Virtual Montana, Virtual Fieldwork
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Virtual Montana started in 1999 has been supported under the Minerva Action as a trans-national project examining the use of Open and Distance Learning technologies in Geography fieldwork in mountain environments. The Virtual Montana Project has created a number of Open and Distance Learning products in order to support the fieldwork activities of undergraduate students and staff in three mountain locations, the Hautes Alpes (France), the Carpathians (Romania) and Snowdonia (North Wales, UK). Virtual Montana uses the Web in the implementation of support for undergraduate Geography and Environmental fieldwork courses. Fieldwork studies at university are normally either undertaken for teaching purposes or else for the collection of research data. The experience of fieldwork is central in the study of geography and environmental sciences and fieldwork is strongly advocated as a highly effective learning environment. It lies at the heart of Geography and there is nothing better than actually visiting a place. However when this is not possible, with the advent of new interactive technologies, visiting and interacting with virtual electronic landscapes situated in cyberspace has become feasible in order to provide a deeper learning experience.The geographical theme of the Virtual Montana Project focused on the importance of mountains, this was particularly relevant with 2002 nominated as International Year of the Mountains. Research suggests that most young people in Europe have little knowledge or awareness about the issues affecting mountain areas, especially when this is compared with those of rainforest, ocean, wetland or polar ecosystems. The Virtual Montana Project sought to redress this situation in the organisations concerned and also to provide more general information to a wider audience. Virtual Montana is an integrated project, that is to say it has integrated activities from a number of Socrates Actions. Specifically it has created materials for undergraduate fieldwork studies to support a number of Socrates courses (Intensive Programmes) that have been undertaken in the mountain areas. It has established and piloted teaching and learning approaches where traditional methods were combined with open and distance learning and Virtual Montana has also established a virtual education community via a number of electronic publications and through group communications on this theme. Virtual Montana OutcomesThe Virtual Montana Project provides an infrastructure that widens the appeal of mountain studies and facilitates the dissemination of activities and events during the International Year of the Mountains. There have been two main initiatives to support fieldwork activities. These are:· a dedicated "learning space" called Virtual Montana, consisting of a Web-based environment, with an information area and communications area with Open and Distance Learning tools and products to engage those interested in the theme. Different types of virtual fieldwork have been developed and tried out. These range from "virtual sightseeing" using photographs and text with assessment activities, to the exploration of a three-dimensional digital model of North Wales.· tools to support communications between those involved in teaching and studying about mountain environments, including a series of new electronic publications like the on-line electronic journal, the International Journal of Fieldwork Studies and link description dissemination via an electronic newsletter, Virtual Montana News, integrating the project outcomes and a European conference with teachers, trainers and researchers about mountain environments. The Virtual Montana Project has thus sought to build a European virtual community of interested individuals and organisations who wish to participate in the Virtual Montana program. The newsletter has almost 3000 subscribers worldwide, including schools, teachers, researchers, tourist organisations, national parks, small companies, individuals and mountain organisations and the International Journal will publish its first edition in January 2003.ConclusionsThe Virtual Montana Project has thus contributed to the international aim of engaging organisations and individuals in educating young people about sustainable mountain development. By collaborating in real and virtual situations, staff and students involved have also become much more aware of some of the similarities and differences in economic, technological, cultural and environmental conditions.