By Stephan Gruber and Derek Smith, co-instructors, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies
ENST3900/GEOG3000 is a third-year field course that normally includes several days off campus, in person, with exciting fieldwork outside and campfires in the evening. In the Winter 2021 term, we co-taught the course for students in our Geography, Environmental Studies and Geomatics programs online using Brightspace. With this blog, we will reflect on delivering the course in Brightspace and convince you that foregoing the in-person fieldwork was worth it for the experience. Well, not entirely, but in some sense that really is true.
The Honours Field Course: ENST3900/GEOG3000
As in the face-to-face fieldwork course, students were assigned to teams of 4-5 people. Their Brightspace groups were named after Canadian national parks, such as Aulavik and Ivvavik, as a reminder of adventure and outdoor discovery. They worked together closely and looked after each other during the course.
With “the urban winter landscape” as our theme, students completed fieldwork independently, taking physical snow measurements and doing telephone-based interviews to collect “real world” data to analyze. The instruments for physical measurements were improvised from materials found in every household and the students helped recruit over 30 interview participants.
Weekly classes (via Zoom) included 20-60 minutes of breakout rooms for students to connect, share fieldwork experiences, discuss course topics and work with their field data. Rapporteurs were responsible for reporting on group discussions, using a whiteboard that that each group saved in their Brightspace “locker” – and that we later used to evaluate participation.
Stephan’s Perspective on the Transition to Brightspace
I am a minimalist user of Brightspace. Options like creating my own templates intrigued me but the amount of improvisation in pandemic teaching kept me from engaging deeply. And this is what I like best about Brightspace: the low barrier to entry. Most things I tried worked intuitively and the number of required apology emails to students after messing up something was surprisingly low.
I would have preferred to continue working with the system I know already (cuLearn) because that is easiest for me. And I realize that, on the institutional level, stable delivery of these systems is expensive, needs careful long-term planning and might involve switching systems occasionally. As such, I really don’t mind the extra effort in switching, given how flawlessly online teaching tools at Carleton have worked for me since coming here in 2013.
Derek’s Perspective on the Transition to Brightspace
I’ve used cuLearn for many years, but mostly as a warehouse to post files for students and as a portal to the required readings. So, my shift to Brightspace as a cornerstone of our online teaching strategy was a leap into the unknown. The design of Brightspace is very different from cuLearn, so the main hurdle for me was navigating to the “places” I wanted to get to. There are a lot of tools – it seems like just about anything you might need is likely there somewhere. It took me some time to figure out which buttons to click to do what I wanted to accomplish – and to keep reminding myself that there may be tabs waiting for you if you scroll back to the top of the page. Most of the time, I was able to figure things out on my own. I did make a couple of mistakes along the way, but nothing resembling a catastrophe.
Brightspace has different options for setting up your course. Having the ability to customize the homepage is really useful (although for students it likely means having to get used to different designs – so it would be worthwhile to give your students at least one “tour”). For our course, we chose a “visual table of contents” for the homepage, which has a similar feel to a tablet, with rounded squares for each module organized in a grid of two columns. One of the great things about this setup is that you can add a representative photo to go along with the title of each module, and there is an “i” button that students can click to get a brief description.
Another thing I really like is how quickly you can switch to “view as learner” with one click – although when switching back to my instructor role I was sent all the way back to the homepage. I imagine that there is a setting to change this, but it wasn’t a priority. And I’m still not sure what it means to “publish” a student’s grade, as opposed to simply saving it, given that there is an additional setting to makes grades visible or not. There were other more important things that I did take the time to learn, however – for example, how to set up multiple “criteria groups” for marking rubrics for different assignments and make sure they are linked correctly to the gradebook. Once this was done, it made marking assignments very smooth and efficient.
In the future, I’d like to add “Release Conditions” for students, so that they can only advance through the modules after passing a quiz or completing some other required activity. Brightspace has a “Content Completed” page where you can quickly see whether your students are keeping up with their non-synchronous work.
In retrospect I can say that the new platform is a major improvement, but there is a learning curve – a different structure, new terminology and a plethora of features. Given that we will be using this platform for the foreseeable future, it is worth the investment learning the system, especially for tools that you are likely to use repeatedly.
My advice for instructors using Brightspace for the first time would be, firstly, to simply explore the platform without trying to necessarily accomplish anything more than just getting familiar with the design – for example, through the sample courses that are available. Secondly, you can keep things really simple the first time round. Don’t feel that you have to use all of the available tools right away.
Transitioning to the new learning environment, Brightspace, has been only a small challenge. It was a bit daunting at first, but it did not take long to get familiar with it and it was helpful for us as instructors. Now that we understand the basics, we will take advantage of other features in the future.
Although it is difficult to replace a field course with online teaching, it led to some new ideas and we implemented some nice elements that we will keep. Specifically, we now have a good tool to get students familiarized with important theory and with each other before embarking on an actual field course. In Fall 2021, this course will be taught again, hopefully transitioning to pandemic-light mode, and possibly mix online instruction with joint outdoor activities.
We are grateful for the professional rollout of the new system and the great support we have received from our Brightspace support person, Sarah Langridge, during this pilot. The personal and flexible support we received was extremely helpful and in key moments, went above and beyond to solve urgent problems. A bit like fieldwork, after all.
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