ERA: Enabling remote geology fieldwork by transient wireless networking

Trevor Collins (KMI) and Mark Gaved (IET)

The Enabling Remote Activity (ERA) project provides opportunities for mobility impaired students to fully participate in fieldwork learning activities. Over the last three years ERA has developed a rapidly deployable, lightweight, battery-powered wireless network that can be used to transmit video, audio, and high resolution still images between a field geologist and a nearby student. This is used on The Open University’s ‘Ancient Mountains’ residential course (SXR339), a one week series of field trips in locations throughout the Scottish Highlands. In this course our students get as close as they can, ideally within sight of the field location, and use the wireless network to work remotely with a field geologist. The technology is used as an enabler to facilitate the inclusion of students in fieldtrips without compromising the learning objectives of the course. In this seminar we will present an overview of the technology, the actions it can support, the use made within the ‘Ancient Mountains’ course, and the feedback received from the students and tutors involved.

Getting out there with real geologists was key – your ideas about what they might want (as an informed technologist) is different to what they actually want to do the teaching. Hazards and difficulties include trees and huge rocks in the way. Lots of different levels of mobility, from no restriction, to walk short distances with stick, to negligible unassisted walking. So vary response as appropriate – if the rocks are right next to the road, may not need to set up the kit; if it’s a hard walk away, more people stay at the car park ‘driving’ a field geologist.

Geology fieldwork is fundamental to the learning experience.

SXR339 Ancient Mountains, residential school in Scottish Highlands. Visits to lots of rocks. Drive for 3h, on the rocks for 5-6h, 30 min at each site; moving around, drive some more, etc.  Also variability of individual students on different days. Jessica Bartlett (Course Manager) asked about alternative learning experience for mobility-impaired students. Previous tech was binoculars  and walkie-talkies – not fantastic.  Geologists want to see things in the large (context and layout of the rock formations), down to the tiny (down with hand lens at the crystal structure of the rocks), and switch between the two. (Scale from individual mineral grains to continents!)

Standard geologist tech is cameras and GPS/GIS tools. But we don’t allow photos in field reports, in order to get them to do the sketches which do the abstraction.

Much previous work on virtual field trips. RAFT – remote accessible field trips – similar project from OUNL.

Approach: transient wireless networking. Rapidly deployable, lightweight, battery-powered wireless network. (Contrast with Ambient Wood project which had a lot of infrastructure in it.) Sites are all away from mobile signal, and satellite costs a bomb.  Mark’s background in grassroots community networking (the Pringles cantenna).

Wireless routers (Linksys WRT 54G/GL) because firmware opened up – (freifunk OpenWrt, dd-wrt), plus custom-made batteries (12V 2.8Ah DC lead-acid), external attenae (8/18dB omni, 14dB panel) with telescopic stands. Also Eee PCs at either end. Also 21″ monitor driven by car battery recharger.

Runs in parallel with main student body – student by roadside with dedicated tutor; field geologist reports from locations, with the other students, carrying network, driven by the student in/near the car.  (Needed to use hi-vis jackets to see each other at the distances required.) Extra tech bod (Trevor or Mark) there to help too.

Sense-of-presence video, to contextualise features; detailed stills. Two-way audio to direct field geologist.

Everything lightweight … and then the geologists walk down the hill with 20kg of rock in their rucksack. Issues: very sunny (visibility), very wet.

Web interface, very simple: live remote video, image bank, local video (useful diagnostic tool).

Feedback – one student very focused on the collective student experience, strong group identity, and physical presence was important. Other more about grounded (!) understanding. Side benefit – can take the images away with you. (Other students wanted the pictures too.) The quality of student sketches varied, not really dependent on mobility impairment or not.  But … you’re not actually there (3D, kinaesthetic experience?) and fundamenally it’s a 2D representation of a 3D thing. Hand samples also crucial.  Measurement generally done by the field geologist, not taken off the picture because picture-taking tricky physically. Was slower – takes longer to fix irrelevancies. A lot of communication/prep between the tutors about how to teach the specific outcrops/settings.

Suggestion: stereoscopic camera(s) with eye headset.

Weather a challenge – used drysacks to protect the kit. Fog reduced signal strength but they never lost it entirely.

More/future stuff:

  • ERA fieldwork kit
  • Personal Inquiry project (EPSRC/ESRC TEL, mobile tech to support evidence-based inquiry learning).
  • ‘Portable’ WLANs (JANET / Cumbria mountain rescue – Lancaster University).
  • New OU geology residential course 2010.

It’s low powered, so don’t need a licence to turn it on. Cheap kit is good because easily replaceable, which tends to make it low power.


Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.