Conducting field courses in times of a pandemic can be challenging. In our case, we had to cancel a planned field trip in economic geography that would have taken 19 students and two advisors to the Valle Maira in the Italian province of Cuneo in the Piemont. We had planned to spend 10 days in this region to develop ideas for sustainable development of peripheral mountain regions. Students would have stayed in the small hamlet of Reinero and would not only have studied the current and future situation of this beautiful area in the Cottian Alps, but also would have helped repair hiking trails and shared their results with the local community.
Yet, when the Covid-19 situation worsened in Italy, and Switzerland went into lockdown in March, we had to completely redo our plans for this field trip, which is a required course in the Master program at the Institute of Geography at the University of Bern. Instead of travelling to Italy, we decided to stay in Switzerland and developed a hybrid field course, which involved a 2-day online seminar, field work in small groups, online feedback meetings and a final student conference, which was also held online. In the following, we highlight the advantages and disadvantages of such a course and emphasize lessons learned.
The course we finally offered during summer 2020 was called “Motivations and Strategies of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises in Times of Crisis” and focused on the response of enterprises to the Covid-19 pandemic in a typical alpine area, the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland. The course was structured into three parts: The first part involved a 2-day online seminar, for which we invited experts as guest speakers and prepared inputs on background information and theories related to the topic. The second part incorporated field work by the students in groups of 2 or 3 during the summer. Students developed a concept for this field work, which was commented on by us during an online session before the empirical part started.
We divided students into six groups and each group picked a sector (agriculture, forestry, personal services, industry, retail and tourism) and selected potential small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) for in-person interviews. Students freely scheduled these interviews during the summer and travelled on their own to the Bernese Oberland. Once these interviews were conducted, another online feedback session was scheduled with each group, during which we discussed questions related to data analysis and interpretation. This second part also involved the making of a short film of ca. 5 minutes, in which the results were presented in a visual manner. Filmmaking was supported by the Institute`s mLab, an innovative facility that helps students and researchers document and communicate their work through the use of media, art and digital technologies. The third part consisted of an online student conference, during which the groups presented their results and their films. The final products that the students had to submit were a report by each group and a short film.
How did this hybrid format work for the students and for us as instructors? Based on the detailed evaluations the students submitted anonymously, we can report the following:
- Course organization: Students appreciated that we built in two online feedback sessions during the summer, in which we discussed the progress of their field work in small groups. We also made the communication with students a priority throughout the summer (emails, feedback on drafts of the final report, etc.). Moreover, the course benefitted from choosing different formats such as expert inputs in the first part, small group sessions, self-directed field work, etc. While students generally appreciated that they were free to choose interview partners and schedule their field trips, the fact that the course stretched over the entire semester break was not ideal for everybody. For us, this is certainly a point to consider in the future.
- Picking the right topic: Covid-19 presented us with an unprecedented opportunity to engage with a current topic and to conduct field work that is very timely and topical. This allowed to keep up student interest and motivation, but it also helped with access to the field and gaining interview partners. Students also liked that we invited four external speakers from practice and policy for contributions to the online seminar in the beginning of the course. This gave them “real life” insights to a hot topic, and it also helped loosening up long sessions in front of the screen.
- Incorporating filmmaking into a field course: Even though some students felt overwhelmed with the task of making a film due to inexperience and lack of technical knowledge, we have been impressed by the work they submitted and the quality of the films they produced. According to the evaluations, students appreciated the fact that they are able to approach the field and the questions in different ways than researchers do normally. They, however, also noted that making the film presented them with great challenges and that it was time intensive.
- Online meetings can be tiring: Many students wrote in their evaluations that online meetings can be very tiring and exhausting. This is a challenge that we faced during the two-day seminar in the beginning of the class. Breaking into small groups during such long online meetings or utilizing other methods to actively engage students online are important and we have quite some room for improvements. Also, students were missing social contacts to their peers and felt more passive during the online meetings.
- Adding group field day(s) would have made the experience better: When we restructured the class after we cancelled our travels to Valle Maira, we did not know how the Covid-19 situation would unfold. As a result, we did not plan any in-person meeting with the entire group. Given the situation and the distribution of the students throughout Switzerland, we also wanted to minimize mobility. In hindsight, we could have scheduled the last part as an in-person student conference and/or even as a site visit to the field site. Yet, whether this would have been possible, was not clear in June 2020.
Hybrid field courses such as the one we developed out of necessity can work during special times. Given the Covid-19 pandemic and associated insecurities, we feel that it was the best way to substitute the course we initially had planned. It is clear that this hybrid field course does not fill in the void that was left. Field courses such as the ones we normally offer in geography represent great opportunities for collective learning from the field through interactions with local communities and on-site experts, opportunities to reflect outside formalized interactions (discussions around the campfire) or social interactions among the group. This was certainly missing in the hybrid format, yet, we made the best out of the situation and believe that in the future, hybrid field courses could be offered in addition to the traditional ones.
For more information about the course and to see the films students made, see here:
By Guest bloggers:
Heike Mayer is a professor of economic geography at the Institute of Geography and a member of the Center for Regional Economic Development at the University of Bern. She is interested in the ways in which innovative and entrepreneurial initiatives emerge in the periphery and how marginality allows for transformative change towards a more economically just and sustainable world. She is also interested in crossing the boundary of academic life by taking time to engage in outreach activities. Recent publication (with insights from Val Maira): Slow Innovation in Europe’s Peripheral Regions: Innovation beyond Acceleration. For more information, see here or email her at email@example.com
Miriam Hug is a PhD student in the Economic Geography unit at the Geographical Institute in Berne. She is passionate about future-proof economic activities, particularly in peripheries and mountain regions. In her current research project, she examines transformative small and medium-sized wood-processing enterprises in Swiss and Austrian mountain regions that act as socio-ecological pioneers striving for changes towards sustainability. For more information see here. ORCID: 0000-0003-4683-1929; firstname.lastname@example.org
Edited by: Bettina Schaefli