Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #2: Teaching While Traveling: A Practical Method for Teaching from the Conference or Field Site

December 1, 2014
Instructional Communication

What do you do when research-related travel requires you to miss a few class sessions? Do you cancel class or turn it over to your teaching assistant? Maybe you screen a film? Frustrated by those options and hoping to turn research travel to pedagogical benefit, we experimented with several methods for teaching while traveling, and believe we have found a method that offers a positive alternative.

Distance learning has focused almost exclusively on campus-based instructors who teach geographically dispersed students. Very rarely is that relationship reversed. While a few innovative programs in the field sciences, such as Aaron Doering’s innovative teaching from the Arctic, provide notable exceptions, the traveling instructor model is rarely used outside the sciences.

This might be a case where technique lags behind technology. From smartphones to Moodle Blackboard, we have the means at our disposal to teach and learn from anywhere. Granted, distance learning is often a budgetary concession and logistical convenience rather than a purposeful pedagogical strategy. Co-presence is often preferred. However, in some cases digital networking presents a superior alternative to campus-bound classrooms.

The first experiment took place in 2010. It involved two class sessions in two very different courses: Mass Media and Popular Culture, a large undergraduate lecture course, and Mass Media and Social Change, a graduate seminar. Hoffmann was enrolled in the graduate seminar and therefore conducted valuable classroom observations from the student perspective. In 2013, she conducted a formal assessment of the follow-up experiment.

In 2010, Pedelty travelled to Mexico City under the auspices of a University of Minnesota Office of International Programs (now Global Programs and Strategic Alliance) grant to test the basic concept. He used an iPhone and laptop to communicate with students back on campus, composing a multimedia blog and short videos delivered through Moodle. The experiment culminated in an interactive iChat lecture from Mexico City presented to all 180 undergraduates, as well as a Skyped-in discussion with graduate students.

Based on course evaluations, the following strategies seemed promising: (1) facilitating student interactions with informants in the field and (2) bringing course-reading assignments to life through field-based communication. Students reacted favorably to interviews conducted by Pedelty in Mexico City as well as to blog posts, photos, and video recordings directly related to the week’s reading assignments.

In neither case, however, did it help to have students gather together in the classroom while the professor communicated remotely from the field. Students felt relatively confined in comparison with their instructor’s freedom of movement and (perceived) privilege of research travel. The remote interaction left much to be desired. Conversely, asynchronous interactions with informants worked relatively well, enough so that we decided to focus the next experiment solely on professor-facilitated interactions with informants.

Sixty students commented on the Mexico City experience in course evaluations at the end of the semester, including basic comments such as “thought [the field-based lecture] was very useful; it was different and interesting,” as well as more fleshed-out assessments:

I think it was cool to know that our professor was traveling for a purpose…It was useful and seemed to fit in well with what we were doing.

Even among the positive comments, however, were multiple requests for greater interactivity:

I loved seeing the video of the teenagers playing musical instruments and seeing what they acted like in their daily life...I wish he would have interviewed even more people or recorded more of the Mexican culture for us to see…Seeing it from my professor’s camera made it seem more real and convincing.

The impromptu performance mentioned above was among several serendipitous encounters during the field teaching experiment, fitting in well with the week’s readings and intercultural learning objectives. U.S. students were surprised to experience Mexican students singing out against bullfighting, a teachable moment.

Yet several students expressed dissatisfaction: “I did find it to be a little bit boring having to watch a screen all class rather than actually having a professor there.” That is understandable. There was no reason to have the students gathered in one place for interactions that could just as easily, and more effectively, be experienced via more distributed formats.

Therefore, for the 2013 experiment, we decided to design a focused, interactive methodology, basing it on the more effective, asynchronous strategies we tested in Mexico. Hoffman’s assessment of the 2010 experiment was key in determining which methods to retain and further develop for the next experiment.

In fall 2013, Pedelty’s conference commitments conflicted with two class sessions. He needed to travel to Pittsburgh and Indianapolis to facilitate a project called the Ecomusicology Listening Room (ELR) at two back-to-back conferences: the American Musicological Society (AMS) and the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) annual meetings. Natural connections between the class, conferences, and project provided promising testing grounds.

Because asynchronous interactions with informants worked best during the Mexico test, the 2013 experiment focused on that strategy. Pedelty asked students to submit interview questions for specific people with whom he would engage at the conferences. Undergraduate students screened Legendary, a music video produced by members of the 5e Gallery, a hip-hop collective. Using Moodle, students submitted questions for the producer, Piper Carter, and artists Nique LoveRhodes and Mahogany Jones. Two course readings on hip-hop culture provided an extremely useful primer and theoretical framework for students as they entered into facilitated discussion with the hip-hop artists.

Pedelty then recorded an interview with the 5e team in Pittsburgh, an event that also involved Rebekah Farrugia and Kellie Hay, scholars who had been working closely with the 5e Gallery. The interview was based entirely on student questions, which covered everything from the mediation of place to more specific matters of musical communication. The resulting interview recording was posted on Moodle. Students listened to the interview, wrote follow-up responses, and commented on each other’s responses. The entire process was repeated days later at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland in an interview involving the Hall’s director of education, Jason Hanley.

After the experiment, Hoffmann used Qualtrics to survey students and assess the experiment. The survey allowed students to rate the method’s effectiveness, with 24 out of 27 students responding. They rated the Moodle Forum method highest above alternatives to cancelling class, 5.9 on a scale ranging from 1, “very ineffective,” to 7, “very effective.” The nearest reference point, 6, was listed as “effective.”  


Students were asked to discuss the various strengths and weaknesses of the assignment. Positive comments tended to reference the method’s interactivity, convenience, and engagement. Students appreciated seeing interview research in action. The following response was typical: “Thought the interviews were very interesting and very relevant for class.” Other students appreciated the fact that the assignment “allowed students to get insight from a long-distance conference.”

Another student explained, “I spent a lot of time critically analyzing the interviews and coming up with questions.” A second noted that there were a “variety of responses and insightful comments that may not have been otherwise said in class.” Another agreed: “Not everyone has a voice in class, so this forum gave everyone a chance to talk.”

Interestingly, negative comments clustered into similar themes of interactivity and engagement. “I didn't learn anything additional from what [my peers] had to say,” wrote one student. Survey participants felt that it was “annoying to wait for other students to do their work.” A few students admitted that once they had posted their part of the assignment they did not “look back to see what people after [had] posted.”

Legendary, LoveRhodes, and Jones were repeatedly mentioned during the remaining weeks of the semester, often used by students as common references and examples in class discussions. The students appeared to gain an active stake in the subject matter and a better sense of what goes into creating scholarly knowledge. The course was rated highly, with 95 percent stating that they would recommend it to fellow students. The assignment was far from perfect, but it seemed to advance the initial concept. There was enough evidence of success to warrant further exploration.

We all travel to fulfill research needs and administrative obligations. Rather than have those commitments overshadow our teaching, perhaps we can find ways to integrate teaching, research, and service more effectively. Increasingly common digital communication technologies and emerging media platforms present new opportunities for networked teaching and learning. Meanwhile, declining travel budgets and ecological exigencies require that we get as much from our travel as possible. Perhaps we can find direct pedagogical benefits for our students in research and administrative travel, whether down the road or across the globe.

About the author (s)

Mark Pedelty

University of Minnesota


Melody Hoffmann

Anoka Ramsey Community College