Expanding Active Learning

1 Public Lands, Virtual Classrooms: Teaching a Digitally Networked Field Course

Mark Pedelty


distance education, field instruction, environmental studies, environmental communication, flipped classroom



Things were going well in our windowless classroom deep in the basement of Ford Hall. I was teaching Environmental Communication for the sixth time in about as many years. Students were presenting what they had learned in experiential projects conducted outside the classroom when suddenly it struck me, “Why are we doing this in a classroom?” As I had discovered when teaching a study abroad version of the course, and in related projects in the local community, the subject of environmental communication lends itself well to field-based teaching. Furthermore, new technologies allow us to create dynamic and mobile virtual classrooms, freeing us to teach and learn in rich contexts, the places were environmental communication takes place as a matter of course every day. Therefore, why not teach the course in a state park, superfund site, or nature center where professional environmental communicators work everyday? It seemed as if the only major weak link in the class was that we were in a basement classroom rather than out learning in the wide variety of locations where environmental communication comes alive as a matter of course. That move seemed to be the natural next step for the course. So, I set out to turn COMM 4250 into a “digitally networked field course.”

Specifically, students in the Environmental Communication course gain a broad overview of environmental communication as a field of research and as a profession, starting with theoretical foundations and then stepping through individual areas of research and practice, including but not limited to: environmental discourses, news, advocacy, advertising, public participation processes, risk communication, science communication, and creative mediation of environmental questions in film, television, music, and the arts. Fortunately, the course text, Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere (Cox and Pezzullo, 2015), provides an excellent resource to organize and support that contextual overview and casework. That aspect of the course has not changed with the redesign. Instead, adding the field element has made those topics come alive on-site and in the students’ field-based project, which is an “interpretive talk” about their site. Each student also chooses to explore an environmental subject relevant to that site (e.g., fen preservation at Fort Snelling State Park or toxin containment at an urban superfund site). In the first offering students could choose any public land or water site in Minnesota, but by the second we were limiting students mainly to those with interpretive resources on site, including a nature center and professional staff. We found that students choosing sites without those resources were at a major disadvantage and that nearly all needed that extra support, especially as a way to orient themselves to the local ecosystem and to learn about relevant challenges and questions. Students could choose a site anywhere in Minnesota, but we recommended sites near to their homes so that several visits might be possible as opposed to a few intensive encounters. The more distant sites did work for students willing to make at least three extensive trips to their site.

The course is based on a praxis model. Reading and theoretical knowledge enrich the students’ practical work on site. In turn, developing a project and exploring a public land site brings the course materials and concepts alive for students. Skills-building is not central to the course per se—we do less in terms of media production training, for example, than might be preferable and possible in a two semester course sequence—but students do learn valuable presentational skills in the process of researching, writing, rehearsing, and recording interpretive talks over the course of the semester, using expert models, peer and teacher input as a resource.

Instructors must learn and develop as well. We are human beings, not teaching machines. A teacher’s emotional investment and sense of intellectual challenge is crucial to sustaining a quality course, and therefore worth exploring.Fortunately, several people helped me make the transition from the classroom to a digitally networked field course. Sara Schoen, Paul Ching, Joy Hamilton, and several other UMN faculty, staff, and students helped me convert the course over a period of months drawing on support from the Experiments in Learning Innovation (ELI) program. The result was a course redesign in which each student chooses a public land field site. All 100 plus sites and students were linked together into one big virtual classroom using Moodle (a e-learning platform) and students’ smartphones.

We completed a quantitative and qualitative assessment of the course and wrote about the results in a book chapter (Pedelty and Hamilton, 2017) for Milstein and Pileggi’s Environmental Communication Pedagogy and Practice. However, we did not discuss one of the most important aspects of the course: teaching. The change in teaching methods and the instructor’s experience is perhaps one of the most important innovations in the course, a radical change in how, where, and why we teach the course. Here I will describe what it is like to teach a digitally networked field course. I do so knowing that colleagues might consider adapting a similar format and therefore would like to offer additional information and ideas based on this transformative teaching experience.

Teaching Matters

In an age of student-centered learning we often forget about the teacher’s perspective, speaking and writing about teaching and learning as if the student experience is the sole determinant of what creates a quality course and curriculum. Therefore, we often fail to discuss factors like emotional investment, intellectual motivation, experience, and even logistics. In truth, a course could offer an extremely effective learning experience, but if it is not also a quality teaching experience the instructor might never teach it again. Many instructors have crafted an ideal course only to find that it was unsustainable term-to-term for reasons that go beyond student learning outcomes.

There are many considerations that go into determining whether or not a given pedagogical practice will actually work best in a give situation and for a given teacher. Does the style of teaching and delivery match the instructor’s skills, knowledge, personality, and interests? Is there a high enough level of intellectual challenge, emotional investment and perhaps even pleasure to make the instructor want to teach the course again and again?

I do not want to imply that instructors are selfish. Most of our gratification comes from seeing students learn and succeed regardless whether or not the method fits our own proclivities. However, even the most effective course cannot be sustained if the experience of actually teaching the class—the method, context, and subject matter—do not continually reignite the professor’s passion for teaching the course year-in-year-out. “Passion in teaching is not a luxury or a frill that we can do without,” note medical education specialists Harden and Laidlaw, “it is the key element in students’ learning.” They argue that a teacher’s “passion” is more important “than the teaching strategy adopted” as well as “the learning technology incorporated” (Harden & Laidlaw, 2012, 20).

Yet, reading the pedagogical research literature one might be led to believe that college instructors are endlessly flexible professionals who institute the best teaching practices, regardless what a given method means for them or requires of them. We all know from teaching, talking with colleagues, and negotiating the distribution of teaching “loads” across our faculties that there is far more to the effective teaching and learning equation. Instructors must learn and develop as well. We are human beings, not teaching machines. A teacher’s emotional investment and sense of intellectual challenge is crucial to sustaining a quality course, and therefore worth exploring. After all, even “the perfect” course is useless if no instructor is willing to teach it more than once. A quality teaching experience is one of many prerequisites for an effective course and positive student learning outcomes.

This is not to say that teaching environmental communication semester-in-and-semester-out in the classroom was becoming a drag : it was by far one of the highlights of my yearly teaching cycle already. However, it was time to take the course to the next step for sake of student learning and, not inconsequentially, to best utilize my skills, interests, and passions in relation to the subject. While some instructors would find the extra logistical challenges of field teaching an annoyance, and rightfully so, for me the teaching and learning benefits of the digitally networked field course more than compensated for the extra time and complexity involved.

The Course

When I tell colleagues that I am teaching a digitally networked field course, two questions generally arise: “What is it?” and then “What’s it like to teach it?” In the next two sections I will answer both questions, starting with an overview of the course. However, please do keep in mind that this is just one of many ways to teach a digitally networked field course. If the classroom can be adapted to a wide range of subject matter, formats, and teaching styles, then the world outside it is at least as malleable and variable.

In the first three weeks of the course, students choose and begin to explore a public land site in Minnesota. They start with on-site discovery, supplemented by library research. In Fall 2015 students chose field sites ranging from the Mississippi River Flats, just off campus, to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, 270 miles to the North.

They each researched a specific environmental issue related to their site and then developed an “interpretive talk” (Henker and Brown, 2011), what many of us colloquially refer to as a “ranger talk.” By the end of the semester students had written, rehearsed, performed, and filmed their interpretive talk at their site. In other words, they learned about environmental communication by doing it. They also read articles and books about topics in environmental communication related to a given stage of their project (Cox and Pezullo, 2015), took weekly quizzes covering the readings, and wrote short weekly reports that integrated reading assignments, online discussions, and onsite fieldwork.

By the end of the semester students had written, rehearsed, performed, and filmed their interpretive talk on site. In other words, they learned about environmental communication by doing it. They also read articles and books about topics in environmental communication related to a given stage of their project, took weekly quizzes covering the readings, and wrote short weekly reports that integrated reading assignments, online discussions, and onsite fieldwork.The interpretive talk assignment is at the core of the course. Developing that project was part of each week’s assignment, a scaffolded approach that required students to become environmental communicators one step at a time. One of the best indicators of learning is whether or not a student can perform what is expected of a professional in a given subject. The interpretive talk assignment teaches students how to become skilled environmental communicators and allows them to demonstrate their learning directly.

In order to focus on content and performance, students were required to video a live performance. Students were not allowed to edit their videos or do any other post-production work on the live video. The goal was to learn and demonstrate performative communication abilities rather than develop technical production skills. Nor did I want students with advanced video production skills to “hide” weaknesses or poor preparation for the live performance via clever editing.

Weekly lessons and materials are delivered via videos we produced specifically for the course. Each week students watch one video on Moodle, a total of fifteen over the course of the semester. A few are solo lectures that I delivered in studio, but most involved interviews we conducted with local experts in environmental communication, including a number of UMN scholars in related fields, experts all in delivering environmental information to publics and policy makers. Andrew Matthews, an expert in pedagogical film production, filmed and edited the lectures that required green screen or other augmentation. The following website provides an overview of the Moodle site, sample lecture and interview videos, and a Google Map with sample student videos: https://sites.google.com/a/umn.edu/4250-moodle-screenshots/.

Students also listen to a weekly podcast created by the instructor. Podcasting allows for creative adaptation to students’ specific needs at the moment. Each podcast was recorded at a public land site, most often a Minnesota State Park. In addition to “housekeeping” matters, such as specific advice for completing that week’s report or how to improve quiz scores, the podcasts would include field interviews and present advice to help students complete a given stage of the interpretive talk project. In both formats, the instructor modeled the interpretive talk project directly by performing a range of possibilities. The goal in presenting interpretive talks ourselves was not to prefigure the students’ own interpretive talks, but rather to provide a range of options and ideas to inspire their individual creative work in the field.

Naturally, after the first iteration of the redesigned course, changes are underway for future semesters, but a surprisingly high proportion of the course was retained for 2017 and is continuing on. Much of the course was developed over seven iterations of the classroom course, but a great deal was new as well. Most of the readings, Moodle site, videos, weekly podcast, and students’ onsite research and interpretive talk assignment will stay as is, having proven their worth in the 2016 experiment. However, as will be explained at the end of the chapter, the interpretive talk assignment was changed from video to audio.

Once again, a more rigorous assessment and explanation of student learning outcomes is available elsewhere (Pedelty and Hamilton 2017). Having provided an overview of the course here, I will move on to the main purpose of this chapter: to describe what it was like to teach a digitally networked field course.

The Teaching Experience

As explained earlier, even the illusory “perfect course” (Miller 1993) would be useless if it did not offer a fulfilling experience for the instructor. For me, teaching a digitally networked field course was a revelatory experience in that regard. Although it was more time consuming than most of the classroom courses I have taught recently, benefits far outweighed the costs. It was more fulfilling and intellectually stimulating than most of the classroom-based courses I have taught. Consider the weekly podcast. Each week I would devote an entire day to traveling to relatively remote public land sites, presenting podcasts that stepped students through the weekly report assignment, helping students develop their interpretive talks, and providing model talks using specific examples. For example, one podcast covered legal issues surrounding nitrates in the Des Moines River. That talk was presented from the banks of the Des Moines, in Southwestern Minnesota’s Kilen Woods State Park. Another podcast involved an interview with Park Ranger Mark Crawford about his efforts to protect the endangered Blanding’s turtle at Lake Maria State Park.

Having advanced beyond simplistic, Cartesian binaries between mind vs. body or positivistic conceptions of intellect vs. emotion, the academy as a whole is rediscovering that there is nothing magical about sitting around the seminarians’ table. Neither movement nor the senses (i.e., empiricism) are antithetical to thought. Instead, they can become part of the discovery process.As another example, when traveling to the National Communication Association Annual Convention in Las Vegas (2015) I made a side trip to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area to talk about efforts there to interpret human impacts in the area, from water scarcity to damage of the surrounding cliffs by rock climbers. Each week involved another topic, another park, and another stage of the students’ projects. Sound like fun? It was.

As I suspected when first considering the idea of breaking down the classroom walls—and as many of us learn time and again when teaching field or study abroad courses (Milstein, 2005)—there is nothing like a rich learning context to bring learning alive (Varopoulou, 2010). The logistics are often daunting, but well worth it. Even with flipped versions of the course I had started to sense that the weakest link in COMM 4250 was the comparatively stale, controlled, and sensory-deprived context of the classroom. The “environment” for our environmental communication course was a lifeless, beige, windowless room full of rolling desk chairs. Now it is hundreds of open spaces where students explore the questions in the reading, videos, and podcast in the kinds of places reference in those work: learning in a rich context. The “classroom” is a digitally networked set of public lands and waterways.

Yet, distance education is itself often criticized as sensory-deprived. That is because it often can become so. Students stare at their screens taking tests and reading assignments rather than working face-to-face with an instructor in real time and space as a classroom allows. However, it is important to remember that campuses and classrooms developed for much the same reason as digital distance education: economy of scale. It was less expensive to deliver instruction to a large population of students corralled into common classroom spaces than to teach individuals or small groups in rich contexts where a given subject is practiced. New communication technologies can take us out of the classroom and back into the places where apprenticeship and direct discovery once again become possible.

To reverse Sherry Turkle’s (2012) pessimistic phrase, new learning technologies allow us to be “together alone,” learning individually in the field yet linked together via virtual classrooms. From boardrooms to farm fields the subject matter comes alive. Students and instructors alike can feel a more visceral connection to learning, seeing its relevance directly instead of one step removed in the virtual space of the classroom. It allows for students and teachers to use their entire bodies, to move about the country and campus rather than sublimating their senses to purely cerebral pursuits with prone body postures in fixed locations. The mind comes alive with the body.

Having advanced beyond simplistic, Cartesian binaries between mind vs. body or positivistic conceptions of intellect vs. emotion, the academy as a whole is rediscovering that there is nothing magical about sitting around the seminarians’ table. Neither movement nor the senses (i.e., empiricism) are antithetical to thought. Instead, they can become part of the discovery process.

This is not to denigrate our typical mode of scholarly exchange and learning—text and talk—but rather to suggest that we could be seizing new opportunities to augment classroom learning, academic conferencing, and other forms of exchange with styles of teaching and learning that take us into rich contexts. While the classroom will remain central to many if not most subjects, when it comes to environmental studies we need to find more ways to get students out of the classroom and into the world.

Challenges and Modifications

Of course, not everything worked well in the first attempt at digitally networking the field course. Our assessment chapter (Pedelty and Hamilton 2017) details some of the main challenges we faced in teaching the course in a digitally networked field format. Among those was the first that I will address in this section: the technical challenges faced by students as they attempted to film their interpretive talks onsite. Even with minimal tech expectations, students had trouble filming and performing their talks. My assumptions about digital natives did not hold up across the board and with the already demanding requirements for writing, rehearsing, and performing a talk, time did not allow for quality video recording in most cases. Too many prerequisite skills were taken for granted in planning the course. There was a bit of piling on relative to reasonable course expectations. An advanced course is warranted for those who would like more advanced training in environmental field performance and media production.

Likewise, it was difficult to teach performance-based skills at a distance without the controlled support of the face-to-face physical classroom space for weekly performance workshops (Pedelty and Hamilton, 2017). Just as I took basic smartphone-level video skills for granted, so too I forgot how much of course learning in past courses had been predicated on face-to-face performance training with peers and the instructor. Those students who needed extra tech and performance assistance suffered somewhat in the digitally networked version of the course. For that purpose, we needed to be in the same space at the same time or we needed more time for an iterative approach, with sufficient time to present very early work and gradually develop more advanced performance skills via remote instruction. A “rough cut” relatively late in the game helped, but was not enough for many students in comparison to the previous classroom-based course.

The main fix for the challenges posed by these tech and performance gaps, therefore, was to the move into audio-only podcasting for the Spring, 2017 version of the course. Audio has allowed for greater on-site dexterity, weekly workshops, and more gradual staging, training and development. In many cases videography and visual performance distracted students and instructors from core learning goals. While video would work very well in a longer, more advanced course in environmental communication, it was much less useful in this introductory course designed for a broad student population hailing from a variety of majors and with little time to develop technical skills.

Which brings us to the third and final course weakness. Perhaps the biggest challenge was that of teaching 120 students (100 by the end). Three talented Teaching Assistants were essential to making that work, but the scale of operation was at times too great to realize course goals. Although increased scale and efficiency were initial goals for the transformed course, they were not the primary impetus for the revision and those goals will now be dropped. A 25 to 40-student enrollment cap is ideal for the classroom version of the course and the same appears to hold true for the digitally networked format. For example, much of the interactive online teaching takes place via an instructor’s assessment of each student’s weekly reports. Once the enrollment exceeds 40 students, it becomes difficult to effectively grade weekly reports, including the crucial first and final cuts of the interpretive talk. Of course, that is a problem for any large course, but the performance skills development goals of COMM 4250 makes large enrollments a particularly deep deficit in digitally networked field courses. Much like other field and skills-based courses, this one needs to have a favorable teacher-to-student ratio.

I met with every student in person during the third week of classes to establish a face-to-face relationship and I met with students during office hours to read their drafts and reports. The TA’s (3 in the very large first course, 1 in the second smaller offering) also made themselves available for appointments.

Finally, one other aspect of the course failed. In fact, it failed before the semester even started. I had hoped to make this the first system-wide course at the University of Minnesota. After all, a digital field connection should allow us to network, teach, and learn across all five campuses without worrying about geographic distance. Having taught at University of Minnesota, Morris in the 1990’s, and having interacted with University of Minnesota Duluth students and faculty during my eighteen years on the Twin Cities campus, I very much wanted all University of Minnesota students to have access to this course.

Unfortunately, students on any given U of M campus must petition to take a course at another U of M campus, a ponderous obstacle to organic interactivity across campuses. After discussion with administrators in charge of facilitating potential system-wide learning, correspondence with other campus officials, and travel to UMD to set-up a more permanent exchange, it became apparent that the challenges of creating a course with significant enrollments of students outside the Twin Cities campus would be too great to overcome in any reasonable time budget. While a few non-TC students took the steps of finding out about the course via campus flyers, visiting their advisors for approval, and submitting petitions to register for the course, in all practicality those procedures work against the goal of creating a system-wide course. Plus, the 120-student enrollment cap was quickly reached with UMTC students. However, turning this into a system-wide course remains a future goal and COMM 4250 seems like a natural pilot for that eventual effort.

Each of the above course components has been assessed and reconsidered. As a result, the next course offering involved a smaller enrollment cap, audio-only main projects, and further restrictions on field site selection. Students were required to choose a site that has interpretive resources available from the start, including national and state parks as well as county parks with nature centers and professional or volunteer interpretive staff on site. We discovered that most students benefited greatly from interpretive resources to focus their initial discovery research and to supplement course materials and library research. With some remarkable exceptions, students who chose public lands and waterways without on-site interpretive resources—nature centers, placards, exhibits, self-guided trails, and rangers—were at a disadvantage relative to peers who chose parks, preserves, and public lands that contained those useful resources.

Fortunately, most of the above challenges were overcome and the second iteration of the digitally networked field course seems to be working even better. The next iteration will involve relatively small tweaks rather than significant changes. The current students are producing exceptional interpretive talks that I will assign in the next class. They will serve as individual models and give them a sense of the wide range of possibilities that the genre affords.


The digitally networked field course has a number of moving parts and takes a great deal of work to prepare and teach, but it is highly pleasurable, rewarding, and intellectually challenging format. It simultaneously advances student learning and fully engages the instructor. Course evaluations support that conclusion, with students offering up positive intellectual as well as emotional assessments of the course (Pedelty and Hamilton 2017). We taught and learned within a digital classroom that brought us into contact with some of the most biodiverse, publically relevant, and fascinating places in our state.

This chapter began with description and end in advocacy. The digitally networked field model worked very well, which is one of the reasons I want to share the experience with colleagues. With the right conditions and subject matter, students learn important lessons when given the freedom to choose their field site and share what they learn there. It would not work for every topic, but it has worked for environmental communication. For many instructors, digitally networked field instruction it is the type of teaching that can continually reignite a professor’s passion for teaching and student’s interest in learning, drawing upon the pedagogical agency of place.


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Harden, R. M., & Laidlaw, J. M. (2012). Essential Skills for a Medical Teacher: An Introduction to Teaching and Learning in Medicine. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.

Henker, K. B., & Brown, G. (2011) As Good as the Real Thing? A Comparative Study of Interpretive Podcasts and Traditional Ranger Talks. Editorial Assistant, 7.

Kolb, D. A. (2014) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. New York: Pearson Education.

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Pedelty, M. and Hamilton, J. (forthcoming, 2017) ““Further Afield: Performance Pedagogy, Fieldwork, and Distance Learning in Environmental Communication Courses” In Milstein, T. and Pileggi, M. (2017) Environmental Communication Pedagogy and Practice. Routledge, New York.

Roberts, J. W. (2015) Experiential Education in the College Context: What it is, How it Works, and Why it Matters Routledge, New York

Turkle, S. (2012) Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. New York: Basic books.

Varopoulou, H., (2010) “Landscape with Students and Teachers: Landscape, Environment and Performance Pedagogy in a Greek Summer Academy” Performance Research 15 4 123-130.



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