The University of Illinois News Bureau asked me to blog the 2016 version of PS 224. Here are links to the three posts:
Audrey Neville and I will be conducting a quasi-experiment next semester in my lecture course on environmental politics. Students can decide to go on a field trip with me to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. If they prefer, they can go on an online “virtual field trip” to the same place. Either way, they will complete the same assignments – some quiz-like questions along the way, some discussion, and a take-home essay at the end.
We’re interested in how the physicality of experiential learning affects learning outcomes. I won’t go into our expectations here, but they follow in a straightforward way from the literature on experiential learning. Some earlier work with Carie Steele has evaluated field experiences in a non-experimental way. Audrey and I see this second project as a quasi-experiment in which we compare two modes of learning. It’s important to note that we do not compare either learning mode to a null (no field trip), but only against one another.
The field trip is embedded in a larger course, and presents material equal to about 1.5-2 weeks in that course. All students engage in an online learning activity (OLA) that introduces key analytics and concepts relevant to the field trip. The unit focuses on the relations of humans and nature in the abstract, drawing from issues you may know from William Cronon’s Uncommon Ground. Then we apply those issues to the concrete landscape of Northwest Indiana, where a national park unit coexists with three steel mills, two power plants, the Port of Indiana, two US highways, three interstates, and a mix of communities that range from second homes for the wealthy to the post-industrial cities of Gary and Hammond.
The physical field trip lasts an entire Saturday, about 11-12 hours from door to door. About half of that experience is driving. Our target is to make the virtual field trip take about 5-6 hours, though it’s possible that students can work through it a bit faster. The virtual field trip has quite a bit of video, taken on a pseudo field trip in September with three Illinois students acting as stand-ins for the virtual students. This was the third time I’ve taken students to Indiana Dunes, so my “shticks” are pretty stable.
We designed the OLA and the two field trips with the experiment in mind, but we did not design them to serve the experiment. The material serves pre-existing learning objectives in the course. We followed several principles in our OLA and field trip designs, and these principles affect the quasi-experiment.
Autonomy. Students choose their own experience, based on their own interests and commitments. We do not randomly assign them to either. (Random assignment would also introduce some injustices that we want to avoid.) We expect some differences in the two student populations, and we will have to control for those differences instead of getting rid of them through random assignment.
Access. All students should have access to whatever modes help them learn best. Following the conventions of experimental design would require a control group of students who would not be allowed to access either field trip. These conventions would undermine pedagogical principles of access. We will thus use a nonequivalent groups design to examine how the treatments affect student learning. Though an experimental design would have better internal validity, it seems strange to sacrifice student learning in pursuit of greater understanding of student learning.
Student learning first. We want both options to provide great learning experiences, and we’re not going to sacrifice learning in either option to make the other option look better. If we need to make tradeoffs between the purity of the experiment and pedagogy, pedagogy will always triumph.
For this reason, we allow students who take the physical field trip to view the virtual field trip if they like. We will also provide students who take the virtual field trip with enough information to drive up to Indiana Dunes on their own and obtain a physical experience. We want students to be able to do whatever they want to do in order to succeed in the course. We realize that this is not ideal in terms of experimental design, and we’ll have to control for any students who do this.
Neutrality. We want the physical and virtual field trips to be as similar as we can make them. We want both to be successful learning experiences. Students may mention things that they “saw” without revealing whether it was virtual or physical. their choice. We should not know whether a student chose the virtual or physical field trip, and will grade without that information.
Online learning is popular among administrators and some faculty, controversial among other faculty. People usually contrast online learning with classroom learning, whether lectures or seminars. However, advocates of experiential learning believe that it provides much better learning outcomes. I teach across all three “platforms,” and want to understand better what each platform does best.
Thank you for reading so far. We would be grateful for your comments and reactions as we finalize our course design and research design.
In early November, I took a group of students from my “Environmental Politics” class on a field trip to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. A few of them knew the dunes as a good place to go to the beach – but that wasn’t our agenda on a windy November day.
We started at the Portage Lakefront Unit to talk about the political history of the region. From the breakwater, you can see the full sweep of the Lake Michigan shoreline from Michigan City, Indiana, to Chicago. We couldn’t quite see Chicago, but the industry of East Chicago, Whiting, Gary, and Hammond were all visible.
At this spot, the park faces a steel mill across the channel of Burns Ditch. The Port of Indiana and a NIPSCO power plant, both of which serve the mill, are barely visible on the other side of the factory. The town of Ogden Dunes lies on the other side of the park, a well-to-do community that benefits from the protected landscape of the national park.
The political geography of national parks is nowhere more visible than here. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore owes its existence to a political compromise in 1963. Dune advocates accepted a subsidized harbor bill while industrialists acquiesced in creation of a national park unit here. Each got the core of what they wanted, while each had to accept the existence of the other next door.
The geography of Portage Lakefront makes this compromise visible, and always sparks a conversation. How can nature and humans coexist? What are the benefits, and what are the costs? Seeing a national park, residential community, and major industry lying cheek-and-jowl shows students what these issues look like on the physical landscape.
After Portage Lakefront, we explored the natural landscape that the park preserves. The best place to do this is the Cowles Bog Trail. The trail begins by walking along Cowles Bog, a National Historic Landmark that recognizes where Henry Chandler Cowles (1869-1939) pioneered the study of ecology. The swamp forest here includes pin oak, red maple, and yellow birch. Some of these trees are moving into the swamp and transforming it. In one stretch, the NPS kills these trees by girdling them, to halt this natural process of ecological succession. The park honors Cowles’ studies of ecological succession by arresting this process in time, thereby displaying it better in space – keeping both the fen and the swamp forest.
As we climb into the dunes, we gradually see more habitats, including oak savanna with black and white oaks and shrubs such as chokecherry, witch hazel and sumac. We pass some ponds behind the dunes, and then finally arrive at the foredunes above Lake Michigan. On top of the dunes we see various hardwoods that have established themselves. They can move in here because the marram grass near the beach has stabilized the soil and transformed the ecosystem, providing a place for cottonwood, oak, hickory, and white ash to move in.
These diverse microhabitats characterize Indiana Dunes, and explain why this small place holds more than one thousand plant species. Congress preserved not only recreational opportunities on the beach and trails but also a hotspot of biodiversity. Microhabitats are scattered among towns, factories and transportation networks – a microcosm of the wider problem of environmental politics today.
Can we preserve natural places and a full range of biodiversity in a landscape dominated by humans? Does preserving our natural heritage require killing native trees? While they enjoyed getting out of Champaign-Urbana for the day, we also left them with some questions for their reflective essays on the trip.
Additional links and resources
For four seasons in Indiana Dunes, see my Flickr set.
For my essay comparing Indiana Dunes with Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes, see the National Park Traveler.
For my photo essay on the Midwest’s national park units, see Illinois Issues.