Bringing the Outdoors Online: Creating Online Field Labs

Student holds up phone to identify outdoor plant

Field labs, common in natural resource and agricultural education programs, have learning objectives that can be hard to transfer to an online environment. Covid-19 has necessitated the movement of many courses into an online environment; this creates challenges for all courses, but particularly for hands-on or lab courses. It is important to remember that all facets of online courses do not have to be carried out solely on the computer. Your university’s LMS (Learning Management System) is convenient for content delivery, but assignments, lab reports, and assessments can and should ask students to go outside to apply the topics covered in lecture. This basic expectation of field labs can be upheld in the online environment, though modifications to field labs are inevitably required.

To truly teach a field lab online you must let go of the method used in the past and even the method used when you took field courses; the focus must remain on the learning objectives rather than the methods. I have found that field lab learning objectives fall into three general categories: 1) data collection techniques, 2) the practice of science using experimental design and writing lab reports, and 3) field tours that expose students to places, people, and phenomena that reinforce concepts taught in course lectures. Many labs combine these three learning objectives, meaning that a combination of approaches will be needed to meet all objectives in each class. Additionally, these approaches may shift over the semester to best fit the needs of your students. The following sections are composed of best practices garnered from multiple semesters of creating and delivering successful, engaging online field labs.

Data collection

Exercises that focus on lab techniques and data collection can be difficult to move online because students lack access to the area and equipment usually required for these labs. However, most students have access to powerful data collection tools—their smartphones. There are an infinite number of free or low-cost apps that can be used to collect data. Integrated cameras allow students to share photographic observations with their instructor and each other. Apps such as iNaturalist, PlantNet, or Google Lens assist students in identifying organisms and providing detailed descriptions with just a few snapshots. Location “pins” can be shared with students, who can then use GPS tracking apps (such as Google Maps) to visit specific areas virtually or in person if conditions permit. Readily available tools or equipment, such as rulers or even quadrats made from yarn, can be utilized to create a “low tech” data collection experience. In any case, directions for data collection must be clear and explicit to reduce student frustration and disengagement. While the data will not be as accurate as that collected with traditional lab equipment, students are still getting the field experience and meeting the learning objectives. They are outside observing, recording, and learning—skills critical for fulfilment of both data collection and practice of science learning objectives.

The practice of science

Often, the goal of the lab exercise is for students to form hypotheses, collect data, analyze data, and write lab reports. In this case, you can provide a pre-collected data set to students that will permit them to complete the exercise. This may have even been necessary in the past when weather made data collection impossible or for students who were not able to attend the lab. Here, you essentially film your pre-lab lecture and demonstrate data collection procedures. Providing videos and/or pictures of the data being collected gives students a solid grasp of the scientific practices inherent in the lab activity.

Although a challenge, group work or group presentations of results and subsequent analysis can still be accomplished in an online format. If you have a synchronous time that you meet with students, or you utilize breakout rooms in Zoom or other video conferencing technology, make sure to provide opportunities for collaboration among group members. If the class is fully asynchronous, Flipgrid and other video sharing tools can be integrated in your LMS, thereby allowing students to “talk” to each other as their schedules permit. To eliminate technical difficulties on the day of the lesson, I suggest creating your own videos ahead of time and encouraging students to do the same.

Field tours

Many labs focus on showing students locations, examples, or phenomena that reinforce the content taught during lecture. When in-person field tours are impossible, video field tours can be a wonderful way to demonstrate or convey this information to students. Benefits of prerecorded tours are numerous, as instructors are afforded a flexibility not common in a typical lab setting. Site visits can occur at an ideal time of day or even year; this is particularly important if the studied phenomenon varies temporally. Geography is no longer a concern, as travel time is not limited by the length of a lab period, and potential variation between locations can be easily underscored. Knowledgeable professionals may not be available for interviews during the traditional lab period, but the flexibility provided by video tours means you can work around their schedule to capture the knowledge they can impart. Further, students are no longer spread out spatially, ensuring that each student can hear and see the critical information you wish to highlight.

If your teaching repertoire has not included videoed field tours in the past, here is a compiled list of tips to make the transition easier.

  • Don’t record everything; stop the recording between target topics or concepts. Editing takes a significant amount of time and is unnecessary if you can record only what is needed to meet lesson objectives.
  • Don’t be afraid to do several takes in the field until you feel you have a video that captures what you want to say and show students.
  • Keep videos short. Students tend to “zone out” or lose focus if they are required to watch long videos. The length may vary based on your content, but I tend to limit videos to approximately 6 minutes or less.
  • Introduce yourself and anyone with you. Presumably, your students know who you are, but they may not know your companions or their role in the field experience.
  • Explain your location. Students miss contextual clues because they did not ride to the location with you. This is particularly important if your students are not local to the area or have not visited your site previously.
  • Use a lapel microphone. High-quality audio is critical for your students’ understanding. Background noise, such as wind, traffic, or construction, can distract students or drown out your explanations.
  • Incorporate engagement activities between video clips. Quizzes, discussions, or assignments ensure that students watch the videos and engage with the content as they would in the field.
  • Create streaming links of your videos. Weak internet connections cause problems for students who are required to download multiple videos.

Moving field labs online improves accessibility for all students, allowing us to support a more diverse group of students. It allows students to engage with content on their own terms when time permits; students who may have conflicting work or family commitments are no longer prevented from participating in field labs. As campuses return to face-to-face instruction, you may consider leaving some of your labs online. At the very least, you may consider utilizing the videos and tools developed for online instruction to supplement your in-person field lab experiences. Regardless of format, field labs are critical for student understanding; with just a few modifications, your online field experiences can be just as engaging and informative as the in-person field labs you have used in the past.