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Supporting Geography in Ukraine’s universities: the Virtual Field Trips for Ukraine Initiative

By Simon Hutchinson, University of Salford and Nataliia Popovych, V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University

Imagine the scenario: the COVID-enforced restrictions on university life, teaching and study are over, then your country is invaded and at war. Aside from the loss of life, smashed infrastructure and constant danger, you are once again forced back to studying online, isolated and perhaps a refugee, teaching is interrupted and fieldwork, despite being a core element of your discipline, is impossible again.   

The conflict in Ukraine has now spanned over a year. Since February 2022, there has been almost daily media coverage of the war including Russia’s tactic of targeting civilian infrastructure and power generation. During this time ordinary Ukrainian people have strived to maintain daily life including the nation’s education system. Understandably, the effects of the war on Ukraine’s universities have hit fewer international headlines. Nevertheless, mitigating these effects is crucial to the country’s longer-term future.

Higher Education has been severely disrupted, both as a result of the physical damage of many of its facilities and through the displacement of staff and students to other parts of the country and beyond. For many universities teaching has been forced online, especially in the East of the country towards the front line. University staff also widely report significant levels of anxiety as they are overloaded with work and try to support their students. Worldwide subjects like geography rely on field-based activities as an important component of the teaching programme. In Ukraine this can be for an extended period of practical training. Under current conditions, and for the foreseeable future, this is no longer possible with significant consequences for students’ learning opportunities and morale, as well as research activities.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, student fieldwork also stopped across most of the world. However, in some institutions it was replaced by virtual field trips (VFTs). Using digital visualisation tools, it was possible to replicate aspects of the learning that would have taken place outdoors using interactive, online teaching tools. Although we can now safely return to fieldwork, these digital resources have often continued to be used to augment in-person field trips allowing more inclusive participation and supporting students’ learning experiences. In Ukraine, VFTs are now helping to support Geography students at V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University (KKNU) in the east of Ukraine.

Students have used resources and digital media from past field trips to produce their virtual field trips.

Despite the difficulties caused by successive waves of missile attacks, and their impacts on power supplies and the availability of the Internet, Simon Hutchinson (University of Salford), and Geographers Nataliia Popovych, Kateryna Borysenko and Vladyslav Popov (KKNU) have run a series of online Workshops giving students the skills to make their own virtual field trips safely and using smart phone-level digital tools. While VFTs are usually made by staff for their students, at Salford I have pioneered a flipped approach whereby the students are co-creators. However, Kharkiv’s students are learning and perfecting the approach online, often in isolation (having become refugees) and in difficult conditions. When asked if there were any barriers that had affected their ability to create a VFT, one student’s answer starkly illustrated daily life in Ukraine. The comment was simply ‘Blackout, slow internet’. Although completing the task, this student and many others were not able to join the Workshops ‘live’ and had to watch-back recordings of the training at night, when power supplies were more reliable, or search for places where electricity and Internet connections were available.

The VFTs KKNU’s students have produced have mainly used resources and digital media they already have, for example, featuring past field trips from before the war. Others are based on their new ‘home’ environment in a range of host countries where they have collected digital content locally. The Workshops have helped students to engage with their studies, connect with their peers and staff, and learn additional skills. Kharkiv’s students have produced some excellent first VFTs with little training and limited resources. Student feedback on the initiative has been positive with some insightful comments that will help us improve the Workshops and better facilitate student co-creation using digital tools. Some of the comments are in fact quite humbling, for example, ‘thank you very much for the opportunity to acquire new knowledge and skills!’

In the longer-term we hope that developing virtual field trips will help enhance the geography curriculum so that Higher Education in Ukraine is well prepared, innovating and ready for the inevitable nationwide post war reconstruction. Our last Workshop featured additional approaches to geovisualisation provided by colleagues at other UK HE institutions who are also supporting the initiative (including Bangor University, the University of Birmingham and the University of Chester). Importantly, the VFTs the Ukrainian students have produced will also provide an important insight into the use of digital visualisation tools; their application during COVID was rapidly developed and deployed with little time to consider the details of how student might best use them.

Future workshops will help support virtual student fieldwork where geography students at Ukrainian institutions would have normally visited.

Other universities across Ukraine have expressed an interest in our student VFT co-creation Workshops and we will be supporting other institutions across Ukraine. Modelled on our successful experience with the Geography students at KKNU, similar Workshops will be run with Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, allowing some student fieldwork experience for the first time on their course by creating their own VFTs for Geoarchaeology. In the West of Ukraine, a VFT of the headwaters of the Prut river in the Carpathian mountains will help support virtual student fieldwork where Geography students at Ivan Franko National University of Lviv they would normally visit and ultimately provide a shared teaching resource.

We are seeking funding to support dedicated staff training in a hybrid-format Summer School in the use of digital tools to provide accessible virtual field trips in the coming academic year. Hosted close to Ukraine’s border in North-eastern Romania this aims to include a range of European partners as a regional initiative. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, however; many educators created VFTs. Sharing a pool of these VFTs and networking to maintain and develop a common resource would be a fantastic way to support Geography, Earth and Environmental Science, and other disciplines where fieldwork is important, in Ukraine now and to enhance the future of the country’s education system. To find out more about the VFTs for UA Initiative (VFTs-UA-Initiative), to share VFTs resources and join this network, please contact Simon M. Hutchinson (s.m.hutchinson@salford.ac.uk) or Nataliia Popovych (n.popovych@physgeo.com).


About the authors: Simon Hutchinson is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science at the University of Salford and Nataliia Popovych is a Lecturer at the Department of Physical Geography and Cartography, V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University.

Suggested Further Reading

Bhakta, A. (2022) A less muddy glee? Perspectives from a disabled researcher in the era of virtual global south fieldwork. Areahttps://doi.org/10.1111/area.12832

Lawrence, A. & Dowey, N. (2022) Six simple steps towards making GEES fieldwork more accessible and inclusive. Areahttps://doi.org/10.1111/area.12747

How to cite: Hutchinson, S., & Popovych, N. (2023, 27 March) Supporting Geography in Ukraine’s universities: the Virtual Field Trips for Ukraine Initiative Geography Directions Available from: https://doi.org/10.55203/IWZM2598

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