Providing students with remote alternatives to field work

Field work is a vital component of student learning and research projects in many disciplines such as Archaeology, Anthropology, Earth Sciences, Biology, Geography, and Wildlife Management, among others. Since the very essence of field work is ‘being on the spot’, it is not easy to offer safe, socially distanced, remote alternatives. Audio-visual materials, animations, simulations and virtual reality offer some possibilities for data collection and students might be able to join a community or participate in a group via social media as people around the globe reconnect via digital media.

Pedagogical guidance

Should students need to complete a project during the current restrictions and do not have sufficient data to fall back on, your first task will be to help them figure out how they can generate material. The following are some suggestions to consider:

  • A basic exercise would be for you to provide students with existing data sets and give them practice in analysing it and writing up their findings.
  • Although the overarching principle in much Social Sciences fieldwork is observing things in the real world, consider online alternatives such as communities and groups – many have shifted their activities to social media and video conference settings.
  • You could bring a group of students together to work collaboratively on a project, with them doing some individual fieldwork locally and then combining their data. They could simply store their data in individual spreadsheets, or use a collaborative platform such as file storage in Microsoft Teams.
  • Similarly, crowd sourcing the data collection could work along the lines of citizen science projects to produce data from a variety of places. Make use of existing citizen science projects such as Zooinverse.

Students working on longer projects may be able to change their plans and focus on the secondary literature, theoretical approaches, analysing data they’ve already collected, or making plans for future field work. While such students could benefit from the suggestions above, they also need to consider longer-term implications of the pandemic, such as:

  • Being sensitive to the additional challenges that their research subjects may face as a result of the pandemic, for example, a community that a researcher knows quite well through previous visits may change quite significantly as a result of COVID-19.
  • It may be necessary to revisit ethics considerations as current circumstances may make some previously uncontentious subjects more problematic or stressful for participants to engage with.

Technical guidance

Virtual Reality (VR) is an emerging area of activity for teaching and learning. There is a growing body of existing software applications and several student projects at Oxford have explored the creation of bespoke applications (see the example below by fourth-year students in Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences). The commercial Engage platform offers several examples which give some idea of a VR presentation, even if you are not wearing a VR headset: University of Oxford – Radiotherapy example.

Use Panopto to record videos of relevant places and objects yourself – if some are easily accessible to you (See Lindsay Turnbull’s Back Garden Biology podcasts). If funding is available, you may be able to engage a professional video shooting and editing team. The use of drones is clearly an innovative way to film areas of interest and make these available to students online. A longer video may be split into shorter ones to drive certain activities, for example, 'Study this artefact that I’m demonstrating and then discuss its characteristics'.

Cabinet is a project developed at Oxford using 3D photogrammetry to provide access to some of Oxford’s museum objects and artefacts in 2D or 3D format. Peruse the CTL Cabinet web page, with details of the Cabinet collection and how to use it, to see if there may be existing artefacts for your students to study in a remote situation.

Canvas allows you to create structured content and resources for students to access as well as a means of contacting students and receiving work. Canvas tools enable a variety of asynchronous student activities, which may be offered both in preparation for a ‘virtual field trip’, and as consolidation afterwards. Forums can enable asynchronous discussions on a topic, and assignments and quizzes enable students to submit work and test their understanding. The Speedgrader tool (used with the Assignments tool) allows you to provide feedback to students in several ways – typed feedback, annotations, audio or video.

Microsoft Teams provides live conferencing with audio, video and screen sharing. The chat functionality is good for informal discussions (the chat channel is retained for later reference). Teams can be used in isolation if the additional structure and functionality afforded by Canvas are not required. You can also share files with students in Teams, as well as receive work from them.

Gather is a free ‘video calling space’ that allows people to ‘hang out’ in small groups, in a sort of virtual lounge. Oxford students in Earth Sciences reported they enjoyed being able to drop in (at specified times during a day-long session) and ask the tutors questions in a spontaneous and informal way, as they might during a face-to-face environment.

Contact us

Many departments and faculties are reflecting upon how programmes are taught, what materials are assigned and how students are assessed. We can help. Academics and administrators who would like to consult with the CTL as they design flexible and inclusive programmes may contact us at

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Resources for flexible and inclusive teaching