Surveying1 education – Prospects and challenges post COVID-19

Apr 2021 | No Comment

The predominantly online mode of learning used during periods of COVID lockdown has both positive and negative impacts for learning

David Mitchell

Chair of Commission 2, International Federation of Surveyors

The professional surveying education responses during the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented shift in how we teach surveying students. While many institutions had increased the amount of online learning, and blended learning prior to COVID-19, the response across the global surveying education community has been phenomenal. During lockdown periods many academic staff had only a short time to adapt to either a totally online teaching mode, or predominantly online. For a profession which has a long history of very practical face-toface (f2f) tuition, this is a big change.

The fact that many subjects were already offered online and both staff and students had some experience with online learning and teaching helped during this period of adaptation. In my discussions with colleagues, students were very accepting of the need for this change, even if it did not suit them all personally.

As we approach the second quarter of 2021, we can reflect on the challenges that the adaptation to online study presented for students, academic staff and employers of our students and graduates. The predominantly online mode of learning used during periods of COVID lockdown has both positive and negative impacts for learning. In this article I consider these challenges and how they have impacted surveying education and consider what the future may hold as we head into the “new normal” post-COVID.

SDG Goal 4 and our response to COVID-19

SDG Goal 4 aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” In particular, the aim of Target 4.3 is to “By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university”.

Also, Target 4.5 calls for the elimination of “gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations”. Recent studies have found that women are more likely to prefer online study than men (YouGov, 2021).

Online learning allows higher education to provide learning opportunities where students can study any-time and anywhere. This is very significant opportunity for surveying education as students who previously lived too far away from the education institution, or were impacted by disabilities or cultural disadvantages may not have been able to come to the campus to study. Also, those that are required to work long hours to support themselves during study can better manage their various time demands and fit in study at times that work for them.

This is also a very significant opportunity in our efforts to meet SDG target 4.3 as online study opportunities remove some of the barriers to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all.

How COVID-19 has impacted surveying education, and what we did and what we have learned.

While much development of digital learning materials, and learning management systems (LMS), had occurred prior to COVID, the uptake of digital learning uptake was accelerated by COVID-19 (YouGov, 2021). In fact, the development of LMS and related technology had progressed to a level that made the rapid transition possible. If COVID had occurred a decade ago then a response such as we saw in 2020 would have been much more difficult. Overall, this was a remarkable achievement by surveying education institutions globally. We have witnessed a fundamental shift in how higher education is offered! It really brought forward decisions on the design of online learning by several years.

While there were differences in the approach taken by individual higher education institutions in response to COVID-19, there were many common themes. There are three typical learning modes being used by academic institutions – traditional f2f, remote online, or a blended (or hybrid) learning which is a combination of both. Most institutions adapted to COVID lockdown periods by going totally online or facilitating remote learning. Typical innovations during lockdown included:

• Lectures being run using video conferencing tools which allowed students to use audio and/or chat to ask questions. Where possible lectures were recorded for later play back.

• Lecture materials placed on the LMS.

• Staff worked remotely and were provided with ICT support to ensure they were ready to broadcast lectures online and create videos. For example, the University of Glasgow provide staff with ‘studio in a box’ kits for recording material at home (Kelly, 2020).

• Where students did not have computers or access to internet, the lecture materials were posted to them, and loan computers provided where possible (Whittal 2021).

• Short instructional videos to explain a particular concept or process, or to provide a briefing for practical work.

• Video-recording work on current projects to play back to the students.

• It was universally accepted that practical classes were a critical part of the learning experience. Many academic institutions modified timetables to fit in as much practical tuition before and after lockdown periods as possible.

• Group project work was undertaken remotely with students using online communication platforms or social media.

• Access to learning materials is broadening. Social media platforms are actively used by young people as part of their informal learning. Younger look for educational features on social media platforms (30% of Millennials, 29% of Generation Z, 19% of older generations). For example, 24% of Generation Z and 15% of Millennials surveyed used Twitter to educate themselves about environmental issues, compared with just 6% of those in older generations (YouGov, 2021).

So, what did we learn from this experience in 2020? Academic staff have told us that the job of teaching has become increasingly challenging. While surveying academic staff did an outstanding job adjusting to delivery learning opportunities online, the preparation time for each session was much more than before and created significant workload pressure for many staff. Developing online learning materials and delivering these online is more time consuming that traditional f2f mode.

Students’ opinions about online learning vary. FIG Commission 2 working group 2.3 developed a questionnaire on surveying students approaches to learning and studying, this was distributed globally during 2020. The preliminary results are informed by students experiences during periods of lockdown and help us to understand what students prefer.

In terms of the learning mode the preferred options for most students are f2f and blended learning:

1. Only 37% prefer to learn through online study (real time), and only 31% prefer to learn through online study (deferred – not in real time). This is in line with other studies such as Yougov (2021) which found that less than half of Millennials (41%) and Generation Z (37%) in the USA, UK and Australia prefer structured online learning.

2. A majority (82%) prefer to learn through traditional f2f study, and

3. Many (74%) also prefer ‘blended learning’ which combines f2f and online study.

4. This tells us that most surveying students prefer f2f – even it is within a blended learning mode. Some students prefer online learning to f2f learning. However, experiences during 2020 tell us that some surveying students were just not able to cope with online learning for a variety of reasons. Beyond what students tell us, experience tells us that social interaction with peers and academic staff is important socially, for mental health, and also an important part of developing professional networks and preparing for graduate employment.

However, students have adapted quickly to online and blended learning modes and there are aspects of this that they like. In terms of accessing learning materials, most (82%) responded that if they miss a lecture they find the video recording of the whole class lecture useful to understand the topic covered. There was an even stronger message that surveying students like active learning approaches. Most (89%) responded that they learn better if doing an activity in class.

When asked about whether they liked participating in class discussions, most (83%) said that they like participating in the discussions in the classroom, and about two thirds (62%) said they are comfortable having online discussions with other students. However, only 40% prefer online discussion boards to classroom discussion.

The way that students access learning materials is changing with many new online resources available. Most respondents (78%) said that they look at the lecture materials on the University Online Learning Management System (Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, Open Source, etc) when they want to learn and complete an assessment task.

In terms of other learning resources, less than half (47%) like to learn by enrolling in Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). Most (78%) find short videos (2-8 minutes) help to familiarize themselves with the topic and complete assessment tasks. Less than half (41%) find that online games help them to complete assessment tasks. Other online learning tools regularly used included Google, Youtube, Quizlet, Matlab, Coursera, Linkedin Learning, Khan Academy, Udemy, Zenius and a challenge for academic staff is to moderate these resources to see if they provide suitable content.

Advantages and challenges of online learning

As the quality and quantity and diversity of online learning materials improves, students benefit by being able to find resources that best match their learning styles. Online learning also has the advantage for students that it can provide opportunities to learn anywhere and anytime. As online learning materials develop, and the quality of online tuition improves the pathways to learning increase and suit a broad range of learning styles. Online learning can provide opportunities for more overall class discussion, albeit through the chat functions, as students are more likely to participate than in a f2f lecture context (YouGov, 2021). For adult learners, online delivery mode provides the flexibility to fit learning around already busy schedules.

Online learning also opens up timetables and allows more individual customisation of programs of study. Previously, in addition to curricula requirements, constraints of room capacity and timetabling put limitations on the choices of students. This will help surveying institutions to access a wider local, regional and international pool of learners.

It is clear that online learning will be a key part of the new normal in many countries – there is no going back to only f2f delivery! Online learning will change the way traditional f2f delivery is done, but not replace it!

However, the main limitation in online learning is that internet connection, plus a basic computer or device are necessary to access the learning opportunities. In parts of the global south, poverty and high levels of inequality in the home environment leaves many students with difficulties in accessing the lectures and learning materials.

Social interaction can also be challenging with online learning. Students have to work harder to make the many social connections that are possible with f2f learning. This includes developing relationships with other students, academic staff and industry contacts. Learning from peers is also very important for surveying students – seeing how other students do things, getting advice from peers based on their academic learning and experience in the workforce.

Important building blocks of learning in surveying education

Surveying education has a very strong tradition of blending of theory and practical tuition including computer lab tutorials and field work. This is as important as ever and is a driver for a transition to blended learning rather than only online learning. Blended learning provides opportunities to enhance the traditional comprehensive f2f approaches to practical learning with effective online resources that allow the students to be thoroughly briefed and support them as the undertake the practical work.

This was really reinforced during 2020 as there were reduced opportunities for practical classes. The cohort of surveying students studying in 2020 had less practical learning opportunities than normal. Efforts will need to be made to redress this as they move forwards in their studies or graduate employment.

Active learning is very important for surveying students – whether online or f2f learning. One approach is through Problem-Based Learning (PBL). Freeman et al (2014) carried out a meta-analysis of 225 studies on undergraduate student performance in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, and found that that average examination scores improved by about 6% where active learning was used, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes with active learning. They argued the results support active learning as the “preferred, empirically validated teaching practice in regular classrooms” (Freeman et al, 2014). Active learning was also found to be especially beneficial for female students in male-dominated STEM fields, and STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Traditionally surveying students have undertaken work experience as they complete their academic studies. This work experience is an important part of applying the theory learned, testing the concepts and developing the specialist skills required. Employers tell us that they favour graduates who have been able to blend higher education learning with work experience.

Strategies going forward

If we can really learn from the lessons of 2020 then the prospects going forward are very exciting. Students will increasingly be able to study anywhere and anytime. They will increasingly also be able to choose their preferred mode of study for overall programs/courses. There will be programs that are fully online, and some that offer a blend of online and f2f.

Online study also provides more choice for students, and this will increase as more online learning options become available. Surveying education, professional development and life-long learning will benefit from the new learning options becoming available and microcredentials will provide alternatives to traditional diplomas and degrees.

Within surveying higher education, the future is blended learning. However, the challenge is in getting the blend right. Early indications are that f2f contact is dramatically reduced in many surveying programs in 2021 and this may need to be increased as we move forward.

If this is all done carefully and comprehensively then the students of the future will be provided with a richer surveying education, which maintains strong f2f practical work, but is more catered to their individual needs, and they will be better prepared for employment upon graduation.

There will need to be strong life-longlearning partnerships between higher education institutions and industry partners/employers where on-the-job learning starts early in their education and supports higher education learning, and further education continues long after graduation from higher education. A true partnership in ensuring life-long learning.

This also provides great opportunities for teachers in higher education, but we need to provide them with support. Most higher education teachers put their heart and soul into providing good student learning opportunities. This is so important for our industry going forward. We, the surveying industry, should make sure that higher education teachers are adequately supported so that can continue to provide quality learning opportunities for all students.


Freeman, S., Eddy, S., McDonough, M., Smith, M., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., and Wenderoth, M., (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics, PNAS, Vol. 111, No. 23, June 10, 2014, pp 8410-8415.

Kelly, W. (2020) University of Glasgow’s response to the COVID19 crisis and the impact on teaching Geospatial Science and Surveying, organisation/comm/2/library/articles/FIG_ Comm2_UoG_responses_covid19.pdf

Mohsen, J.P., (2020) Teaching Surveying Classes in the Era of COVID-19, Utility Engineering and Surveying Institute (UESI), Surveying and Geomatics Education Committee. Teaching Surveying Classes in the Era of COVID 19 | ASCE

Whittal, J., (2021) Providing flexible learning resources for under-resourced University of Cape Town students with internet connection problems,

YouGov (2021) The Future of Learning Report 2021, Future Learn, SEEK Australia,

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