Field studies with 21st century digital tools: Part 3.1 the theory

As prior reading for this post it would be very useful to read two earlier posts of mine ‘Field studies with 21st century digital tools: Part 1‘ and ‘Field studies with 21st century digital tools: Part 2‘.  Some of the ideas I’m working with will be far clearer with this background reading.

When I started to write this post my intention was to outline a method for applying digital tools to geographic fieldwork.  This is a straight forward matter and I certainly will do this, having already gathered resources. Now I realise that before I move onto this practical description and evaluation of digital tools and strategies there is a little more theorising to do.

Any application of digital tools to secondary education, if it adopts 21st century practice, is ultimately disruptive. It’s taken me a while to assimilate this notion even though I’ve been involved with digital education, in some form, since 2003.

Disruptive pedagogy will be an increasing feature of early 21st century practice. Pedagogical practice will move beyond the instructional tools, strategies and communication processes of the 20th century providing new paradigms for teaching and learning.

Disruptive Pedagogy

Disruptive Pedagogy

This change will be driven by technological innovation and by the strategies of constructivism and connectivism,  expressed through project based learning and the flipped classroom, with an increasing reliance on cloud computing, gamification and team work.  Another way of defining these pedagogical focuses is suggested by Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), a UK company that has been exploring and researching the application of digital technologies in education and research.  They offer this table in an attempt to define approaches to learning.

JISC: Defining approaches to learning
JISC: Defining approaches to learning

For a fuller account of JISC’s position read ‘Effective Practice in a Digital Age: A guide to technology-enhanced learning and teaching‘.  There is also an accessible and useful discussion of this in Searching for Disruptive Pedagogies: Matching Pedagogies to the Technologies by John G Hedberg. It’s not new but it’s worth a read.

20th Century Twilight

Recently, in a workshop, a respected educationalist suggested that the point of digital technology in schools, instanced by the Digital Education Revolution (DER),  was the opportunity it provided for engagement. I was dismayed by this view, not because it was completely incorrect but because it was incomplete.  Accepting the digital tool kit merely as a strategy for stimulating student engagement, or replacing handwritten school notebooks and text books with a digital version, or even producing project posters by means of PowerPoint and Prezi, are limited responses.  Despite their limitations such strategies , although still bathed in the twilight of the 20th century, are the first tentative steps towards the changes that are to come. New digital tools are not merely pedagogical tools, intended to streamline a teacher’s work or increase productivity, they are ultimately disruptive to the very fundament of teacher centred, school based, 20th century educational practice.

Schools face more rapid change than at any point I can recall in my teaching career, which began in 1971. Recognising this change, accepting that it connects with all aspects of society, culture and economy then acting on the digital transformation in schools is our challenge. DER was a curtain raiser, a means of equipping many educators with a basic toolkit enabling them to embark on the challenge faced by MLC Melbourne all those years ago.  Thankfully, now there are many more tools at our disposal and an accumulation of successful practices from local through to global level.

Field Study and REAL some theoretical background

Field study and it’s opportunities for REAL education, has always inspired me, it led me to embark on a pioneering program that would still be running if global events had not taken the turn they did.  The notion of rapid experiential active learning is practical and concrete place to start layering 21st century pedagogical solutions into current practices. So the point of this post, which has now become two posts , is to begin exploring just how we might go about this process.  Before I do this, I want to map out some of the theory.  If you can’t wait and are bored by theorising, then you could go straight to this  wonderful blog post by Matt Miller, a high school Spanish teacher in West Central Indiana, it’s called simply “10 steps to move education out of the industrial revolution“.  Alternately, if you don’t want anymore theory you can skip this post altogether and wait for my next one that will be a ‘how to do it’.

Mapping the pedagogical terrain

While this commentary is confined to fieldwork in stage 5 geography, the strategies explored apply to any area of field work.

Essential knowledge and skills are addressed in Geography Years 7–10 Syllabus.  June 2003, updated April 2006. Board of Studies NSW.  Leading this skills’ set are the fundamental geographic questions students are expect to adopt as a scaffold for studying geographic issues.

Basic geographical questions. “Geography years 7 – 10 Syllabus” NSW Board of Studies pp.20

When combined with the skills students are expected to develop in Stage 5 geography and a research action strategy they imply an active and critical approach that has a clear and authentic focus.

To be more specific the syllabus identifies the study of geography as contributing to the development of the following foundational knowledge and skills:

  • analysing and using geographical tools
  • gathering, analysing and evaluating data from a variety of sources
  • critically assessing the ideas and opinions of others, evaluating arguments, expressing their own ideas and arguments, and presenting geographical information to different audiences
  • understanding geographical processes and inquiry through fieldwork.

Geography Syllabus page 15 

Also in relation to Fieldwork enabling students to:

  • acquire knowledge about environments by observing, mapping, measuring and recording phenomena in the real world in a variety of places, including the school
  • explore the geographical processes that form and transform environments
  • use different kinds of geographical tools including information and communication technology to assist in the interpretation of, and decision-making about, geographical phenomena
  • locate, select, organise and communicate geographical information
  • explore different perspectives on geographical issues.

“Fieldwork is an essential part of the study of Geography. It is a geographical tool that facilitates the understanding of geographical processes and geographical inquiry.” Geography Syllabus page 16

“Geographical tools are to be integrated in teaching and learning in the mandatory courses and in the elective course. The use of information and communication technologies (ICT) with geographical tools will assist students to gather, analyse and communicate geographical information in appropriate formats. ”  Geography Syllabus page 18

These tools are identified as relating to:

  • maps;
  • fieldwork;
  • graphs and statistics; and,
  • photographs.

As the syllabus was prepared before 2003 it does not reflect the rapid development of access to digital tools over the past 10 years. There is an attempt to foreshadow incorporation of more advanced geographic tools in the statement “When using geographical tools teachers could also use geographical information systems (GIS) as appropriate to support student learning in Geography.”  Geography Syllabus page 19 

There is also the expectation that students develop the ICT skills required to:

  • create a formatted, multiple-paged document containing web-links to communicate geographical information
  • design and create a simple database from student research
  • import data from other ICT applications into student research findings
  • design and create a multimedia presentation or webpage to communicate geographical information to a particular audience, including maps and diagrams as appropriate
  • critically analyse a website, including the ethics of the site
  • access, collect and interpret electronic information.

Geography Syllabus page 35

All of this predates the opportunities for rapid data collection, creativity, collaboration and sharing that 3G networks, WiFi,  Web2.0 tools and cloud computing now permit. Yet, despite these unintended shortcomings the Key Competencies outlined in Geography Syllabus on page 14 can be more readily addressed within the digital domain.

  • collecting, analysing and organising information;
  • communicating ideas and information;
  • planning and organising activities;
  • working with others and in teams;
  • using mathematical ideas and techniques;
  • using technology; and
  • solving problems.

With the roll-out of the DER infrastructure achieving these key competencies became far easier . Yet our digital future and its implications for geography teaching, particularly field work is by no means fully revealed.

A National Geography Curriculum

In the proposed National Geography Curriculum has little to say about the role of ICT in geography teaching. In the area that has occupied much of my digital interest, namely fieldwork opportunities for Year 10 students it has a distinct lack of robust comment and direction. At the Year 10 level there are two units of study requiring methods of geographic inquiry and a variety of geographic skills, these are:

  • Environmental change and management; and,
  • Geographies of human wellbeing.

In Environmental change and management students choose ONE from five different environments.

  1. terrestrial environments
  2. inland aquatic or riparian environments
  3. coastal environments
  4. marine environments: or
  5. urban environments.

Students undertake a comparative study of an example from Australia and at least one other country. So, the urban field study that we have conducted at SSC Leichhardt sits well in proposed national Geography Curriculum

In the past digital tools in the field work we’ve undertaken have been limited to digital cameras and video cameras, whether stand alone of part of a part of a hand held digital device.  There’s been some limited use of decibel metres, but little that has dad immediate connectivity.  Things are changing and in my next post I’ll begin to explore some of the practical digital tools that teachers can start using in field work, now.

More on 21st Century Digital Pedagogy

While the JISC focus is principally in tertiary education they describe a world that our students will enter. The following modified diagram scopes out the attributes of a digitally literate tertiary student.  In NSW the assessment for determining the entry of students to tertiary institutions is the largely pen and paper, the Higher School Certificate (HSC).  At this point I’d like to pose the question:

How many of the digital understandings and skills, mapped in the diagram, are currently addressed in senior secondary curricula and in examinations like the NSW Higher School Certificate?

The complete diagram can be found on the JISC website.

Digital literacy anatomised: access, skills and practices
Digital literacy anatomised: access, skills and practices

Literacy is not enough: 21st Century Fluencies for the Digital age

The 21st century fluency project suggests these fluencies as essential.

21st Century Fluencies.  Source: 21st Century Fluency Project
21st Century Fluencies. Source: 21st Century Fluency Project

Each of the following links is to a video explanation.

If you don’t have time to watch the videos, right now, this table provides a quick summary of the fluencies.



In my next post I’ll explore the practicalities of  geography fieldwork using digital techniques.  I hope that I can incorporate at least some of the 21st fluencies in my work.  Also, I hope that these posts might elicit a response from my colleagies.  We need to unlock our creativity and build our collaboration. Alone it is far more difficult to confront these challenges.

I’ll leave the last word to David Loader

Schools have resisted changes in paradigm and technology … They continue to look back to their origins rather than respond to new challenges and needs. The community has moved on but the institutions and its defenders have not. David Loader. The Age. Aug 6, 2007.

David’s comments are not new, indeed they pre-date the Digital Education Revolution (DER), yet they have a relevance that must be heeded as far too many educators still linger in the last rays of 20th century pedagogy.

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