Published: 25/01/2010 14:21 

Taking undergraduate students from New Zealand to Africa - virtually 

Contact details

Dr Alan Dixon
Department of Applied Sciences, Geography and Archaeology
University of Worcester
Henwick Grove
Worcester WR2 6AJ

  • Module title: GEOG 219/279 Africa: Diversity and Development
  • Course: Various (Summer School module)
  • Level: 2nd and 3rd year
What does the teacher do?

The primary role of teaching staff was to facilitate a ‘virtual’ student fieldtrip to the highlands of Western Ethiopia, simulating the fieldwork element of a joint 2nd and 3rd year module entitled ‘Africa: Diversity and Development’. The module aimed to introduce students to many of the key interrelated development issues affecting Africa; challenging stereotypical images of the continent and exploring its socio-economic, cultural, political and environmental diversity. Critically, the module sought to develop students’ analytical skills, in terms of evaluating information from a wide range of sources (academic literature, NGOs, government documents) and being able to present and debate development issues from different stakeholder perspectives. The teaching staff felt a fieldwork element was essential to the module, given the potential of fieldwork to facilitate deep, experiential learning via first-hand experiences of complex development situations in Africa. However, with the location of New Zealand rendering any visit to Africa logistically and financially prohibitive, it was felt that there was some merit in developing a ‘virtual’ field trip (VFT) to give students a flavour of the development challenges facing people, their livelihoods, and their environment in a marginal part of the continent.

In a preliminary session, students were asked to sign-up to a specific stakeholder group for the week (local subsistence farmers, a local development NGO, an international conservation NGO, private investors, the Ethiopian Government, or the Nile Basin Initiative).  At the end of the week, each group would be required to give a 10 minute presentation of their view of the key development issues facing the area, and any potential solutions from their particular stakeholder perspective. Hence an element of role-play was incorporated into the VFT. On day one, students travelled to the area (a brief video of the journey via a small twin propeller plane was shown to relay the geography, and remoteness of the region), and staff presented a multimedia tour of the urban and rural setting, introducing real local people, hotel and transport facilities, as well as the key features of urban and rural livelihoods. Activities on day two, three and four, centred on virtual visits to examples of natural resource management systems and on-going development projects (e.g. indigenous wetland agriculture, and an EU funded non-timber forest product project), again incorporating brief staff presentations, video footage from the area and group discussion. Between these visits, each group was offered the opportunity to interview a representative of the projects or initiatives visited (via staff role-play), to stimulate and discuss ideas for their presentation. Throughout the VFT, students were given access to maps, images, video and a range of reference materials and weblinks via blackboard.

In the final presentations, staff assumed the role of UN advisors and assessed the development strategies of each group. Other stakeholder groups were also encouraged to publicly debate the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s strategy.

Hot tips and things to look out for:

This particular VFT model required a great deal of preparation, and an in-depth knowledge of the study area. In this instance, both staff involved had undertaken their doctoral research in the area, albeit 25 years apart, and as such were in possession of a wealth of geographically relevant research papers, grey literature, photographic and video resources, as well as first-hand experience of the environmental, socio-economic and political context.

The timing of the VFT within the module was also chosen carefully. By week four, students should have been familiar with ways of interpreting ‘development’, the significance of culture and local knowledge, rural livelihood issues, and various perspectives on land degradation and sustainability. These themes underpinned the VFT, hence a key objective was to reinforce learning via ‘real-word’ examples.

Attention to contextual detail is significant and complementary to the academic content and learning outcomes of the VFT.  The use of amateur video material showing the more mundane and non-sensational aspects of daily life in the area (e.g. a hotel room, or travelling along a dirt road) seemed particularly effective at imparting a sense of the reality of the situation to students. The theatrical element is very important!

Does it work?

There was a feeling amongst staff that the VFT was a success. Although it is no substitute for the real thing, it seemed to generate much interest and enthusiasm among students. At the end of the week students were asked to provide feedback via an evaluation questionnaire, comprising 13 questions seeking to identify the strengths and weaknesses of various elements of the field week. Whilst only 14 (out of 39) evaluations were returned, these were overwhelmingly positive in terms of the overall assessment of the course; 36% rated the VFT as ‘excellent’, 57% as ‘very good’ and 7% as ‘good’. When asked to comment on what they found most effective at imparting a sense of a real field visit, 79% of students singled out the inclusion of video vignettes, in particular the plane journey and market visit. The group work experience also appeared to have been successful; most students cited ‘working with other people’, and ‘putting ourselves in the place of locals’, as key skills gained through the VFT.

Given its effectiveness, there is arguably scope for this particular VFT model to be transferred to other contexts and locations, especially if participating staff have in-depth knowledge of a particular area. With careful preparation (i.e. the collection of multimedia material and literature, and the identification of specific stakeholders and key environment / development issues) the VFT can be an effective (and memorable) learning tool, facilitating the development of holistic analytical skills among students.

Although to some extent the Ethiopian case study outlined here was dependant upon the knowledge of participating staff, we recognise that it could provide a useful standalone case study in Geography. It is our intention, therefore, to develop a self-supporting module pack for wider dissemination. In the meantime, however, we are happy to share our experiences and resources with anyone.   

What problems / issues have arisen?

Students would have preferred longer for their final presentations; there was some feeling that 10 mins per group (with 10 mins for questions) trivialised their work and effort during the week. Many commented that more discussion could have been facilitated after the presentations. Staff agreed, but given that most students were concurrently taking other Summer School modules, it proved difficult to identify time-slots in which everyone could attend. Facilitating more time for presentations, questions and discussion on the final day, therefore, would benefit the VFT.

Details of support material / course work / assessment methods:

Handout (pdf will open in a new browser window)
Virtual Field Course 2007 Illubabor Zone, Oromyia Region, Western Ethiopia

Video clips (clips will play in a new window)
The following are examples of video clips included in the powerpoint presentation shown to students at the beginning of the VFT week. From the plane ride between Addis Ababa to Illubabor, to the sampling of local food, the first session aimed to impart a sense of the reality of life in the study area, whilst stimulating students to think about the geographical issues and constraints of the study area.

Plane ride to study area
This clip is an edited snapshot of a typical plane journey to Illubabor. Students were asked to pay particular attention to the changes in the landscape during the journey, and how these may influence (or have been influenced by) environment-development scenarios in the study area.

Local food
This short clip gives a snapshot of local food — in effect what students would be eating if they travelled to the area. In the associated discussion, students were asked to consider the food security situation in the area, the issue of cultural food preferences, and the implications of these for livelihood development and the environment.

Backstreet  - Metu
This clip provides a snapshot of a typical backstreet in the local town. Students were asked to observe what was happening in the street, and what this may tell us about life in the town.
Car ride
This edited clip of a car ride gives a useful impression of the state of the trunk roads in the study area — with obvious implications for economic development.

Relevant references

Stainfield, J, Fisher, P, Ford, B and Solem, M (2000) International virtual field trips: a new direction? Journal of Geography in Higher Education 24, 2, 255-262

This case study is also available as a pdf Taking undergraduate students from New Zealand to Africa - virtually


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