The outdoor ‘office’

At the end of March, members of the Digital Learning Team accompanied staff and students on fieldwork for the BIOL1001 module, Experimental and Field Biology. Students visit the south of Spain for hands-on experience in identifying plants and animals and carrying out their own small-scale research projects. In the space of a week they go from being students to scientists; and we sent a Learning Designer (Sarah Fielding) and a Media Developer (Mimi Lee) along with them.

Our brief included several aims and outputs:

  • Creating a complete pilot virtual version of the field-trip (including 360 images, video and other multimedia) as a consolidation resource for current students and a preparatory resource for next year’s students.
  • Field testing our new GoPro 360 Omni rig (a major upgrade in our 360 technology and VR capabilities).
  • Filming student interviews about their project work
  • Filming a case study about innovative assessment techniques
  • Sharing knowledge and practical techniques for using multimedia with Faculty staff
  • Developing our own skills within Digital Learning
  • Creating a promo video for the Field-course

We set off early (1.30am) from Highfield Campus with half of the cohort of students, going by coach to Gatwick Airport. The Faculty staff were already in Bolonia with the other half of the 1st year students. Although students experience a week in the field, the size of the cohort means the staff are on location for 2 weeks. We were met at Gibraltar airport by Dr Neil Gostling, the module co-ordinator, and then climbed onto another coach that would take us to Bolonia. The University of Southampton has been bringing students to this isolated and unspoilt coastal village for 30 years; the diverse flora and fauna is more active at this time of year than the UK, and several different habitats can be explored in a relatively small area.

Welcome sign at Gibraltar airport.

Tools of the trade

There’s always a temptation to take everything, but that has to be tempered against flight allowances and also how much we can carry on location! For this trip we opted to take our Panasonic Lumix GH5 for the majority of filming; this DSLR that has incredible video capabilities such as 4K, as well as slow motion footage, and is quite a compact set up allowing for great flexibility when filming on the go and travelling. For close up cutaways and documentary-style footage, we opted for our Osmo Mobile gimbal paired with Sarah’s Galaxy S7.img_20180328_202752_939We took a tried and tested method of 360 image capture: a 360 Samsung camera (pairs with the S7 for live preview) as well as the new GoPro Omni rig with six Hero 4s.

Close up of camera rig with blurred group of students by a roadside in the background
The GoPro Omni rig; photogenic in itself!

Two Radio mics plus one handheld went into the luggage. For downloading all the footage we also packed a Dell Laptop and an external hard drive, along with extra batteries and memory cards. Two tripods and a collapsible reflector took the remaining space. We left
the drone at home this time round!

Two memory cards and an external hard drive on a table top.
Essential kit for backing up all that great footage!


Trip challenges

The risk assessment for the trip was a little more exotic than our usual ‘heavy lifting’ and other standard risks. This time we had to be watchful of feral dogs, cattle, scorpions, snakes, jellyfish and Portuguese men o war.

People standing on a beach looking at a jelly fish. The words Do Not Touch are written in the sand.
Dr Neil Gostling gives a health and safety briefing about Portuguese Men o War that wash up on the beach.

Bolonia is known for its steady and almost constant winds, which made getting clear audio recordings a little challenging. We had arrived early in the holiday season and, although Bolonia is little known outside of Spain, tourists often wandered through shots or generally added to background noise levels.

A man sitting on a rock whilst a woman points a camera at him.
Mimi Lee filming Neil Gostling during a rock pooling session. The rocks helped to cut down the coastal wind noise.

Our main challenge was trying to be unobtrusive in capturing media. Having the Digital learning team involved means that staff and students can focus on the work at hand. However, video work requires a lot of staging of shots and run throughs so that the developers can follow the action. Often in this type of work we try and achieve a balance of capturing footage on the go, and finding time in staff and student schedules to shoot more staged (but ultimately natural) material. Due to time constraints we sometimes have to accept ‘good enough’ rather than pressing on for the perfect shot.

Occasionally the kit malfunctions. We spent the first few days with a tripod thread that was well and truly stuck. We improvised though, and the Samsung 360 took on an even stronger Pixar feel than usual when it looked as though it had climbed up the tripod for a better view.

A camera on a tripod on another tripod by a roadside.
Improvise, adapt and overcome.

Trip highlights

Bolonia is a beautiful part of the world, no doubt about it. One particular highlight was a spectacular sunset. Another was making it to the highest point of the local area, a well known beauty spot, on the final day of the trip.

Beach at sunset with a person in the foreground with a camera on a tripod
Mimi Lee making a timelapse recording of a Bolonia sunset

We certainly tested the kit to its limit. We didn’t expect to be filming Praying Mantids hatching and were surprised at the result with just a smartphone and a steady table.

Baby mantids hatching from a nest and taking their first steps.
Surprisingly like Bambi…baby mantids hatching from a nest and taking their first steps.

The main highlight really was being able to engage with staff and students. In Digital Learning we don’t get a lot of direct student contact (unless we are pointing a camera in their direction for a short period of filming). On this trip, and over the space of a week, we could really connect with their interests and learning journeys. It’s very helpful to us and their enthusiasm for their subject is infectious. Working with staff was equally enlightening. We shared top tips for apps and multimedia tools, and had detailed conversations where we really got to appreciate some of the challenges that staff face. We made new connections and plans for expanding this pilot of virtual fieldwork. Now we are home, we are creating some new and innovative interactive resources for education; the heart of our team mission.

Camera crew and a subject at the beach.
Student interviews; reflecting on skills and learning


Coming soon…

Take a look at our BIOL1001 Preview. Over the next few weeks we will be adding interactive hotspots that include video, quizzes, photos and audio files.

On location: DigiLearn in Spain

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