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Surveying education in the time of Covid

Nov 2020 | No Comment

Teaching in the time of COVID has been challenging for all of us. We have adopted an honest, hard working approach

Dr Craig Roberts

Senior Lecturer Surveying and Geospatial Engineering School of Civil and Environmental Engineering UNSW, Sydney, Australia

On 16 March 2020, all teaching staff in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CVEN) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) received a decisive email from our acting Head of School Professor Nasser Khalili entitled “Remote Delivery of Courses and Shutdown.” The threat of COVID-19 had forced university administrators to shut down the entire institution in the coming days. But the message from Prof Khalili was clear, no one would be recycling old lecture recordings. Every teacher in the school would be delivering lectures live on-line, starting in 7 days, and Dr Steve Davis (Chair of our Teaching and Learning committee) would be teaching us all how to do it the very next day in an extraordinary, “all teaching staff” meeting.

Everyone came with laptops and determination. Our IT support wizards were there. There was no complaining, no excuses, no blame, just a desire to roll up our sleeves and make this work. UNSW supports Microsoft Teams and Blackboard Collaborate (BBCU) which was embedded in our university -wide education platform called Moodle. Everyone used Moodle but none of us had tried BBCU and few had used MS Teams.

The school purchased external video/ microphone devices for lecturers and updated laptops and tablets where necessary. We learnt how to set up and enter online classes, share screens/ videos, make students presenters, use whiteboards, create polls, record lectures, invite guests, ask chat questions and create breakout rooms. In the coming days, different lecturers practiced together in preparation for their first ever live lecture with students. It was challenging, but somehow refreshing and exciting to have to use your educative talents in a new constrained environment.

Across the school, some classes are very large (over 500 in a class) and some are much more manageable (15 – 20). MS Teams was more suited to large classes, whereas BBCU was restricted to a maximum of 250 participants.

On Monday March 23, teaching recommenced in earnest, except this time live online and remote from the familiarity of face-to-face classes. We were quick to point out to students that this was new to us. We asked students to help teachers if we forgot to unmute our mic or hit the record button. The students realised that their feedback could help improve their online experience and started to engage differently. In a face-to-face class they might never ask a question but typing a chat message seemed less intimidating.

Almost 4 years prior I had given one of the first live webinars nationally in Australia with the support of the Surveying and Spatial Sciences Institute (SSSI). It was my first experience with the feeling of sitting alone in a room, talking to a screen and knowing that many are tuned in listening – not unlike my high school days working at a community radio station. But my big lesson from this first experience was that the natural position for lecturing is standing up. I feel I can present with more energy and passion.

I had also learnt that the whiteboard function restricted me to the clunky use of a mouse, unless I had a tablet – and I did not. For these reasons, I booked a lecture room with a real whiteboard and set myself up for each lecture in a room, by myself and conveniently located next to my survey store. I could switch between sharing my screen and sharing my video to show a real whiteboard and/ or demonstrate surveying equipment or simply describe things with my hands as I would do in a face-to-face lecture. I found being in a room liberating – and strangely comfortable considering that, to an outside observer, I was apparently gesticulating and talking to myself.

As lecturers we soon learnt that if we shared our screen then we could not see the chat messages from students. Our solution was to join the lecture as a guest with a second screen (laptop, iPad, tablet) and monitor the chat messages. It enabled students to ask questions and the lecturer to respond immediately – but as teachers we were kept busy. I advanced from external microphone, to USB headset with 2m cord to the freedom of Airpods. We learnt by experimenting and sharing our new experiences.

In surveying, the class sizes were thankfully smaller (never more than 40 – 50), however even though the more senior students knew each other well, few were prepared to show their face. Whilst some would unmute their microphone to ask a question, most preferred to use the chat. It is unclear if this is out of politeness or shyness, but it did take away that instant facial feedback of the student not understanding a point or falling asleep in class. For tutorial or workshop type sessions, I tried a different strategy. I emailed students to advise that I would not be recording the session beforehand, partly to ensure attendance but mostly to observe behaviour. Students who attended seemed to be more willing to unmute, speak freely and engage more.

Some workshops were designed to go through assignments or projects that had been set and required processing with CAD or GPS Baseline processing software. Licensing arrangements had been previously made (before COVID) to enable students to remotely access these softwares from home using a virtual private network (VPN) connection. The sudden influx of new users was initially a challenge to our IT staff but teething problems were overcome. Sometimes it was useful to record small sessions using the software live – very much like the many tutorials on YouTube, except these could be tailored to student assignments. With our new knowledge of online teaching, this became a simple exercise and a valuable resource to assist student learning.

Young students are sometimes classified as “digital natives” which assumes that they can simply learn any new software or delivery platform and it does not bother them. This was not my experience. We tried hard to stick to just a few delivery platforms so students could focus on the discipline specific learning and not “which button to press to share a screen”. Students certainly appreciated this as evidenced in feedback surveys at the end of term.

Given that the shutdown was imposed on all staff and students in week 5 of a 10- week term, the university recommended that all courses would simply be pass/fail. This was to accommodate those students whose personnel IT circumstances were poor, also those international students who could not return to Australia at the start of the year due to travel restrictions in their own home countries, but mostly to provide equity in assessment for all students.

Some academics tried to create online quiz style exams, but this was restrictive. Others tried to re-design their assessment toward assignments only. Some wrote exams as normal and sent them via email to students at a set date and time and asked that the students return the completed papers within 2 hrs, 6hrs or even 24 hrs (to accommodate students enrolled across all longitudes). Given the short time-frame to re-design such assessment, pass/fail was considered the most equitable solution in the short-term.

Luckily, our 3rd year surveying students had completed their intensive, one-week field camp exercises prior to the shutdown and now only needed to complete their assignments. In this case, we were able to preserve our usual assessment, but in term 1 we were the exception not the rule. It seemed that half of the students liked the pass/fail rule and almost identical numbers wanted assessment.

In term 2, commencing June 1, assessment was restored. All classes remained online. Very few students or academics attended the UNSW campus and for surveying, all field practical classes were cancelled. This presented a difficult problem as we place a large emphasis on practical teaching (Roberts & Harvey, 2019). I teach a first-year surveying course. I rely on field practicals to help explain new concepts to students. I provide three practical exercises namely levelling, GPS and a building setout. I was required to provide alternative exercises for students to replace hands on field exercises.

Anticipating the shutdown, I brought some surveying gear from our survey store to my home to aid in development of new teaching resources. Using my teenage sons as assistants, I directed a very amateur film in short segments of how to perform a levelling run in my local park. I learnt how to edit these into short clips which I embedded into a Moodle quiz for students. My colleague Dr Bruce Harvey suggested it was good to show the mistakes students make as beginners. The quiz gave students the opportunity to critique my deliberate mistakes, which I corrected in the next short film clip.

But simply watching a quiz and answering some leading questions was an unsatisfactory replacement to performing a hands-on task. The students had seen the process, so part 2 of the exercise asked students to go to their local park and design their own level run. Unfortunately, they would not be able to take the measurements, but in my experience, it is the reconnaissance and design of the survey that beginner surveyors find most challenging. They were then required to draft a fully annotated locality sketch and short report describing their level run design.

Further to this, due the Open Data policy across NSW state government (NSW Govt 2020), NSW Spatial Services had recently produced a new app (NSW Spatial Services 2020) that could be used to search for any of the 220,000+ survey marks across NSW. This was the first time 1st yr students had actually searched for survey marks by themselves in their own locality. Their survey needed to commence at an established mark and be shown on their locality sketch. Students learnt that finding suitable marks was more challenging than they had first anticipated.

The GPS prac utilised this survey mark app as well as some suggested GPS measurement and GNSS constellation apps. Students were required to measure survey marks and suitable photocontrol marks in their local suburb with their phone apps, assess the quality of the positioning versus given coordinates and/or georeferenced imagery and report on difficulties. This exercise was scheduled after the GPS lecture and took some explaining in unrecorded practical briefing type “rooms” before students understood what was required.

The final exercise was a typical building set-out where students were required to compute radiations from a known point and set-out a 6-pointed building to ±5mm accuracy. Normally this would be the first introduction to the use of total stations, but instead students were asked to find a partner (family or friend) and set out using just distances (using a 30m tape or similar), showing all checks to confirm squareness and accuracy. Evidence with photographs was required.

These three practical exercises received good feedback from students, given the circumstances, but all craved real, hands-on activities. As a teacher I also missed the opportunity to be in the field and offer guidance, suggestions, tips and tricks to the students.

My 3rd yr Geodesy course includes a large rapid static GNSS practical exercise where all students combine to run a 4-session survey with 8 GNSS receivers on 12 new marks and combine all observations with surrounding CORS data to perform a fully constrained network adjustment. In 2020, we simply processed the data from the 2019 students, but not before first designing our own logistics and survey planning on how to run the sessions and optimally combine the data. 2020 students were asked to compare their plan with that of the 2019 cohort and critically assess pros and cons.

These geodesy students are also asked to research a selected topic and prepare a presentation and reference list. Usually I schedule a time for live, conference style presentations and require all students to attend. The emphasis of the presentation is on sharing new found knowledge with the class, not only directed at the lecturer to garner marks.

Under COVID conditions, all students prerecorded their presentations. As a lecturer I gave some suggestions on the best way to record, including tips on clear use of microphones. Video files were uploaded to an online repository for all types of video files which seamlessly linked to Moodle. All students were required to attend the session which was split into 4 x 50-minute sessions which were moderated and introduced by the lecturer. An additional MS Form was developed so that all students could provide assessment on their colleague’s presentations. I could then download these comments as an excel spreadsheet. Feedback for this session was very positive. I will continue to use these MS forms post-COVID.

Term 3 has commenced, and thanks to some good discipline from our government and citizens, COVID-19 restrictions are easing and the university now permits outdoor field practical exercises. This is a huge relief as I teach 2nd yr and 4th yr classes which both include large components of field work. The sense of relief, excitement and gratitude was palpable during the first prac exercise when the students returned to campus, following strict COVID protocols. Students were instructed to maintain social distancing when gathering in groups, collecting gear or performing measurements. We check temperature of students prior to collecting gear. When in close contact, masks are always worn. Hand sanitiser is provided and instruments are wiped down after use.

All lectures are still presented online, but for some smaller classes where the 4 m2 rule can be maintained, students are permitted to attend face-to-face lectures if they so desire. This presents an additional challenge to teachers who must now present to an online class, but also to students in the room. I now juggle three computers as I must project my lectures on the big screen in the room as well as online and have an additional screen to monitor chat messages. It is workable but sometimes a bit frantic.

Assessment remains a challenge and especially for final exams. For larger classes, cheating is a huge problem. There is no current software that can effectively stop students who want to cheat from doing so. We have tried to re-design questions that minimise cheating. Making exams open book, putting time limits on the exam or just including a lot of work to not give students the time to consult their colleagues. Online quiz style questions are restricted by the functionality of the software. Computational style questions can be written such that different values for different students can be programmed into the question, but this requires some specialist skill and time for preparation. We developed some questions using numbers from an individual student’s university ID number – (eg. “Using the last 4 digits of your ID number what is the …”).

For smaller surveying classes, my colleagues and I found almost no evidence of cheating. We spoke to our students about the purpose of exams, their required adherence to a code of ethics later in their professional careers and basically appealed to their honesty. It seemed to work.

Teaching in the time of COVID has been challenging for all of us. We have adopted an honest, hard working approach. We have tried to provide the best education possible given the changing restrictions and adapt accordingly. The online lectures have provided certain advantages. Many of our students must travel up to 2 hrs one way to attend campus. We have provided recorded lectures for a few years now, but the added advantage of live interaction during lectures certainly enhances the experience for students. Attendance online is indeed higher than previously when face-to-face. I imagine we will continue to lecture this way into the future, and I am happy to do so. Similarly, online workshops with software and pre-recorded presentations offer a certain educational advantage in some circumstances but should not be overused. We found that students have been very forgiving of lecturers when it was clear that they are trying hard to offer the best educational experience. Sometimes amateurish mistakes were met with sympathy and an offer to assist. This has been a nice outcome of this situation.

But for surveying there is no substitute for hands-on field practical exercises. We are fortunate in Australia that the restrictions are now easing. This has exposed the contrast between the online practical exercises which we had to develop in term 2 versus the usual hands-on exercises that we are now permitted to undertake in term 3. For larger, more complex field tasks such as those in yr 2, 3 and 4 of the program, there is simply no alternative.

COVID-19 has forced teachers to adapt quickly. Some good things have been learnt and will continue to be used to enhance student learning, but given the practical nature of surveying, some faceto- face will always be required for a rich and worthwhile university education.


NSW Govt (2020) au/nsw-government-open-data-policy

NSW Spatial Services (2020) https:// nsw_survey_marks_mobile_app

Roberts, C. & Harvey, B. (2019) The Critical Importance of Practical Exercises in a Modern Surveying Curriculum, APAS 2019, Pokolbin, 1-3 April https:// APAS2019-proceedings.pdf

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