Tablets in the Forest: Mobile Technology for Inquiry-Based Learning

min read

Key Takeaways

  • To support an inquiry-based field research experience, McGill University gave environmental biology students mobile devices to gather rich data in the field and to support learning through real-time interaction with their instructor and the larger research community.
  • The pilot project included an analysis of survey and interview data to determine the impact of tablet use on student engagement once the project was complete.
  • Students recognized the value of the tablets as a research tool; however, the tablets' most important contribution to learning was the real-time communication and feedback they enabled between students, instructors, and the scientific community.

At McGill University Adam Finkelstein is an educational developer, Teaching and Learning Services; Laura Winer is interim director, Teaching and Learning Services; Christopher Buddle is an associate professor of insect ecology, and Crystal Ernst is a doctoral candidate in insect ecology.

The National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE) benchmarks indicate that student engagement  is important for learning at college and university,1 particularly in relation to student-faculty interaction and active, collaborative learning. One high-impact practice in higher education that fosters this engagement is inquiry-based projects, in which undergraduate students perform authentic investigations and develop research-related skills.2 To support student development in fundamental aspects of scientific inquiry, field research experiences can be invaluable; they can also help students begin to understand what it means to be part of a scientific community.3

Mobile technology provides a platform for inquiry learning in a field setting, facilitating student–faculty interaction and encouraging active and collaborative engagement in learning. Little research exists on the use of mobile technology in fieldwork, however, as "Existing Work" (below) describes. That research also suffers from the considerable performance issues of the older models used in the studies.

In the summer of 2012, Toshiba Canada contacted Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) to explore the possibility of a using Toshiba tablets in a pilot project at McGill University. We decided to use the tablets in an undergraduate Environmental Biology Program course involving fieldwork. This case study explains what happened.

Existing Work: Tablets in the Field

The 2012 ECAR report on undergraduate students' use of technology indicated that students are using mobile technology for learning more than ever; most students own a portable device and view it as a critical part of their academic success.4 Tablets have become one of the most promising new mobile technologies for learning, and the 2013 NMC Horizon Report identified them as one of the six technologies to watch.5 Tablets focus on rich and diverse media applications and let users integrate photos, video, text, and drawings; as such, they give students real-time recording and analysis tools that can be used anywhere and anytime.

Although there are many examples of mobile technology supporting learning in a formal classroom learning experience, far fewer examples exist of using sophisticated mobile tablets in field research. The studies that do exist, including a 2011 EDUCAUSE Quarterly article,6 indicate that the biggest benefits from tablet use in field studies include the ability to using multiple data capture methods — including annotated photos and GPS coordinates — to more thoroughly gather and analyze data. Students reported that the fieldwork helped them gain a deeper understanding of the course material and saved time by reducing the amount of work required in post-field data entry and research. However, the tablets at that time were actually portable computers with tablet interfaces, which created performance issues, weight concerns, and high costs that impinged on the quality of the experience.

Institutional Context

McGill University is a publically funded research-intensive, student-centered university in Montreal, Canada. The university maintains two campuses — one urban, one suburban — for its 26,000 undergraduate and 9,000 graduate students. The suburban Macdonald Campus houses the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; many of its programs (such as wildlife biology) have fieldwork components, and it is located near forests, farms, and other field sites used for research and teaching.

Professor Christopher Buddle (a coauthor of this article and TLS member) teaches a required class in the Environmental Biology Program. The St. Lawrence Ecosystems class is an integrative field course about the biological diversity and ecology of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems; its primary project is an inquiry-based group-learning research project. In teams of four to six, undergraduate students design their own research questions and methods, and gather field data to answer those questions. The project is an extremely successful example of inquiry-based learning, and a documentary video was produced that describes the activity.

The course's field-based research project has always presented two main challenges. First, even with the support of a teaching assistant, Buddle had difficulty communicating with and supporting students while in the field. The project takes place in the Morgan Arboretum, a 245-hectare forest located near McGill's suburban campus. Finding and helping students who need instructional support and giving them feedback while working in such a large area is challenging, to say the least. For example, if a student group could not identify a particular species and did not have a full reference library of field guides with them, the only resource they could turn to was the instructor. This meant time wasted on finding the instructor; it also inhibited the students' ability to develop their information-seeking skills. Given the importance of timely feedback, troubleshooting, and safety in the field, any possibility of reducing the communication time lag would be positive.

The second challenge involved the complexity of gathering field data. The difficult logistics of capturing and organizing data in different media formats meant that many students could not collect all types of data. For example, obtaining an audio recording of a bird call involved recording the audio, transferring it to a computer, and then connecting it to the relevant observations or notes from the field. The data management process typically involved considerable organization and management after the data collection was completed. Although students gathered rich data and had well-designed research projects, there was clearly potential to improve the project.

Project Goals

Although hindsight is 20/20 and provides a logical narrative for every project, educational development is often an intersection of goals and opportunity. In summer 2012, Toshiba Canada approached McGill's TLS to explore a pilot project using Toshiba tablets. Because one of TLS's primary objectives is to support initiatives that promote deep and authentic undergraduate learning, we decided to use the mobile technology in Buddle's field research project to create tangible student benefits through a unique learning experience.

The pilot project was designed in collaboration with Buddle to support the course field research project by providing every student with a tablet to use as a research instrument. How (or if) students used the tablet was up to them, as they were responsible for designing their research projects from developing the question and methods to data collection and analysis to presenting their research to the class as part of a course conference.

The initiative had two primary goals:

  1. Explore the impact of using a mobile device to enhance student engagement in an inquiry-based learning experience
  2. Document the impact of using a mobile device in planning and teaching a course

Going in, our intention was that students would use the tablets to

  • create visual, audio, and written records of their field observations;
  • access relevant digital resources (such as identification guides, weather records, and maps) and specific apps (including Evernote, iNaturalist, Skype, and Twitter); and
  • communicate in real time with the instructor and teaching assistant, their peers, and scientific experts.

We also anticipated significant benefits to the instructor and TA, with the tablets giving them continuous access to their research groups, as well as the opportunity to give students that access and thus help them connect with the greater scientific community. The tablets would also provide access to digital resources related to student questions. Finally, the instructor and TA could use the tablets to record their own observations about the projects and thus might enable them to improve future course offerings.


The Toshiba tablets were lightweight Android devices, each having a camera, WiFi, and either a 7- or 10-inch display. Internet access to each group in the Morgan Arboretum forest was provided by WiFi-to-cellular hotspots from Bell Mobility Cananda. Students chose which apps to download; the most commonly used were Evernote, iNaturalist, Skype, and Twitter.

Each of the course's 43 students received a tablet one week before the project began and kept it for one month (the project's duration). The instructor and TA were loaned their tablets for the entire semester. Tablets were distributed in class, and students received a brief orientation. Each research team received a mobile hotspot to create a Wi-Fi network for the group using the cellular network. Students were encouraged to use the tablet during the project to help them gather data, take notes, and perform analyses. Groups were required to communicate with the instructor and TA through the tablets at least once per field lab and encouraged to communicate with other students throughout the field labs.


"[Evaluation] makes a difference when it begins with issues of use and illuminates questions that people really care about. … It means thinking in advance about how the information will be used, and by whom."7

To gather feedback on the learning experiences of the students, TA, and instructor, we developed an evaluation protocol to determine the tablets' impact on the student learning experience, focusing specifically on student engagement. Our protocol consisted of an end-of-project student survey and interviews with students, the instructor, and the TA; questions in both cases explored both quantitative and qualitative issues.

Student Survey

The end-of-project student survey had questions on several key themes and was completed by 15 of the 34 students who participated in the study. Data collected with the survey included

  • a student profile (comfort with technology, amount of tablet use);
  • the impact on engagement, learning, and interaction; and
  • the tools used during the research project.

Students were generally not early adopters (only 33 percent reported having tried new technology before most of their peers) and only one student owned a tablet of any kind. These issues are reflected in the finding that 53 percent of students did not feel comfortable using the tablet during the field experience. Students were also split on how often they used the tablet for their research project; only 27 percent said they used the tablet "a lot" during field activities.

A small minority of students felt that the tablet had a negative impact on their learning (13 percent). Most students felt it had either a positive impact (27 percent) or no impact (66 percent). However, students reported that Internet access was a very important factor in their learning. When asked if having Internet access on the tablet enhanced their learning, a much larger number were positive (47 percent) and fewer were neutral (33 percent). Most students said they would either recommend using the tablet again in the course (40 percent) or they were neutral (33 percent); we saw almost the same split when asked if they found using the tablet in the course worthwhile (43 percent were positive, 21 percent were neutral).

In another strong finding, most students (53 percent) reported that the tablets increased their interaction with the instructor and TA. This was corroborated by their responses on tool use: 72 percent of students thought that live communication with the instructor and TA helped develop their skills. Other tablet tools that students viewed positively were the camera tool (80 percent), online resources (64 percent), GPS location and tracking (43 percent), and video recording (40 percent).

In addition to the student survey, we interviewed students about their project experiences. Their comments typically fell into three general categories:

  • Tablet suitability for the project. Comments here often focused on the tablets' ability to document research with photos and facilitate communication with the instructor, TA, and other students.
  • The 1:1 tablet–student ratio. Many students said that having one tablet per research team would have been sufficient.
  • Tablet quality. Students often commented on the quality of the tablet itself, focusing on issues such as ease of use, reliability, and quality.

Some students also commented on the impact of mobile learning and social media, discussing advantages in terms of organizing data and connecting to the wider community.

Interviews with project participants discussing mobile learning (5:08 minutes)

Interviews with project participants discussing social media (5:01 minutes)

Instructor and TA Interviews

We also interviewed the instructor and TA. In our thematic analysis of their comments, several themes arose as being critical to the project's success:

  • The project gave students an opportunity to "think like real researchers" and "participate in the broader scientific research community."
  • Internet-accessible mobile technology, especially the social media applications, improved interaction among the research groups, and between individual groups and the instructor, the TA, and the scientific community.
  • Students and instructors used Twitter to communicate and engage (often in real time) with researchers from other institutions.

The tablets also allowed for rich data collection, let students take ownership of their projects, and facilitated the creation of impressive project results.

Example Project: Beech Bark Disease Group

One research group studied beech bark disease and created a final presentation that included photos, video, and screenshots of interactions between the research team and the broader scientific community.

The group's investigation focused on a possible connection between the trail network and the disease's progression at the Arboretum. The group hypothesized that trees closer to trails might be in poor health because humans could help transmit some of the disease vectors. This is a relevant, applied research question; the scientific community has yet to fully understand the scope of disease transmission for beech bark disease. Also, beech trees at the Morgan Arboretum are currently seeing increased mortality, so the group tackled a research question relevant to the broader scientific community, the Arboretum, and its users. It was also a question they were passionate about.

The group used their tablets' GPS capabilities to mark specific locations at which they collected data. The tablets let them map their study locations effectively and find their study trees. They later used the map in their final research presentation (see figure 1).

figure 1
Figure 1. Google Map showing sampling locations for the beech bark disease group

Group members used the tablets' cameras to record data about tree health. The group's use of social media included writing a blog with embedded video (a course requirement) and Twitter to engage a larger community. Group members tweeted in real-time during their field laboratories and related what they were seeing to a broader event: Hurricane Sandy (see figure 2).

figure 2
Figure 2. A tweet from the beech bark disease group about the effects of Hurricane Sandy

One sentiment that emerged repeatedly from this group and others was that students were excited to find that individuals and researchers beyond the course boundaries were interested in their field research and experiences. The tablets enabled this real-time interaction and engagement through social media; seeing that their course experiences had broad relevance was a powerful validation to this and all groups in the study.

For their final research project presentations, all of the groups presented their entire project, from developing the research question through data collection, analysis, and interpretation of results. Most groups used images taken with tablets as part of their presentations.

Reflections and Lessons Learned

Overall, the project was a success; the Department of Natural Resource Sciences at Macdonald Campus has purchased some tablets and mobile hotspots for future use in this course and other courses with field experiences. In the spring of 2013, for example, the tablets were used as part of a desert ecology field trip.

Our project has three main takeaways that could help other institutions developing a mobility technology initiative with field-based courses. We will also build on this knowledge in future projects at McGill.

Data Gathering

Tablets and other integrated technologies that facilitate rich media gathering as part of the data collection process can greatly enhance student field research experiences. The tablets greatly reduced the logistical complexity of gathering, organizing, and analyzing research data. This gave students access to new types of data that they could use as part of their analysis and freed up time for the research teams to focus on other tasks. In addition, because data were recorded electronically and in one place, they could easily be stored and shared for future use by other research teams. This is an aspect that was of particular interest to the professor in thinking about future course offerings.


Digital natives might need more support than we (or they) think. Although students might in fact be digital natives,8 it does not necessarily mean that they are innately capable of using technology successfully in their own learning. Even with orientations and support available, students do not always ask for help, so explicit instructions about using the tablet and apps for research might be required. That said, students appear to see the pedagogical benefits of new technologies, even if they have difficulty using some aspects of them.

Social Benefits

The tablets' most important contribution to learning was in supporting social interaction and building a community of learning. One of the most important aspects of mobile technology is its ability to connect people,9 as was evident in this project. The tablets enabled and supported communications and helped create communities of practice. In this project, the learning unit was a research group, so a 1:1 ratio of mobile technology to student was not actually required as the group, rather than individual students, needed access to the community. The groups were able to connect with the instructor, the TA, and scientific experts from outside of McGill University to get feedback on their progress, which offered them an authentic task for real learning.


Overall, using tablets in this course to support inquiry-based field research had a positive impact on student engagement. The tablets facilitated the research projects significantly, enabling additional opportunities for data collection, communication, and troubleshooting. The ability for real-time use of social media took the learning and engagement beyond the course, and feedback and input from experts outside of the laboratory validated the experiences; this was only possible because all students had the technology in their hands and Internet connectivity at the moment that they needed it. Students and instructors saw a clear benefit of mobile technology in a field course, and see much potential for its continued use.


The authors acknowledge Toshiba Canada for their generous support, Bell Mobility Canada for the use of its network, the McGill Library for its support, and the students of ENVR-222 for enthusiasm and willingness to participate in this project. Special thanks to the students in the Beech Bark Disease group (Lila Benzid, Gabriel Lambert-Rivest, Gianni Montanaro, Joseph Perreault, and Pia Ricca) for their permission to include project materials in this article. We would also like to acknowledge Frank Roop's contribution in producing the videos documenting the project.

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