#41: Virtual Experiential Learning

Welcome to Wired Ivy Footnotes!  Clippings from a previous episode, mulched with commentary from Dan and Kieran, to help your online course design and delivery skills grow. 

KIERAN  00:15  It’s especially appropriate that we’re taking a deeper dive into the topic of virtual field experiences on this Wired Ivy Footnotes episode because as I’m speaking, early in May 2022, Dan is in Europe having just completed a study abroad experience with a group of our students in Finland and Estonia, and he’s just started to working with a second group of students in Switzerland and Italy.  

As he mentioned in the previous episode, which featured his interview with Karen Edwards and Sandy Strick of University of South Carolina, and Tori Ellenberger of Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, Dan was so anxious to use some of their ideas for virtual study abroad content that he re-wrote his pre-departure lessons immediately following that conversation. 

He’ll report on how that new approach landed with students, and whether he was able to observe any immediate benefits compared to previous trips he’s lead, in an upcoming Summer Shorts episode. But before Dan left, he and I made some time to discuss what we see as a few potential long-term opportunities and benefits that could result from continuing to blur the line between in-person and virtual experiential learning.  


KAREN EDWARDS 01:20  We had three live guest speaker sessions, where we actually had professionals in the field, in Italy, live streaming to us at X appointed time. The students did their prep work. They interacted, asked questions, and we got as close as we could to an in-country kind of experience. Those were outstanding… I’ll let Sandy fill us in on the really cool guest speakers we had.

SANDY STRICK 01:51  They were so wonderfully ready to help us. One of them was at the Castello Banfi, which is a winery in Tuscany. The gal who’s the Manager of Hospitality, who usually gives us the tour and takes us through the wine tasting, was standing outside of this castle in Tuscany, breezes blowing, her hair is blowing… We’re looking at the vineyards behind her, and then she’s walking us into the tasting room and we can see how all that fits together… Short of eating in their taverna, which we would have done if we were there, she really gave us a great flavor for what it would have been like had we gone there.


KIERAN 02:30 Dan, this interview was so rich with great ideas it was hard to choose one clip to unpack but we did finally settle on this concept of virtual field experiences to add interest, increase student engagement, and improve learning outcomes, because it has such vast potential beyond study abroad. Now that you’ve had some time to reflect and even apply these ideas, I’m curious where your thoughts are on this right now.

DAN  02:52 One of the things that I found very interesting, something we’ve talked about when we had Jim Egenrieder on an earlier episode… how do you facilitate a field trip for a course? It doesn’t have to be a study abroad course… this idea of a virtual experience, a virtual field trip.  This is a situation where the pandemic forced innovation. And, honestly, the tools were all there so maybe the pandemic accelerated innovation, but it’s clearly here to stay.

From a program director’s perspective, how do you see these ideas that they were talking about on our panel being used in a curriculum?

KIERAN 03:24 A couple of ideas came to me as I was listening to the interview, but one that has stuck with me is the way Karen and Sandy quickly pivoted from the in-person interviews that were on their trip agenda to speaking with those same individuals via live video-conferencing. From what they reported, it worked out extremely well. In the case of their contact at Castello Banfi, the students even had a chance to absorb some of the ambiance of the place because their contact was moving around the facility as she spoke, rather than sitting in a generic conference room. 

I realize that live streaming interviews and Q&A will be mostly an option for courses that are taught synchronously, but why not record an interview and then invite the speaker to participate in an asynchronous online discussion? You’d get the same benefits of a conversation that unfolds over time, and the ability to share links to various resources that we’ve discussed in earlier episodes (and we’ll link to those in the show notes). 

I think online educators could take greater advantage of what seems to be a really powerful resource. Plus, you’re no longer as limited in who you can invite to speak to your class because you don’t have as many scheduling restraints, and you don’t have to have a budget for the speakers’ travel expenses, and students can have a longer, more meaningful interaction with the speaker via asynchronous discussion than in the 10 min question period at the end of a presentation. 

I don’t know of many online educators who are doing this.

Virtual interviews expand your guest speaker options and an asynchronous discussion mean students have more than a 10 min Q&A period to interact and network with an industry expert. #HigherEd #OnlineTeaching #VirtualClassroom

DAN 04:48 I don’t either. I mean, I’ve, I’ve… yeah. I mean, I’ve made baby steps in that direction, but, yes.

KIERAN 04:54 If any Wired Ivy listeners are using this approach, please let us know because we would love to talk with you!

I’ll add that there’s a wonderful bonus to doing this online… since you’ll need to record the interview for asynchronous, and probably should record even a synchronous interview, you’re on the way to building an archive of content that can be incorporated into future courses, even if that particular speaker isn’t available in a future semester. You can build a library of recorded content over time.  I think that’s huge.  

And my hope is that we also make those resources available to colleagues. I mean, online educators like to use open source content so, fair is fair, we should give and not just take.  Will that be what happens? My experience in higher education would suggest we’re not always that generous but, like I said, I’m hopeful.

When you record virtual interviews, you can begin to build a library of content resources to use in future semesters. #HigherEd #OnlineTeaching #VirtualClassroom

DAN 05:41 What did you think about the idea of doing virtual study abroad opens the market for who can do it?

KIERAN 05:47 Yeah, that really caught my attention because, in the case of our program, the Master of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech, study abroad is part of a required core course. That said, we do have students who are unable to participate in an in-person study abroad trip for completely legitimate reasons.

For example, several years ago now, just prior to departure day for a class that you, Dan, were leading to China, a large hurricane made landfall on the southeast coast of the U.S.  One of the students worked for Homeland Security. He was called up for emergency response AND his own house was flooding. So, on the fly, you had to figure out some other way for him to participate and still meet the necessary contact hours for a 3 credit course because there was just no way he was going to China.

DAN 06:31 Right. Right.

KIERAN 06:33 We also have students who have physical limitations, we have students who are active military and can’t participate because they’ve been deployed, and plenty of other relevant circumstances. So I don’t think this is even just a matter of expanding the educational market for study abroad. Because, in our case, if we think a global study experience is critical to the learning outcomes of our degree program – and, clearly, we do – then we should have a way for all students to participate in some way, and have access to the same learning opportunities. To me that’s the very definition of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Finding ways to allow all students to access and participate in experiential learning activities by adding virtual options is the very definition of diversity, equity, and inclusion. #HigherEd #OnlineTeaching #VirtualClassroom

DAN 07:07  Yeah. I think that’s a great point. In our case, it’s a closed group of people, and they’re all expecting to do this. But, nonetheless, there’s a vast number of people for whom it’s discretionary, too. And that, that really opens up some doors because the entry fee to a virtual global study trip is going to be a lot lower than it would be to an in-country trip.

KIERAN 07:26 Right. It’s never going to be an exact facsimile. And I’ll venture to guess that virtual study abroad, even when it is done very well, is not going to stop people from wanting to travel abroad. Folks aren’t going to stop going to Venice or Buenos Aires or Tokyo or Sydney, because even with virtual reality goggles you don’t get to enjoy the food, the aromas, and have a direct experience of the local culture. 

But it’s an iteration closer. If some aspect of virtual travel improves the learning outcomes, well, that’s our bottom line metric, right? And if a whole group of students wouldn’t be able to meet some of the learning objectives because an in-person trip is not an option for them, or because some other kind of field experience isn’t feasible for them, we need to explore how to bridge that gap, right?

DAN 08:10  Yeah.

KIERAN 08:11  Since more and more field work is being done virtually, using drones, then it makes total sense that in some disciplines we’re going to want to make sure even the students who take in-person classes have those virtual experiences as well. Both of those, in-person and virtual, are aspects of a career in many disciplines in the 21st century.

DAN 08:30  That really gets back to, this is a tool. It’s a technique. It’s an innovation. And my take-away from this panel conversation with these wonderful people was. This reinforces a pattern that we see we’re innovations in online learning then feedback into higher education globally.  And I don’t know if you thought that was evidence for that pattern.

KIERAN 08:50  Yes. Something I’ve noticed, and have pointed out, often… is that online started out trying to mimic the classroom experience. Not as much thought was given to whether in-class teaching traditions and strategies were what we should aspire to replicate. For the sake of being accepted by peers and accreditation bodies, and meeting the existing standards, that’s what we did.

Over time, though, online has become this sandbox for innovation, and now it informs a lot of what happens in the physical classroom. There’s a nice circular history to the story of online higher education. I’m definitely interested to see what’s next for virtual field experiences and how all of this continues to play out.


KIERAN 09:31  Let’s hear what you have to say!  Send us your questions, comments, and suggestions. You can leave a voice message at speakpipe.com/wiredivy, or send us an email to kieran@wiredivy.org —  Kieran is spelled K-I-E-R-A-N, or Dan@wiredivy.org  —  Dan is spelled D-A-N.

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Wired Ivy co-host Kieran Lindsey is a former online graduate student, occasional online educator, and current Program Director for Virginia Tech’s Online Master of Natural Resources. The Online MNR has  has evolved from in-person instruction to online, and under her guidance has grown to be the university’s 2nd largest virtually delivered graduate degree.  Kieran serves as a special consultant to VT’s Graduate School Dean on virtual programming for non-traditional student audiences, and has provided ad hoc advising on the development and delivery of online programming to colleagues at various institutions.  Kieran is also an urban wildlife biologist (Texas A&M – BS, MS, PhD), writer, blogger, regional Emmy Award recipient (documentary feature), and now a podcaster, too, as well as personal assistant to a ferociously cute wire fox terrier named Dashiell Riprock (aka Dash).

Daniel J. Marcucci advocates for sustaining a livable, rich biosphere—because the alternative is scary. He teaches Sustainability Systems, Coastal and Marine Systems, and Urban Water Systems courses and leads Global Study trips. Dr. Marcucci has two decades’ experience in higher education as an environmental educator, the last several years focusing on creating supportive asynchronous online learning communities. He has published in numerous environmental planning journals. He also has extensive experience as a regional and environmental planner. His current research explores individual landscapes and landscape as an integrative and holistic concept. Dan is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

We welcome your questions, feedback, and suggestions for future episodes. Join our Wired Ivy LinkedIn Group, tweet us @wiredivy,  or look for the bright blue Talk to Wired Ivy tab on the right side of this screen to leave us a voice message!

Wired Ivy is wholly owned by Kieran Lindsey and Daniel Marcucci, and we are solely responsible for its content.   Views expressed in this podcast and affiliated media are those of Kieran, Dan, and our guests, and do not represent Virginia Tech or any other institution.  Our audio engineer is Star Path Images, and a license for our theme music, Breakfast with You, was purchased from SmartSound.

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