Corvallis, Ore. — Agricultural educators are taking advantage of new advances, providing students with an interactive experience through online “Ecampuses” powered by the latest technology.
Adam Lindsley, crop and soil science instructor at Oregon State University, uses photogrammetry, three-dimensional printing and — soon — virtual reality in his two landscape analysis soil morphology courses.
“These courses are traditionally conducted almost entirely in the field, and, as you might imagine, field work is tough to accomplish in an online class. There are many challenges,” Lindsley said.
One of these challenges comes during winter term when the ground could be frozen, making it impossible for online students located in northern climates to collect soil samples.
“I hit upon the idea of using photogrammetry to make 3-D photos of the soil pits here, and the models correspond with what’s in the (lab kits),” Lindsley said. “It’s a little bit less exciting to load up a 3-D model on your computer, but they do seem to have similar learning as if they were outdoors.”
Photogrammetry makes these models by taking multiple photos from different angles and compiling them together. The software matches up the pixels in each photo and builds a geometry around it. Students can also draw on these models.
Lindsley is also trying 3-D printing to create models that could potentially be part of lab kits. He found shipping actual soil structures by mail would destroy the structure.
“I thought, what if I applied photogrammetry to that and make models of structures?” he said. “It’s nice to have something you can hold that I’m certain won’t turn into dust.”
Lindsley hasn’t designed any learning activities around virtual reality yet, but is using it as a tool to interact with the 3-D models. He’s now experimenting with which headset offers the best ease of use and cost. At the moment, he’s leaning towards Google Cardboard.
Lindsley is not the only instructor in the Oregon State Crop and Soil Department experimenting with these technological advancements. His colleague, Meg Mobley, an instructor in the Crop and Soil Department and Sustainability Double Degree Program, teaches a mixture of on-campus and online labs and courses, and has noticed a “really interesting contrast.”
“(Online is) different from on-campus, even though I’m teaching the same concepts and similar activities,” she said. “It’s setting up different learning environments.”
Instead of a teacher’s assistant setting up the lab for the students, the students have to assemble the lab themselves before they can start the assignment. Mobley said that while it takes more work, the students who do it learn more.
The starkest difference between her environmental science on-campus course and her online course is the field trip that her on-campus class takes to McDonald Dunn Forest — a distinction that she is trying to correct for by creating a virtual field trip.
“The plan is to craft a field trip with the 360-degree photos (of the forest) and implant ‘hot spots’ within the photos that students can navigate themselves and get more information,” she said.
Mobley said that the virtual field trip would also be beneficial for students with physical disabilities who couldn’t make the trip in person.
Although there have been some struggles bringing the department to an online platform, Lindsley said he is up for the challenge. He is trying to address the best way to teach students with a visual impairment, and has started experimenting with sound. He used the example that if someone was measuring in a soil pit and stuck the knife into the horizon, the sound would differ if the substance was sand instead of clay.
“We’re still figuring it out. We’re having a hard time figuring out how that would work, but I’m willing to give it a shot,” he said. “Sound is one way to interact.”
Mobley has encountered this concern as well with her color-blind students when the class covers the differences in soil coloring. She believes that, at least for an introductory course, that specific learning material could be postponed until later in the degree.
However, that isn’t a permanent solution.
Despite the challenges, Lindsley believes there are several benefits to using an online platform, such as enabling more people to take the course, creating more opportunities for innovation, and interacting with students who are less inclined to speak in a traditional classroom setting.
“I really enjoy it. I get a much better understanding of where my students are at. The people who are in a campus course who don’t talk, online they have no problem shooting me an email or putting it on the discussion board,” he said. “I get a lot more interaction from my students, especially ones I wouldn’t hear otherwise.”
An online platform also allows for students to apply what they learn not just to Oregon soils, but to the soils where they live.
“Students who come to take classes on campus at OSU learn about geology, soil, rivers, ag here in the Willamette Valley and surrounding area, which is not necessarily where they end up applying that learning,” Mobley said. “In the online crop and soil science, environmental science and sustainability classes, the students examine and study the soils under their homes, where their drinking water comes from (and) what the air quality issues are in their town.”