptops, mobile devices or Google Street View to identify, locate and document examples of the main urban processes where they lived, or around the school.

In the period leading up to the field study the teaching was more traditional employing associative techniques and a series of PowerPoint presentations to convey the main urban processes. A SSC Leichhardt Geography Blog was established. Basic definitions, and theories about urban processes plus the PowerPoints, were posted there. All of this was most time-consuming.

Developing the PowerPoint presentations required hours of teacher field work, gathering appropriate examples of urban processes, with a focus on the field study area of Darling Harbour, Millers Point, Dawes Point and Circular Quay West.

The Records NSW Flicker stream proved invaluable as a source of retrospective images that permitted urban changes to be more clearly documented.

Darling Harbour, Sydney NSW

While students were unable to access Records NSW Flickr photostream through the schools Internet connections, they were able to gain access from home.

The Field Study’s Three Distinct Stages
Organising the program into three distinct stages with an ongoing dimension to the project was essential to ensure both constructivist and connectivist dimension to the project. This approach is summarised in the following graphic, which can be examined in a more detail on my earlier post, Urban Growth and decline a #DERNSW Research project.

Running the field study in 2010 was challenging while there was a much richer acquisition of digital materials than with more traditional non-digital approaches to field work, Inwas disappointed with the level of student engagement. Running the field study again in 2011 was more successful.

Several factors operated to produce a stronger result overall.

I think the first of these was my own confidence. In the previous year the field study operated as part of a DER Research project. I was probably over ambitious in what I attempted to achieve and also less familiar with the software and exactly what students might be able to achieve with it.

Another feature of this first iteration was an extraordinary amount of time pressure on the process. Everything had to be crammed into existing time slots in the school calendar which was set before the research grant.

There was also limited time for staff development.

Another critically important factor was that all assessment was done as a pen and paper exercise so inevitably, students undervalued the expressly digital components whereas in thevsecond iteration if 2011 a significant component of the assessment was digital.

This last change reflects changing culture within the school and the increasing prominence of digital approaches, thanks to the DER 1:1 laptop program.


A more comprehensive outline cab be found in this post and the preceding post, Proposed Action Research Project with #DERNSW laptops and in the subsequent posts Sydney Urban Growth and Decline: Student observations, and in Sydney Urban Growth and Decline 2011: Student observations updated.

Assessing the success of the digital field study

Initially I was hoping that  students would undertake to produce:

  • printed documents and PowerPoint presentations for use in class;
  • a basic set of documents, images and video clips for the school’s Moodle site; and,
  • PowerPoints, posts, images, maps and video-clips for the Blog site.

Several points, by way of assessment, are warranted.

  1. Initially the field study was run as part of a DER research project. I was definitely over ambitious in what I attempted to achieve.
  2. Developing familiarity with the software and what students might be able to achieve with it was a challenge, not only for explicit teaching of such skills in class but also for staff development.
  3. There an extraordinary amount of time pressure on the process, just to complete all the preparations and ensure that everything seamlessly meshed with the school events calendar and assessments schedules.
  4. In its first year the subsequent assessment activities were exclusively pen and paper based. Fortunately in the second and subsequent years a significant component of assessment was digital. This steady adaptation of the approach to assessment reflects a changing culture within the school and the increasing prominence of digital approaches, thanks to the DER 1:1 laptop program.
  5. Students certainly visited the Blog, but few posted more than the odd phrase.  Students weren’t practiced in the use of blogs, much less wikis.

By 2011 and 2012 we began refining the digital requirements of the field study.

Assessment tasks were posted on Edmodo. Students were provided with guidelines for collecting data digitally, in the field.  The preferred device was a hand phone. They then downloaded their task from Edmodo.


Unlike the first year in which the digital dimensions of the field study were not deemed all that important by student there was now a consistent digital response with some outstanding work submitted.

A virtual field study

In 2012 working with my colleague, Cherryl Ellis, we applied for a further DER research grant and were succesful. So, we set about scoping out another digital field study. Part of the way into the project it became apparent that running the field study would stretch students’ family budgets, so we converted the project into virtual field study.  This project is outlined in my previous blog post, in  Botany Bay, the making of a virtual field study – Part 1 and in Botany Bay, the Making of a virtual field study – Part 2.

In summary, students had access to six videos that stood as virtual primary data.  Each video was paired with a data pack,that provided access to secondary data on each site covered in the videos.  Students then opened a OneNote book and completed a series of activities by reviewing and mining the ‘primary’ and secondary data sets.   Here is a facsimile of the  home page in the virtual field study.

For a more detailed analysis of this webpage, download the attached PowerPoint presentation.
For a more detailed analysis of this webpage, download the attached PowerPoint presentation.

To view an example of the videos used go to Botany Bay, the Making of a virtual field study – Part 2.

The assessment task for this activity was significantly more digitally focused than in our previous attempts. Students were asked to create a digital presentation based on their virtual fieldwork activities. They were invited to present this in any digital form they choose, using tools such as PowerPoint, videos, websites, blogs, podcasts, a detailed Prezi or an animation.  Responses varied widely, but the benefits of the DER were becoming more obvious in the overall quality of student work as digital pedagogy became more widely adopted across all KLAs within the school.

Broader questions on Digital Pedagogy and Assessment
While the DER has been outstandingly successful in initiating a process of change that is transforming schools and facilitating adjustment to the requirements of a 21st century curriculum, many questions remain to be addressed.  In the area of field study for a traditional discipline such as geography these are some of the questions:

  1. What are the most effective digital tools for supporting the research action approach to filed studies?
  2. How should field study be organised?
  3. Can field work be effectively carried our as a partly or wholly digital activity?
  4. How does field work relate to project based learning?
  5. How does field study relate to the concept of the flipped classroom?
  6. What is to be the future of collaboration, team work and specialisation?
  7. Should we only be assessing an individual’s digital and geographic skills or should we also be assessing their capacity for collaborative action?
  8. What standards should we employ to differentiate between various digital responses?
  9. How do we encourage and assess the use of web2.o tools in field study?

There are lots of other questions that we could address.  I invite contributions from those of you who read this post, in fact they’re essential if this aspect of geography, in particular, is to be carried forward and re-framed using 21st century skills

Finally, I think is is worth looking at the following resources from JISC (2):

Effective Practive with e-Assessment (JISC, 2007);

Effective Practice with e-Portfolios (JISC, 2008);

Effective Practice in a Digital Age (JISC, 2009a);

‘Assessment is a central feature of teaching and the curriculum. It powerfully frames how students learn and what students achieve. It is one of the most significant influences on students’ experience of higher education and all that they gain from it. The reason for an explicit focus on improving assessment practice is the huge impact it has on the quality of learning.’

Boud and associates (2010) Assessment 2020: Seven propositions for assessment reform in higher education: see JISC Effective Practice in a Digital Age


(1) Essentially this ” third space refers to the zone in which cultural translation and cultural hybridity give birth to a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation (Khalida Tanvir Syed. ‘Cultural Understanding: Establishing Common ground for teaching and learning second languages’ The South Florida Journal of Linguistics. Volume 1, Number 2 Spring 2008. pp. 11)

(2) The aim of the JISC e-Learning programme is to enable UK further and higher education to create a better learning environment for all learners, wherever and however they study. Its vision is of a world where learners, teachers, researchers and wider institutional stakeholders use technology to enhance the overall educational experience by improving flexibility and creativity and by encouraging comprehensive and diverse personal high-quality learning, teaching and research.

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