An Online Field Course: Seeking Already-Invented Wheels

Many students feel they should be paying reduced tuition this fall if they aren’t getting the normal face-to-face university experience. I fully appreciate their perspective, and I do believe they are missing out by not being here in person. That said, many students don’t realize the tremendous time, money, and other resources we are expending to produce the best online learning experience that we can.

Creating an online field course is clearly a quixotic endeavor. If I had 6 months or a year to work on this full-time, I could create a really spectacular online field course (though still not as good as the real thing of course). Instead, I realistically have 6 weeks where I can work half-time on this. I’m in triage mode, as I imagine most educators are.

Don’t re-invent the wheel

My first stage of course planning was to inventory existing resources. My course is very specific to forests of British Columbia, so my options are a bit limited, but I have found some resources. The most obvious is a series of videos and a companion website about coastal plant identification and ecological characteristics. I produced these as a supplement to field instruction for a forest ecology course here at UBC (Culbert 2020). If you follow me on twitter (which you should!), you’ve probably seen 87 tweets about this project. This is an ideal resource; it is very specific to what I want to teach and the videos were professionally produced, so they look spectacular.

I’m also fortunate to have some colleagues in soil science who have produced a large video library about soils in BC and Canada, and a comprehensive website covering many concepts in soil science. This is especially helpful to get my students up to speed, as my own soils knowledge is lacking.

While I think videos and other interactive resources are the most engaging for students, I’m making use of other web resources too. My students will be responsible for learning about a number of tree species, and I can leverage materials such as The Tree Book: Learning to Recognize Trees of British Columbia, and the BC Tree Species Compendium.

For wheels that must be invented, make them useful for the future

In the back of my mind, I’ve had a long to-do list of projects to improve my face-to-face courses. First on this list is producing more video resources to aid my teaching in situations where I can’t take students into the field, or at least can’t take them to certain places. Producing video is a large undertaking, and although I managed that plant project, I haven’t had time to do much since. Though things are chaotic at the moment, this is my chance to develop some of the material that has only been rough ideas in my head up to this point. Though I’m producing content specific to this field course, I already know which videos and activities I will use to enrich my other courses, whether online or face-to-face. It’s not just my courses either. I’m sharing some of the videos for use in the lab section of a forest ecology course that will be online this fall.

Good enough, but not perfect

I’m glad to have the experience of my professionally-shot plant videos. This taught me a bit about video production in the field, but also gave me a realistic idea of the development process. Those 54 short videos took about 1.5 years from the time I started planning until all the videos were edited and posted. My current timeline is much less forgiving, and this time around I’m a one-person, amateur video production team. These new videos will not be professional, but they only need to be good enough to aid my students’ learning. My aim is to produce lots of material that is decent, rather than a little material that is perfect. That will serve my students the best.


  • Culbert, P. D. (2020). Supplementing forestry field instruction with video and online dynamic quizzing. Natural Sciences Education, 49(1), e20015.

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