Changing Paths, Changing Priorities

In this post, Derek Turner relates how the pandemic shifted his research focus as a BCcampus EdTech Fellow, forcing a re-evaluation of data under a new, more urgent lens with some unexpected results that could prove useful in a post-pandemic educational environment.

Disclaimer:  BCcampus acknowledges that this report does not include the experiences of non-binary, trans women, trans men and others on this spectrum. For more on our commitment to inclusion, see our EDI statement below.

One of the goals of the BCcampus EdTech Fellows program is to enable faculty to experiment with technological interventions that assist in solving pedagogical challenges. As an EdTech Fellow, my research focus was to evaluate the affective learning gains of students using virtual reality (VR) field trips and to compare the effectiveness of different types of VR technologies. Affective learning gains, including interests, motivations, self-determination, and self-efficacy, are important benefits to taking field trips and are an effective way we recruit our students into the natural sciences. My work was designed to explore how different VR field trips stack up to the real thing.

This project started in summer 2019, when I built or expanded five virtual field trips that were released as open educational resources (OER). I also designed and tested pre– and post–field trip surveys, to be used in two semesters: fall 2019 and spring 2020. With support from BCcampus, data collection went well in 2019, and the pre–field trip surveys distributed early in 2020 brought the first portion of the project within one set of surveys to be completed. To collect data for the second part of the project, my team ran online field trips in fall 2019, and the plan was to have students use an immersive “high-tech” HTC Vive–based VR field trip in March 2020 to compare to the “low-tech” online trips. 

And then everything changed.

Over the course of a few days, campuses were closed, in-person contact with students was eliminated, and the ability to deliver any kind of field trip was gone. In addition to the many ways the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic affected student learning, almost all forms of experiential learning in my discipline ground to a sudden halt. In this new landscape, virtual field trips went from being something of interest to educators to being the only tool available for providing some version of these vital learning opportunities.

But out of this chaos came some surprising developments. As educators and students pivoted suddenly to online environments, faculty from across different disciplines and institutions started sharing resources openly en masse. Some of these lectures, labs, field trips, and other resources had already been built by educators motivated by some of the same drivers that originally motivated me when I built virtual field trips — opening access to different types of students and looking for alternatives to traditional resources to overcome new challenges. However, many of these resources were actively developed in response to the pandemic and were generated with the understanding and expectation that as OER they would be reused, remixed, and shared widely. I found this as inspirational as it was essential, as I scrambled to provide my own students with high-quality educational resources as we redirected online over a weekend. I was fortunate to be involved in many rewarding discussions with other faculty about how to continue to create and share online resources for educators and students throughout 2020, and I was happy to share what experience I had gained from developing, using, and researching online field trips through the EdTech Fellows program.

Pivoting online was a profound moment for many educators, for better and for worse. For me, it also put into context the more immediate value of my research. As interesting as comparing changes in affective learning between traditional field trips and online field trips is, it didn’t seem to be as important in a world where in-person field trips weren’t even possible. The same was true for comparing types of VR technology. What I termed “high-tech” VR in my previous BCcampus blog post (linked above) requires students to share headsets and controllers. Even if these are sanitized between uses, it will likely be a while before that type of shared technology is useful in classrooms again. Instead, we were in a new pedagogical landscape, one where “low-tech” online field trips were now the only option. They had gone mainstream overnight.

Continuing the same research path no longer made sense, neither practically nor theoretically. Without students taking in-person field trips or using high-tech VR equipment that spring, I didn’t have sufficient data to finish the research as planned. More important at the time, however, was that new questions suddenly became much more of a priority. Some of the questions that arose repeatedly in my discussions with other faculty included: What types of students learn better using online field trips? Do some students have obstacles with taking these trips? If so, how can we reach them and help?

A path in the woods forks into 2 beside a blank wooden sign.
Photo by James Wheeler from Pexels

Another issue that started to creep into the discussion later on, after the rush to build and share resources, was what place they would have after the pandemic was over. Would they be abandoned entirely, or would they still be able to be used to supplement and support in-person field trips? This issue of long-term sustainability is a recurring problem with some types of OER, and virtual field trips are no exception.

Fortunately, the data I had already collected was well-suited to helping address some of these questions. Through 2019 and early 2020, my team collected surveys from students who chose in-person field trips, students who chose online field trips, and students who chose neither of these options. The survey questions asked students to rate how much they agreed with statements about their motivations, interests, and anxieties; how useful they found the type of field trip they experienced; and what obstacles they faced in being able to take in-person field trips. The survey also collected information on the student demographics, which my team could use to further analyze in more detail.

Looking over the collected data, it became clear to me that this research project should be less about how online field trips affected student learning compared to in-person trips and more about why some students preferred online field trips in the first place. This would serve both an immediate need as we tried to determine which students might do better with this type of field trip and a long-term need as faculty decided whether to continue using them after the pandemic. 

New research questions matched these larger goals. For example, I questioned if there was any correlation between students who are highly motivated by learning field skills they view as being important for their careers and students who chose to participate in in-person field trips. Are there differences in demographics between, for example, international and domestic students? Are there specific obstacles, such as cost or work commitments, that prevent some students from taking in-person field trips more than others? These questions now seemed much more important as educators scrambled to understand which students would be successful with online field trips.

Re-evaluating the data in this way under a new, more urgent lens sometimes supported my assumptions and hypothesis and sometimes did not. For example, it is no surprise that students who chose in-person field trips agreed more with statements of career and intrinsic motivation (e.g., “Fieldwork skills are important to my career,” “Learning earth science is interesting”), self-determination (“I study hard to learn earth science”) and self-efficacy (“I believe I can understand concepts in earth science”). These students also found the field trips more useful and interesting compared to the online students. In the student comments, they mentioned the practicality of learning field skills, enjoying working outside, applying concepts learned in class to real scenarios, and the ability to ask questions and talk to their peers. 

The students who chose online field trips, by comparison, agreed significantly less with all these statements and had similar results as the students who chose neither of the field trip options. These students also, predictably, preferred online field trips more because of their greater flexibility and because of existing work or family commitments. Their comments supported these results, focusing mostly on the difficulty of fitting field trips into their busy schedules, being able to re-visit the field sites, and, for some students, having physical limitations that prevented them from participating. Cost was another potential obstacle my team asked questions about. Although there was overall a relatively low level of agreement to cost being an obstacle compared to other factors, out of the 862 surveys collected, 197 students (23 per cent) agreed with a four or five out of five that they would be less likely to take a course due to field trip costs, which are not always included in tuition fees.

Some of the results were more surprising, especially when comparing students of three demographic splits: international and domestic students; female and male students; and mature and younger students. International students showed significantly higher levels of anxiety about taking field trips, both in-person and online, than domestic students. This anxiety was higher for online field trips than it was for in-person field trips. Despite this, a much higher percentage of international students chose one of the two field trip options compared to domestic students (82 per cent to 62 per cent). However, international students who chose online field trips also reported that cost and time commitments were less of an obstacle compared to domestic students, indicating there may be other barriers for international students besides those mentioned above.

Female students had a few significant differences from male students.[1] Those who chose online field trips preferred them for their flexibility and because of family/work commitments much more than males. For the students who chose in-person field trips, the data also indicated a substantial gap between females and males in self-efficacy (“I believe I can understand concepts in earth science”). Lower perceived self-efficacy in females is a widespread problem in STEM (Hill et al., 2010; Hong and Jun, 2011; Williams and George, 2014; Litzler et al., 2014), but it is interesting that this appeared to be a bigger issue with students who chose in-person field trips and who were otherwise relatively highly motivated and interested in fieldwork.

Mature students (>23 years old) who chose in-person field trips found fieldwork to be less valuable for their careers and learning and less interesting compared to younger students (<23 years old). They were also less likely to take more earth science courses, suggesting that field trips are less useful for recruiting mature students than younger students.

Results like these will be useful for educators who are making decisions about what types of field trips to include in a post-pandemic educational environment. With all the field trip OER now available, faculty can choose to include (or not) virtual field trips if they fit well with their students’ needs. I plan to include them at least as an additional tool in some of my courses. But I’ll also do so while being more mindful of their impact on certain types of students. For example, providing a virtual field trip option could be an equitable solution for my students who work on weekends and wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate. I may also focus attempts to enhance self-efficacy for students taking in-person field trips, where it might be more effective than for the entire student population. Another example is finding ways to lower the anxiety for international students during online field trips, especially during their first experience. If language barriers are one of the reasons for increased anxiety, I could provide captions or a narration script. If being able to ask questions to an instructor is an obstacle, I could set up a Q&A session or dedicate class time to explore the first online field site with students. There is clearly more work to do to understand some of the reasons for these results, but this first step will hopefully open new doors to understanding how to help our students learn more effectively with this emerging education technology. 

As we transition out of a purely online pedagogy, the lessons and resources we have learned and built during the pandemic should not be ignored. Instead, we should continue to carefully apply them to help students who most benefit from their use. In the case of online virtual field trips, there is unmistakably a need to provide flexible, open, freely available field trip options that allow different types of learners to experience field sites. Nobody is suggesting that alternative field trips replace existing, established, effective in-person field trips and field schools. Instead, this research indicates a place for using virtual field trips to supplement and reinforce the skills and knowledge learned on traditional field trips.

Finally, I would like to thank BCcampus again, not just for its support of this research but also for being a source of inspiration over the past 18 months. The articles, resources, and sense of community fostered by this organization have been so valuable for many educators across B.C. I look forward to continuing to work toward BCcampus’s goal of exploring how emerging technology can help us overcome pedagogical challenges in this rapidly changing educational landscape.

[1] Gender was self-reported, with options being female, male, and not listed. Although several students selected this third option, the small sample size (n=5) prevented a detailed analysis, leaving a binary dataset.

EDI statement

BCcampus is committed to inclusion. From the workplace to our learning spaces, we value diversity and are actively working to decolonize our organization and the ways in which we collaborate with others. We believe that a more diverse team will help us better support the individuals and communities we work with. Our definitions for this work are as follows:

Equity is the absence of barriers that exclude people with non-dominant or marginalized lived experiences, perspectives, and identities. We recognize that everyone is not starting from the same place and that there is a need for intentional interventions to allow people who experience exclusion to be present and contribute.

Diversity is the presence of people in a group with a variety of lived experiences, perspectives, and identities that may include (but are not limited to) race, ethnicity, colour, ancestry, place of origin, political beliefs, religion, marital status, family status, ability, sex, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, age, and class and/or socioeconomic status. We recognize that these categories are not fixed or independent of each other. They are fluid and can intersect in all sorts of ways. We respect an individual’s right to self-identification and affirm that no one way of being is intrinsically superior to another.

Inclusion is the practice of creating and sustaining environments and communities in which everyone feels welcomed, valued, respected, and empowered to participate fully and authentically in ways that work for them.

The feature image for this post (viewable in the BCcampus News section at the bottom of our homepage) is by Tyler Lastovich from Pexels