ASIG: Adapting a field course during COVID lockdown

Adapting a field course during COVID lockdown

The Edinburgh experience: CIEEM-accredited MSc Wildlife Biology & Conservation at Edinburgh Napier culminates in a 3-week Scotland-based field course after Easter. This field course typically consists of a 3-day trip to the Cairngorms National Park to discuss conservation and management issues with various organisations, a week in the field at an Edinburgh LNR to build ID and survey skills, some additional site visits in and around Edinburgh, and time in the lab. When lockdown was announced, the teaching team had to rapidly prepare a web-based alternative.

Led by Dr Jason Gilchrist, we decided on holding a week of intensive, full-time activities, followed by several follow-up live Q&A webinars the week after. This timescale was a compromise between (i) wanting students to gain as much experience as possible, (ii) acknowledging under lockdown students may have other responsibilities/restrictions, and (iii) the time it would take to plan and create brand new online content in such as short window. Each day, we focused on a separate theme with a broadly taxonomic focus: plants and habitats; terrestrial invertebrates; freshwater invertebrates; birds; mammals (with a day of introductory materials the week before).

Each theme was developed by a member of the teaching team specialising in that area, but we tried to work within a coherent structure across themes. A range of exercises, individual and group-based, were set and we tried to use as much interactive material as possible, such as videos, live webcams, picture quizzes and group tasks. Each day had a morning meet-up on Webex and an evening Q&A where the whole group came together for a discussion. The field course was held during the very strictest part of the lockdown, when people could only leave their house for food shopping and for one period of exercise per day, so we could not set exercises that involved leaving the home. One task involved replicating the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, both to demonstrate a survey method and form the basis for discussion of a citizen science project. In this case, we had to be mindful that not all students had access to a garden, so in this case we set an alternative option of surveying one of several live bird-feeder webcams online.

An important part of a field course is the social aspect – a chance for students to socialise with each other and to interact with staff in a less formal context. To try to retain this, we also held two less formal Webex sessions where students could discuss their experiences outside of the course, and we encouraged a ‘show-and-tell’ where students or staff could share a story, physical object (such as skull or other item collected from the wild) or video, and discuss their experience. To make the course feel more of a cohesive event we even made a logo for the course.

Feedback on the course was generally positive, and the students appreciated that the best job was done in light of the pandemic conditions. As ever, some feedback was based on personal preferences, e.g. some students expressed they’d have liked even more group tasks, while others felt that group tasks carried out remotely (e.g. via video call or What’s app group) were difficult; some felt there was too much work, others not enough. The Q&A sessions in the evenings (7-8pm), held later to allow students to eat first, divided opinion as well.