The online future of wildlife learning

COVID-19 has affected everyone, and wildlifers are no exception. In this series, TWS is looking at challenges facing the profession due to the pandemic.

As professors shifted their spring classes online to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, students and educators alike had to deal with many immediate challenges. Now, as universities consider whether to partially open, completely open or stay virtual in the fall, professors are wondering what the future will be for students in fields like wildlife biology. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated it, the tension between teaching students in indoors in labs versus teaching them outdoors in field settings is as old as wildlife education, said John Perrine, a professor in the biological sciences department at California Polytechnic State University. “Aldo Leopold wrote about how universities are enamored by laboratory research,” he said. “The trends he talks about are still prominent in modern universities.” 

At his university, all classes that can remain virtual will likely do so in the fall, but individual campuses and programs will be able to consider what needs to run in person. While he had to cancel some lab courses due to coronavirus last semester, he plans to find a way to keep his fall mammalogy labs face-to-face while his lectures go online. Some opportunities will have to wait, though. He’s had to put an end to field trips and having students be hands-on participants in performing a mountain lion necropsy in a teaching lab room.

“For some students that’s a seminal experience for them, a transformative experience,” he said. “It’s something they may talk about for decades.” 

Now he records his lectures and posts them online — a process he says feels like leaving a long voicemail. He has restructured his classes so students can watch the lectures anytime, then discuss them live on Zoom. But talking about banding birds won’t give students the experience of taking a bird out of a mist net, he said. “Those can be very powerful learning experiences, game changers that make them say ‘I want to do this kind of biology,’” Perrine said. “That’s generally hard to deliver online.”

Eric Hellgren, chair of the University of Florida’s department of wildlife ecology and conservation and secretary/treasurer of the National Association of Fish and Wildlife University Programs, said faculty there also shifted their classes online when the pandemic hit. While his university plans to keep most courses online in the fall, Hellgren indicated instructors for the  wildlife techniques course, which is a backbone field experience in the curriculum, are trying to creatively address the field-classroom tension. The department plans to keep the academic portion online in fall but add a spring field course — a move that may require testing students for the virus before they can go out in the field. 

Hands-on, online 

But delivering wildlife classes online doesn’t have to mean all is lost. Brent Bibles, a wildlife biology professor and distance education graduate faculty at Unity College, a liberal arts college in Unity, Maine, has taken the opportunity to provide pointers to professors about virtual learning. 

“One of the things they’re challenged with is, how do I make online hands-on and experiential?” he said. 

His college has both undergraduate and graduate students hook up with professional partners. It’s almost like a ride along, Bibles said, allowing students to learn from a professional and build network connections. “Convincing students to do that is challenging,” he said, “but if it’s a required piece of the course, we have a little bigger of a hammer.”  

For professors switching their courses online, he suggests making lectures both fewer and shorter, relying instead on activities that teach students the material. He also suggested discussion boards for students to comment and ask questions. 

“Students deserve to have a good education,” Bibles said. “Online can do that, but it has to be intentionally designed that way. It’s really important we don’t take face-to-face courses and just directly convert them into online, you can’t teach online courses the way you teach face to face.” 

Online learning can be adapted to wildlife learning, Hellgren said, but students may still miss out on student chapters and other co-curricular activities. 

“They come for the whole experience, not just online,” he said. “I think the students are resilient, the faculty is creative and it’s going to get better,” Hellgren said. “We all know it’s going to get better. I just hope we don’t have all the multiple waves that can happen to shut down again.”

Header Image: During past Western Section field camps like this one, students were able to get hands-on experience. But recent pandemic measures have canceled those types of courses, and professors have switched to online learning. Credit: Western Section of The Wildlife Society via Facebook