Home » Move Over, Paper and Pencil, the Handhelds and Tablets Are Here (Just Prepare for the Inevitable Glitches …)

Move Over, Paper and Pencil, the Handhelds and Tablets Are Here (Just Prepare for the Inevitable Glitches …)

Move Over, Paper and Pencil, the Handhelds and Tablets Are Here (Just Prepare for the Inevitable Glitches …) July 13, 2009

Faculty take digital technology to the field in Outdoor Classroom workshop

Trying out a ruggedized field notebook computer.

When it comes to using technology for teaching courses in the field, the possibilities to enhance student learning are almost limitless. At times, the possibilities for technical glitches may appear to be almost limitless, as well.

Of those two sets of possibilities, though, it was the potential to take their field courses to new levels that animated discussions and fired the imaginations of a group of ACM faculty at a recent workshop and, in the words of one of the workshop’s organizers, left them “hungry for more” and making plans for continued collaboration.

Ten participants, representing six ACM colleges, took part in “The Outdoor Classroom: Recent advances in mobile computing for the field sciences” which was held June 16-18 at Lawrence University’s Bjorklunden vid Sjon on the shores of Lake Michigan in Door County, Wisconsin. The workshop received funding from ACM’s Faculty Career Enhancement (FaCE) Project and the NITLE Instructional Innovation Fund.

The workshop opened with a plenary session by Peter Knoop from the University of Michigan, who began by laying out the basics of the technology that’s readily available to use in field-based courses – such as global positioning systems (GPSs), tablet computers, and wireless networking – and then moved into discussion of the most effective ways to use technology in the field.

Peter Knoop in his plenary session.

“The workshop became an exploration of the possibilities,” said Jeff Clark from Lawrence University, who organized the workshop with fellow geologist Sue Swanson from Beloit College. “We asked, what are the common field skills that we want students to learn, and then how can digital technology either enhance the learning of those skills or extend them. We also broke up into small disciplinary groups and talked about common exercises that we’ve done in courses in the past and how we might use field technology to improve them.”

True to the name of the workshop, the faculty headed into the surrounding woodlands and fields to put their digital skills to the test. That was where that second set of seemingly limitless possibilities was most evident.

“There were three presentations and several hands-on activities, and virtually all of them had some technical difficulty,” said Clark. The glitches were mostly minor and easily fixed, but he noted that the experience underscored the challenges of working with technology in the field, even for experienced users. “I took away from it that I have to be easier on myself and my students in the field,” Clark concluded.

The workshop will benefit faculty on ACM campuses beyond those who attended. “A lot of people said they were excited to go back to campus and share what they learned with their colleagues,” said Clark. In addition, he noted, the workshop gave participants an appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of different types of technology, such as hand-held units versus tablet PCs. That valuable information can help faculty and departments when they make decisions on writing grant proposals, acquiring new technology, and planning courses.

The workshop was barely over and Clark and Swanson had already begun to talk about organizing another one next summer. The two professors likely will find an enthusiastic audience.

Now that the participants have had an introduction to using the technology, they want to use what they’ve learned with their students, said Clark. A year from now, they’ll be ready to compare notes and work together to develop more exercises to use with their classes.

In the meantime, the website for the workshop will become a repository for course exercises, best practices, and other materials developed by the participants.

For ACM faculty interested in using technology in field-based learning, Clark offered two words of advice: “Stay tuned.”


For more information:

  • The workshop website includes information about the workshop, a link to Peter Knoop’s plenary presentation, and other resources, including sample exercises for using technology in the field.
  • Workshop coordinators: Jeff Clark, Geology, Lawrence University and Sue Swanson, Geology, Beloit College
  • The ACM Faculty Career Enhancement (FaCE) Project, supported with grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, provides funding for a wide range of faculty development activities.
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