This post was authored in collaboration with Juliette Kidston-Lattari.

Most learning designers would agree there are “unique difficulties” (TEQSA, n. d.) associated with creating effective online learning resources for science students. Environmental science students need to collect and examine specimens, use relevant databases, and learn and apply field survey methods. How can these types of learning experiences be recreated online?  

Recently, PGLD had an opportunity to work on some of these issues while developing Vegetation Surveys and Plant Identification (‘VeSPI’) with Associate Professor Brad Murray (SOLES). VeSPI was created to address an industry need for skills in field assessments of biodiversity. It’s a blended subject, featuring a practical field trip supported by a 5-week online program on plant identification and survey methods. Our design approach focused on the learning needs mentioned above, keeping the learning active and ‘real world’, and threading elements through the online content that expressly link it with the field trip. 

Examining specimens

This aspect of scientific study can translate really well into the online space, so collecting and displaying images was a core part of our design work. There are over 300 high-quality photographs of native plants in the VeSPI Canvas site. Categorising and displaying them in a way that helped students locate what they needed, but without overcrowding the pages, presented its own design challenges.  

Inspired by an online LEGO catalogue, Juliette and Brad designed the ‘carousel’ format shown below. It’s an elegant solution that gives clear points of entry for a selection of plants within each Family on the first slide (Fig 1). Students select from the entry page and ‘drill down’ into the detailed features by clicking through a collection of photographs for each specimen (Fig 2). The photographs are all expandable so students can examine the plants in detail and learn the features, and particularly the repeating patterns, they use later to identify plants in the field. This learning is consolidated by a series of quizzes and exercises. 

Gathering examples: ‘Science in your street’

We also looked for ways students could learn in situ, using what was around them – wherever they were. One of the quizzes draws on citizen science projects, requiring students to find and photograph weeds in their own area, then identify them using the resources provided and the databases demonstrated on Canvas. Assistant learning designer Ridha Fardian designed the attractive tile format (shown below) to guide students to these resources. Over 40 types of weeds were identified in the first offering of the subject. Another activity invites students to find and identify different types of barks in their local area and discuss them with their fellow students. 

a carousel format for images, showing three images with text beneath them and an option to expand

Using databases

As part of their preparation for the field trip, students needed to learn how to use several databases such as PlantNET, EUCLID and BioNet for plant identification and classification. We included several step-by-step guides and bespoke video demonstrations throughout the online modules to address this. Sets of self-marking practice questions, like the one shown below (on PlantNET), accompany these instructions and allow students to test their own ability to use the databases. 

A screenshot of an activity showing how to use the database PlantNET.
An exercise that shows how to use the database PlantNET.

A similar activity on Plant Community Types (PCT), which is an essential classification tool for biodiversity assessments in New South Wales, asks students to work out the PCT for the site of the field trip, then practise on a selection of other locations. 

Learning field survey methods

An important aspect of preparation for the field trip was learning about the different types of survey methods and how to use them in the field. We used a selection of popular YouTube videos, with Brad’s instructions and Juliette’s series of bespoke illustrations  to demonstrate these skills in the online space. 

Youtube videos and illustrations of a woman gardening to demonstrate survey methods.
Visual content demonstrating survey methods.

Did it work? 

In short, yes. There was a pleasing amount of traffic through the site. Average page views peaked at 145 in the week before the field trip, with average participations peaking at 4.8 in the same week. Students reportedly ‘loved’ the interactive nature of the online program and Brad thought they were well prepared, ready and keen to learn during the field trip. 

Feature image by April Pethybridge.

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