Raiding the stationary cupboard for online teaching

Each May I’m involved in live broadcasts, across three evenings, from a field with a ridge and furrow system on The Open University campus.  We take students from S206 (Environmental Science) through the process of a field investigation and these fieldcasts are designed to both increase student confidence in field science and to give students unable access to other fieldwork opportunities the chance to experience it in an authentic way.


Presenters and tech crew preparing for fieldcasts. Photo: Trevor Collins

An interesting thing about these live broadcasts is that the content of the broadcasts is driven by students. We use a platform developed by the Knowledge Media Institute which allows students to simultaneously watch the streamed video footage of presenters in the field while being able to communicate with us through a chat box and pre-prepared with widgets (voting, word-clouds etc).  Whiteboards (from the stationary cupboard) allow us to be responsive to student choices.

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Julia Cooke and Phil Wheeler collecting data. Screenshot from broadcast.

It is always a challenge to get the supporting resources together because we don’t know what topic the students will choose in advance.  But in the day between each broadcast (on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday), raiding the stationary cupboard always seems to supply what we need.  A benefit of using everyday, easily accessible objects to create teaching support is that it shows students that they can do field research at home, and that much is possible without fancy kit.

Here are some examples:

  1. The ridge and furrow system is not very visible onscreen (despite being really obvious where you are there), so we made a model with paper, sticky-tape, pins and blue tack (with a picture of Phil for scale) to ensure the sampling design was clear.

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    Model of ridge and furrow system used to illustrate the sampling strategy.

  2. In 2016 students chose to measure biomass, so we needed a small quadrant.  Four rulers and some tape allowed us to make a (somewhat adjustable) square of known size.

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    Screenshot from the 2016 fieldcasts showing the improvised quadrat.

  3. In 2017 students chose to study plant diversity (species richness). We made some quick guides of the species we were likely to find in quadrats by picking representatives of the species from across the field, colour-photocopying them (below left), writing the species names on the paper.  We rescanned them so they could be sent to students electronically, and laminated our copy to take into the field (below right).
  4. Kadmiel couldn’t join us one evening, but another stationary cupboard raid allowed a model of him to attend.  The pedagogical benefits of this are perhaps less obvious, but it was good fun.

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    Julia Cooke, Phil Wheeler, and (mini) Kadmiel Maseyk

It is always a blast to work with my co-presenters Phil Wheeler and Kadmiel Maseyk.  They are always well prepared, genuinely enjoy their science and teaching, open to ideas and don’t take themselves, or me, too seriously.  The technical team (who make the broadcast possible while we do the teaching bit) are efficient, innovative, willing to try new things and handle the unpredictable nature of the fieldcasts.

I’m looking forward to next year already!  I wonder what the students will chose and what we will find in the stationary cupboard then?