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Fieldwork activity in taught and MRes programmes, 2021-22

A guidance framework for staff overseeing fieldwork and remote or virtual fieldwork practices in UG, PGT and MRes programmes, 2021-22

Revised: October 2021 (interim update)

Field-based teaching and research activities are those taking place off campus, either inside or outside. In spite of recent considerable easing of restrictions, these activities are being still affected by any existing guidelines and rules on mobility and social activity as a result of COVID-19.  

The pandemic's impact on the different disciplines will vary according to: 

  • the type of fieldwork; 

  • the level of interaction with students, staff and other individuals; and 

  • the varied and changing restrictions across contexts and geographical areas, both in the UK and overseas. 

Throughout October 2021 the Fieldwork for Taught courses group will be reviewing and adapting current guidelines and resources so that they are in line with current national and UCL guidelines, as well as taking into account the needs and safety of students, staff, and other stakeholders engaged in this activity.  

A common sense, context-driven, safety-first approach will continue to apply. 

Note: easing of Covid-19 restrictions in July 2021

This guidance should be considered alongside the UK Government’s decision to ease restrictions in July 2021 but with an understanding that Covid-19 and any potential risk to safety should still be taken into account when determining student, staff, and participant activity in fieldwork. There may also be students looking to undertake fieldwork in locations other that the UK. The principles outlined below are intended to give you a sufficient framework to enable you to take the decisions that best respond to your local context. These are currently under review by the group.  

Development and summary of this guidance 

This guidance framework was created by the Fieldwork for Taught Courses group, reporting to the UCL Teaching and Assessment Planning Group. 

This group was established to consider the academic practice of fieldwork in the midst of COVID-19. It consists of staff involved in the academic practice of fieldwork, as well as those with expertise in research methods, risk assessment, staff development and pedagogy. 

Due to the complexity of decision-making processes – which differ according to disciplinary context – and the variety of fieldwork activity carried out in taught programmes, the group decided not to create a single policy to cover all fieldwork at this time. Instead, local approaches are encouraged and must be supported by appropriate and thorough risk assessments. 

​​​​​​The main principles agreed by the group were that safety must always come first, and that (where this is possible for the discipline or activity and provides a good outcome) a remote or virtual approach would usually be the preferred option. 

Appendix 1 outlines a series of questions designed to help guide the decision-making process as to whether or not fieldwork should be considered, and how best to proceed with undertaking fieldwork during the pandemic. 

Where remote or virtual fieldwork is possible and/or preferable, please consult the Supporting students to undertake remote fieldwork teaching toolkit for guidance and ideas on best practice in this area.  

The Fieldwork for Taught Courses Group continues to meet, oversee this guidance, and consult more widely with the UCL community. If you have questions, comments or would like to share resources or good practice in this area, please contact arena@ucl.ac.uk with the subject line ‘Fieldwork’ and this will be passed to the group for consideration. 


Purpose and audience of the guidance framework 

This framework is focused only on those activities where remote or virtual approaches are not possible.

This guidance is for:

  • UCL members of staff involved in making decisions about core teaching activity that has historically involved fieldwork, placements, or other types of off-campus activity as part of Undergraduate, Postgraduate and MRes taught programmes. 
  • UCL academic staff supervising students who might be considering fieldwork as part of their dissertation or extended projects. The framework and appendix can help you to better signpost these students to guidance on research design, decision making processes and good practice tools and resources on remote fieldwork.
  • UCL Senior Faculty and Departmental staff looking to guide their teams in navigating the planning of fieldwork.

For research students or staff undertaking fieldwork as part of their own research, see instead the Framework for starting or resuming fieldwork at non-UCL settings.

The purpose of the guidance is to support staff decision-making on:

  • resuming fieldwork where it forms an integral part of a taught degree programme, but was cancelled/postponed following the move to remote working in mid-March 2020;
  • starting new fieldwork;
  • authorising fieldwork, where it can be undertaken safely and cannot be carried out remotely or virtually.

Guidance framework for fieldwork in taught and MRes programmes, 2020-21

Guiding principles
  1. The framework is intended to support decision-making on resuming or starting fieldwork during the COVID-19 pandemic where that has been deemed appropriate. Note that due to the fluid situation (where lockdowns or restrictions are dynamically imposed at national or regional levels), decision-making on undertaking field work will need to be regularly reviewed and refreshed. 
  2. The framework is intended to inform faculty and departmental decision-making in pursuance of proportionate and pragmatic arrangements. 
  3. Certain preconditions must be met prior to any resumption of fieldwork activity (see next section). 
  4. There are likely to be variable and rapidly changing levels of teaching and research capacity in different geographical regions, sites and organisations and so contingency planning must always form part of any arrangements. 
  5. Those wishing to support students to undertake field-based activity should ensure that a sense of trust and partnership informs how fieldwork is planned and managed. The needs of staff, students, partners and participants must be recognised and addressed in any fieldwork carried out during the pandemic. There should be opportunities for them to feed into fieldwork arrangements. 
  6. Any fieldwork must be compliant with the UCL Code of Conduct for Research. Any research that requires ethical approval must go through your existing processes. Nothing in this framework replaces or supersedes any existing UCL policy. If there is any contradiction between the framework and a UCL policy, the policy has primacy. 

See also Appendix 1 for further considerations to help staff determine if fieldwork can and should be resumed in 2020-21. 

Preconditions for starting or resuming fieldwork 

Viability

Principle: Only fieldwork that is viable, and cannot be replicated through a remote or virtual alternative, should start or resume. 

Those responsible for overseeing fieldwork as part of their core teaching or supervision duties (for example, module convenors, dissertation supervisors and other key academic staff)  should always determine whether the fieldwork can be carried out remotely before making any plans for person-to-person interaction, or alternatively they should guide their students to do so.  

It is also important to consider whether there is sufficient workload capacity for the staff and students involved to undertake fieldwork activity.

Where remote fieldwork is not possible, risk assessments must be completed and signed off according to your faculty or department’s established processes.

Safety and risk assessments

Principle: Fieldwork must only start or resume when and where it is safe to do so. 

The safety of the staff, students or participants involved in the fieldwork activity is of paramount importance. Those organising or undertaking fieldwork must complete the required risk assessments and off-site working checklists prior to travelling or undertaking the fieldwork. 

Risk assessments should be based on UCL Safety Services guidance available on fieldwork and off-site working. 

Risk assessments should be recorded in riskNET and implemented in your work area. For training refer to Risk assessment training. 

If required, staff (supervisors, managers, principle investigators, personal tutors, etc.) should seek further guidance first at departmental/faculty level and then from UCL lead safety advisors. 

Before starting or restarting fieldwork, the staff member must also ensure the areas below are addressed and communicated effectively. 

Have you obtained the following guidance?: 

  • The latest Government guidance on social distancing, restart of work, and travel (in the UK and where the fieldwork takes place)   
  • Clear guidance on safety measures from the host or partner organisation 

Have you established the following?:  

  • Up-to-date research ethics approval (if required); 
  • risk of exposure to COVID-19 (and mitigation measures) using the UCL risk assessment templates (as above); 
  • responsibilities for site safety control, including those itemised in the risk assessment; 
  • local site protocols (including clearly identified responsibilities for safety control and the monitoring of identified controls) for COVID-19 (if these are unavailable from a local partner, the staff member / researcher will need to ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place and included in the risk assessment); 
  • site compliance with protocol and regulatory requirements.  

Before starting or resuming fieldwork, make sure that: 

  • any mitigations that enable the restart or resumption of fieldwork do not have an adverse impact on participant safety. 
  • individual risks have been assessed and additional controls put in place for those in the higher risk groups (as defined by the NHS). 
  • PPE needs of staff, students, research partners and participants can be met; 
  • the physical and mental wellbeing of staff, students, research partners and participants is protected; 
  • participants’ concerns about COVID-19 (they need to feel safe and reassured about the fieldwork) are addressed; 
  • processes for travelling to and attending fieldwork visits and meetings are established (the number of people involved should be minimal and issues connected to lone working should be addressed). 
  • emergency procedures are in place (and the potential for a reduced level of emergency response); 
  • there is a process for dealing with persons reporting they are feeling unwell; 
  • there is a process for keeping in contact with teams and reviewing risk assessments and any work being conducted. 

Capacity and site risk assessments

Principle: The pace of starting or resuming fieldwork should be commensurate with capacity and readiness of field sites. 

Fieldwork depends on partners and non-UCL settings being ‘open for business’. Capacity may be reduced by several factors including: 

  • availability and capacity of staff, students and partners; 
  • type of location; 
  • physical access arrangements for participants, in light of social distancing, reduced public transport and reduction in support from third sector organisations or third parties. 
    Equality, diversity and inclusion

    1. UCL defines ‘equality’ as the absence of unjust social hierarchy such as those based on age, disability, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and religion, and ‘diversity’ as the presence of different cultural traditions and identities. UCL participates in a number of equality charter marks and is a signatory to the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers. Diversity enriches educational activity and is critical to addressing the significant challenges facing the world today and those that will arise in the future. 

    2. The following factors related to the current pandemic may need to be addressed and accounted for within any planned fieldwork teaching or research design:

    • Current restrictions can change how participants engage with fieldwork and each other. For instance, face coverings will affect communication for many people, especially deaf and hard of hearing children and adults. 
    • Those undertaking fieldwork should be aware that others involved in a project (including other staff, students and participants) may not be able to contribute immediately or at the same level due to ill health, caring responsibilities, self-isolation, or difficulties involved in travelling to non-UCL settings. Participants must be reminded that involvement in a student's fieldwork activity is voluntary and they can withdraw at any time.  
    • There is evidence that BAME communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Older people are significantly more vulnerable than younger people. Asymptomatic carriers of the virus are an acknowledged phenomenon. 
    Fieldwork hosted by another academic institution, organisation or business

    1. UCL staff and students involved in fieldwork should follow the protocols set by the host organisation. If the person responsible for overseeing the fieldwork has concerns over the protocols of the host organisation, these should be addressed and resolved before any fieldwork resumes or starts. 

    2. If protocols are not provided by the host organisation, this should be regarded as a higher level of risk. UCL staff and students will need to develop their own protocols similar to or in dialogue with those adopted by UCL (as part of the risk assessment), taking into account government regulations such as those on cleaning, social distancing, self-isolation, use of public transport, and use of facemasks and hand sanitisers. 

    Regulations by the UK government, devolved governments and foreign governments

    Those looking to resume fieldwork should be aware that there are different regulations and approaches to re-opening in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: 

    We expect overseas fieldwork takes place only in exceptional circumstances.  

    Local guidelines where the research is being conducted should be followed. Regulations and guidance are changing on a regular basis and staff and students need to ensure that they meet those in force when fieldwork is conducted. 

    UCL staff must follow the advice on travel on UCL business and the Overseas Research Roadmap as well as FCO guidance. Researchers based abroad and working on behalf of UCL must follow local laws and guidelines. 

    Responsibilities and obtaining approval
    1. A risk assessment must always be undertaken and approved before any fieldwork takes place in a non-UCL setting. This is to ensure the safety of staff students and participants. 
    2. Staff undertaking or overseeing fieldwork as teaching or research activity  should use the relevant COVID-19 risk assessment template on UCL’s riskNET system to seek approval. If fieldwork plans change significantly after approval, the risk assessment will need to be re-approved. 
    3. A Dean is usually responsible for approving the risk assessment of any fieldwork at a non-UCL setting within a taught programme in their faculty. The Dean may appoint one or more delegated authorities within the faculty to handle any requests for approval. A delegated authority could be a committee or Head of Department / Division Director. Existing local arrangements for approving risk assessments (especially for those requiring specialist knowledge of lower- and middle-income countries) should continue as before with final approval by the Dean (or the delegated authority).  Decisions taken by the Dean (or the delegated authority) must be formally recorded, e.g. in meeting minutes or by email. It is recognised that there may be slight local variation to these protocols at faculty or department level and guidance should be sought from a senior faculty member if there is any confusion.
    4. Everyone working in the field on a project (including any UCL staff member or student) needs to acquaint themselves with the approved risk assessment. They must report any significant change in circumstances to the staff member who has oversight of the activity, to any student researcher, module convenor and/or project supervisor, as appropriate. 
    5. Where approval has been granted, checks by the person overseeing the fieldwork activity and/or the student researchers themselves should be made just prior to the activity commencing, to ensure there haven’t been any changes to the assumptions or conditions underpinning decisions. Risk assessments must be reviewed in response; any significant changes should be signed off by the Dean (or the delegated authority) as appropriate within the local context.  
    Concerns and research integrity
    1. Any concerns regarding the start or resumption of fieldwork can be raised with the Dean of the relevant faculty in the first instance. 
    2. Any allegations of research misconduct must follow existing procedures and policies.  
    UCL policies and guidance to consult

    Working Safely During a Pandemic 

    Generic COVID-19 risk assessments 

    Research ethics at UCL 

    Research integrity policies and processes 

    UCL coronavirus hub 

    Appendix 1: Considerations to help determine if fieldwork can and should be resumed in 2020-21 

    Different types of fieldwork activity have a variety of aims and outcomes; students and staff will have different approaches to decision-making when considering if this activity needs to be cancelled, replaced with an alternative or delayed. 

    Faculties organising location-specific fieldwork need to use an effective risk assessment process. In addition to the Framework’s ‘Preconditions for starting or resuming fieldwork’ (above), the questions below are provided to help you explore key considerations for determining if your students’ fieldwork is feasible during the pandemic, or whether an alternative approach is possible and preferable. The answers are also likely to form part of the risk assessment for any in-person fieldwork. 

    When considering your responses, it is helpful to: 

    • Start the planning process for learning activities by going back to the programme level and module level learning outcomes.
    • Review any requirements from accrediting bodies.
    • Speak to your Faculty Learning Technology Lead at UCL about the tools and technologies that could support practical activities,

    Is my preferred activity feasible during the pandemic? Consider:

    • Will (all) participants be able to take part?
    • Will the location of the planned fieldtrip be accessible at the desired time? When is the latest you will need to make a decision on this?
    • If the field trip is abroad, are any travel restrictions in place in your destination area? Are quarantining measures still likely to be in place on return to the UK? Do regional differences in restrictions apply? 
    • If you decide to cancel your field trip, can you replace it with a similar experience in the UK (depending on national circumstances and social distancing measures in place)?
    • If the site is local, could students visit it individually or in small groups (following social distancing guidelines) instead of in a large group? Could you provide resources to help them on their visit (e.g. an audio guide or a moodle quiz?) How will you provide equivalent experience for students not located locally?
    • What activities could students participate in individually rather than in a group?
    • Does the research require technology that only a limited number of participants will have access to?
    • How many students are participating? Will all students participate at the same time?
    • How long will the activity take?
    • How will students’ health and safety responsibilities be communicated?
    • If any students need to participate remotely, what access to learning arrangements will make for them? (could some digital alternatives be created?)
    • What activities could students participate in individually rather than in a group?
    • How will you maintain social distancing?
    • Do you need to make any specific plans for students entering and exiting the field site?
    • Could you adapt research questions and activities so that students could use their local area as a ‘field’ in some way?

    If in-person fieldwork is not feasible, can my fieldwork continue without face-to-face data collection/interactions? If so, how? Consider:

    • Why was the data collection format chosen for this project?
    • How does the original data collection format link to the research question?
    • What data is needed for analysis?
    • What is lost/changed by conducting data collection in a different way?
    • What do I need to put in to place to successfully use an alternative data collection method?
    • If the purpose of the field visit was to interact with people (e.g. human geography), could I conduct interviews etc. Online? (see alternatives below)
    • Are there virtual tours of your location available online (e.g. museums, historical sites, geographical locations, video walking tours). Google has put together virtual tours from over 2000 museums, exhibitions and archives in its Art and Culture site.
    • If you can access the site but it is likely that students won’t be able to, could you record videos or make resources at the site to support learning? For example, see case study: Connected Learning interns collaborate with staff to move London-based module
    • If a field visit is not possible for staff or students, review the learning outcomes of the trip/module/programme. Can these be achieved through alternative means online? (see alternatives section below)

    Acknowledgements

    The questions above were adapted from resources from Sheffield University, 2020 and Canterbury University’s helpful guide to the key questions students should consider with their supervisor and tutors.  

    This guidance was informed by the Fieldwork for Taught Courses Group and is in part based on the Framework for staff and research students starting or resuming fieldwork at non-UCL settings, originally developed by the Fieldwork Framework Group and the Research Operations Group.