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Fieldwork and technology

“How to bring a more 21st century feel to fieldwork that incorporates the use of geospatial technology (and moves away from the era of the clipboard!)?” 

Rachel Trafford, 2017

Topics on this page:

  • The use of technology for fieldwork preparation
  • Using mobile technology ‘in the field’
  • Using smartphone applications
  • Reading: case studies
  • Using technology for management and analysis of fieldwork data
  • Virtual fieldwork
  • Reading about virtual fieldwork

Advances in technology in recent decades offer great opportunities for fieldwork use and as new technology develops, teachers and students are finding even more creative ways in which technology can be used to enhance fieldwork.

The fast pace of change means that you need to keep alert to new ideas and developments via social media and website to be able to make full use of the potential of available technology.

  • Refer to Biddulph et al (2021) pp 206-7.

The use of technology for fieldwork preparation

There are a number of ways that technology can be used to support fieldwork preparation, for example:

  • To find out background information on the fieldwork area
  • To source secondary data e.g. census, historical data, data collected by others, results from previous fieldwork
  • To prepare data recording sheets/questionnaires
  • To prepare base maps and identify sample locations
  • To search for photos of places taken in the past to compare with current photos taken during fieldwork.

Using mobile technology ‘in the field’

Mobile technology such as smartphones and tablets can be used ‘in the field’ and a range of applications are available for making measurements, displaying maps, recording data and taking photos and videos. 

GPS functions can be used to record where data was collected, and software, including GIS, can be used to analyse findings on site. The use of technology can reduce the need to write in the field and speed up data processing, as well has help students to record and organise their work.

Students typically view their mobile device as a basic communication tool and often do not exploit the rich potential that these devices hold for learning, although COVID-19 did change perceptions. Mobile phones are essential to most students’ lives, although you will need to check out school policies if you are planning to use them as a fieldwork tool.

Also, although it is commonly believed that students are all ‘cyberkids’, you should be aware that most have a narrow focus on their use of the technology and often only use two or three sites in depth, so they may appear to be more competent and literate in their use of mobile technologies than they actually are. You should check out the uses you intend to employ in fieldwork with them before you embark on the fieldwork.

Goldup (2013) reports positively on his experience of using iPads with year 8 students during fieldwork, although driving rain did stop play on one day which is a consideration to plan for in advance with some contingency backup! Welsh and France (2012) offer some practical advice on using smartphones and suggest some general apps that are particularly useful.

Trafford (2017) writes about planning GCSE and A level fieldwork to involve creating a Map Tour StoryMap for a city transect and using the Collector app for ArcGIS to create a collaborative map of environmental quality from geolocated data. Dunn (n.d.) illustrates several ways in which fieldwork can be enhanced using GIS and handheld technology.

Using smartphone applications

The sophistication of current technology and its portability make the smartphone a very useful device for fieldwork. Some potential uses of smartphone applications in the field are:

  • Use of on-line maps such as: Open street map; Google maps: Bing OS maps; iGeology.
  • Note/record making e.g. using pre-prepared data collection forms
  • Use voice recording for notes
  • Use geo-locate function to fix records
  • Use internet for sources of information e.g. for identification species; house types
  • Take photos with geolocations
  • Take 360 degree photos
  • Take video with in-built camera
  • Annotating photos with text and arrows (using the Skitch app) or using apps with sketching features
  • Record sounds for a sound map
  • Topography measurements with altimeter, clinometer or theodolite apps
  • Calculations with in-built calculator
  • Share information e.g. by text, email, Dropbox
  • Look up the current weather
  • Use the stopwatch function
  • Use text or social media to communicate with other groups in the field.

The geo-location function is very valuable to help students to manage and keep track of their data collection points for specific sample locations or for records along a transect. Using GIS in the field, for example with the Collector app for ArcGIS, is also a flexible tool that enables data to be collected collaboratively and pooled together for analysis.

Video ethnography techniques – or tracking and recording what you see and hear as you walk along with a video camera or smartphone – can evoke ‘atmosphere’ and add a different perspective to the study of place. Brand (2020) writes about using the technique with A level students to assist them with analysing the meaning of a place through fieldwork.

  • See GeogIT (a Geography Fieldwork app) with 35 different methods of data collection. It is available to download on both IOS and Android.

Another potential technology resource to support fieldwork is drones. Drones have potential for viewing landscape, filming a stretch of coastline or river and capture footage and views of locations that students might not normally be able to access.

As they become more affordable, this technology could be more accessible for schools. They are used in research and higher education. However, there are a number of legal and safety concerns to be considered.

Reading: case studies

  • Brand, S. (2020) ‘Capturing a ‘sense of place’ through fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Dunn, S. (n.d.) Using GIS and Handheld Technology to Enhance Fieldwork, Royal Geographical Society.
  • Goldup, G. (2013) ‘iPads in geographical fieldwork: a learning device or a hi-tech toy?’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Searl, C. (2022) Fieldwork and GIS: Geography Subject Knowledge, Programme, Royal Geographical Society.
  • Trafford, R. (2017) ‘Seizing the opportunity for a new era of fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Welsh, K. and France, D. (2012) ‘Smartphones and fieldwork’, Geography, Spring.

Using technology for management and analysis of fieldwork data

After students return to the classroom after fieldwork, they will be concerned with sorting and managing their data and analysing and presenting their fieldwork findings. Technology has a significant role here too. Students should be taught good habits of filing their data so it can be collated and shared with others as necessary.

This could involve:

  • Cloud-based data storage and file sharing applications such as Dropbox or Google Drive
  • Photo management and sharing software
  • Video-editing and sharing software
  • Software that allows the creation of digital stories
  • Spreadsheets and GIS systems to analyse/display data
  • Displaying geotagged images/notes on a map
  • Using applications such as Google Earth Pro to measure areas, plot fieldwork data and create 3D landscape cross-profiles
  • Internet research for secondary information
  • PowerPoint or other presentation software.

Virtual fieldwork

During COVID-19 restrictions, teacher had to seek alternative ways to provide an authentic context for fieldwork and they began to consider virtual fieldwork, by taking students on technology-enabled virtual field trips using 360° videos. The use of virtual fieldwork in geography education is not new.

In 2005 Taylor defined virtual fieldwork as a ‘representation of a specific geographical area using digital images and/or photographs/video’. He sees it as a useful approach prior to a real field trip or to enable students to experience an environment that might otherwise be too difficult or dangerous to visit, such as a volcano. 

Fyrer (2017) recounts how she used both YouTube videos on coasts and created a ‘PowerPoint show’ of the Dorset coastline to create her virtual fieldwork experience.

While a virtual trip cannot be as impactful for students as experiencing an environment first-hand, the experience is clearly worthwhile in the opinion of these writers. 

Matthews (2020) also sees the benefits of the fieldwork sessions using existing resources to bring virtual glacial landscapes into the classroom and Chua et al. (2021) discuss the value of virtual reality fieldwork.

Anderson and Stefinlongo (2021) made use their virtual trip before visiting Venice for real. They point out the range of online resources that are available in this case – maps, images, videos, Venice tours – that could convey a very good understanding of the city and its environment before visiting. 

They used Google Earth to exploring the relationship between the city and the lagoon and used pre-existing data layers relating to Venice in ArcGIS Online. They proved that if you are resourceful, there is a lot of information to be found.

Schwab and Hunt (2021) in a presentation at the GA Conference given on behalf of the GA Secondary Phase Committee provides an excellent example of how to put together a PowerPoint to replicate a fieldtrip ‘virtually’. 

Refer to this case study from the GA’s Making my Place in the World project on Virtual fieldwork. This explains how the teachers went about creating the virtual fieldwork resource above.

The Field Studies Councils offers online courses which include virtual fieldtrips to their sites as well as digital packages to facilitate a virtual field trip to one of their field sites. During the COVID-19 pandemic the FSC ran Fieldwork Live and the resources are still available on catch up.

Reading about virtual fieldwork

  • Anderson, D. and Stefinlongo, C. (2021) ‘Geographical field trip to Venice and its lagoon’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Chua, C.Y., Wong, J., Chang, J. and Hagen, R. (2021) ‘An exploration of using virtual fieldwork in the geography classroom’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Fyrer, L. (2017) ‘Virtual field tripping’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Matthews, A. (2020) ‘It’s virtually a glacier’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Schwab,  S. and Hunt, P. (2021) Virtual fieldwork – here, there and everywhere, see also PowerPoint from GA Conference 2021 .
  • Taylor, R. (2005) ‘It’s virtually fieldwork!’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.