This past semester has been a very challenging and rewarding period in my graduate studies. I opted to take two courses this semester: 1) Emerging Media Literacies and 2) Health, Outdoor and Physical Education (HOPE). The former I took as an area of high interest to me, particularly in my role as a Teacher Technology Coach with Regina Catholic Schools; the latter I took as an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself… and what a challenge it has been! While I have listened to, and read about, some of my classmates struggling in the Emerging Media Literacies course and learning how to become technologically literate, I felt the struggle in my HOPE course, trying to find a way to become more environmentally literate and attuned to the outdoors. In my struggle, the topic for my (re)search paper was born; how can we support students to become both technologically and environmentally literate? Furthermore, can this transpire harmoniously?
"From an evolutionary perspective, just as we are drawn to nature, and need it for our physical and psychological wellbeing, so are we drawn to technologies… Technologies have conferred advantages to people that create and use them; and our minds are predisposed toward them. Thus an important area for future research lies at this intersection of children, nature, and technology." -Peter Khan
As a child and adolescent, I did not derive enjoyment from (nor a connection to) Physical or Outdoor Education. As someone who was not blessed with athleticism, those areas (at least in my personal experience) were so focused on sport and physical skill attainment that I was never able to feel successful. My skill sets have always been in the areas of reading, writing, creating, and technology; skill sets that I believe students are (wrongfully) conditioned to believe are meant for the indoors. My reason for pointing this out is to illustrate that my disengagement with the outdoors and sport did not stem from an engagement with technology, as is often the assumed culprit, but rather, I believe it stemmed from a lack of success in these disciplines and consequent feelings of inadequacy in those areas. I liken this to children who are subjected to a narrow view of literacy, experience struggles with reading, and go on to be non-readers. Naturally, we are drawn to what we are good at and tend to develop a phobia or avoidance towards what we are not-so-good at. As a special education teacher, I believe curriculum should be attainable to all students--this involves differentiating and allowing students to draw-upon their strengths. The HOPE course has taught me a great deal about the true intention of Physical and Outdoor Education, which largely centered around student well-being and educating the whole child through integrated activities. It is my "hope" that Physical and Outdoor Education programs go much beyond physical skill attainment and that technology can be considered to be one of these integrated activities or tools supporting connection to nature and well-being.
"We have to reverse our perception of technology as the antagonist…and, in fact, mobilize it to bring society and nature closer together." -Alan Keeso
Technology and nature need not exist in isolation; in fact, it is humans who are wedging a divide between the two, as opposed to finding ways to bring them into harmony by being mindful of their interconnectedness. Peter Khan asserts, "Just as we are drawn to nature, and need it for our physical and psychological wellbeing, so are we drawn to technologies…technologies have conferred advantages to people that create and use them; and our minds are predisposed toward them." Sociologist and PhD candidate, Nathan Jurgenson, has emphasized that “digitality is part of the everyday world, it touches everything and everything touches it"; he advocates for the dismantling of the artificial barrier that we have raised between life online and life offline, as they are irrevocably interconnected. The habit of viewing the online and offline as mutually exclusive, is what Jurgenson has coined the fallacy of "digital dualism" and the "fetishization of the offline". I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with him on Twitter on the topic of nature and technology. I highly recommend his IRL Fetish article for further exploration of the digital dualism fallacy. Yes, nature and technology have differences, but they are not separate, nor are they a dichotomy. Jurgenson argues that "this idea that we are trading the offline for the online, though it dominates how we think of the digital and the physical, is myopic. It fails to capture the plain fact that our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline." We should not be making students choose to be environmentally literate or technologically literate; we should nurture safe spaces where they are empowered to accomplish both. Richard Louv himself, credited with coining the condition Nature Deficit Disorder, even speaks of the hybrid mind, which will be discussed later.
Although there is not an abundance of research into the integration of technology and nature, as it concerns youth, their well-being, and educational pedagogy, I believe, as does Kahn, that it is an important area for future research. Mark Wesson examines a small, yet growing, pool of research demonstrating the benefits technology affords when effectively integrated into environmental education programs; noteworthy is the fact that students reported increased enjoyment and engagement in the learning process. This coincides with Bronwyn Cumbo, Jeni Paay, Jesper Kjeldskov, and Brent Jacob's research that "applying technology to extend beyond the learning space of the classroom has been shown to motivate more self-directed learning and improved outcomes for a wider range of students." In keeping with the theme of motivation, Wesson notes in his research that "Parents recognized that their children are engrossed by technology and that it is a significant aspect of their everyday lives. Incorporating interesting technologies into [environmental education] programs was viewed as an effective way to engage children’s attention and interest."
"Digital technology is often considered a barrier to independent outdoor play…but it could also be an important tool for change." -Bronwyn Cumbo
"Ubiquitous and mobile technologies offer opportunities for designing a new genre of learning experiences that move ‘beyond the desktop’. In addition to learning via computers in the classroom or at home, there is much scope for supporting people learning while ‘on the move’." -Ambient Wood Research Project
In his book, Curriculum is a New Key, Ted Aoki provides a narrative of his experience at the beginning of his teaching career. He discusses the dichotomy he drew between work and play. I relate his story to the perceived dichotomy in education between nature and technology. What follows is an excerpt from his narrative; I have substituted the word "work" for nature and the word "play" for technology: "I was teaching an ethic--an ethic that separated [nature] from [technology]… and sanctified the rather simple-minded attitude of either [nature] or [technology], but never, never [nature] and [technology] together. I taught naively, not understanding the hidden curriculum I was teaching" (p. 357). The concept of "hidden curriculum" is key, and ties back to my initial question(s): by banning technology in outdoor activities, is part of the "hidden curriculum" that technology only belongs indoors? If so, are these well-meaning educators inadvertently keeping children indoors with this approach to teaching and learning--perhaps contributing to Nature Deficit Disorder, as opposed to resolving it?
"A connection with nature must be part of a modern, increasingly urban lifestyle and, therefore, new technology must be embraced in order to engage people with nature. The pathways to nature connection, contact, emotion, beauty and compassion, remain the same whatever the technology that interfaces our engagement. The ubiquitous smartphone can open our senses to the wonder of everyday nature in a progressively urbanized world." -Dr. Miles Richardson
"The thinking is that the ship has sailed, that we will never have as strong a connection with the natural world that our ancestors did. I disagree, fully, because we have something that our ancestors, prior generations and civilizations never had. We have these technologies that are increasingly allowing us to know and understand the natural world and not only in its physical form, but in forms invisible to the human eye." -Alan Keeso
Jana Willis, Brenda Weiser, and Donna Kirkwood, contend that "Educators can integrate technology and media with environmental education through activities that encourage children to explore, create, problem solve, communicate, collaborate, document, investigate, and demonstrate their learning about the world outside of their classroom." I wholeheartedly concur. What follows are just a few of the infinite ways technology can be integrated to cultivate a connection to nature and support student well-being.
Dr. Richardson's slo-mo video example
Parks Canada contest
One example of Explore.org's many live-feeds
Video creation example that explores nature
- "Participants reported a greater enthusiasm and enjoyment when engaged with the two technology related activities that incorporated GPS and digital photography. Adult facilitators noted that interest in taking quality photographs helped the participants to become more aware of their surroundings and enjoy being outside" (p. 12).
- "Students reported that using the photographs allowed them more time to study the detail and notice things about the ecosystem that they did not notice while there. They were enthusiastic about using the cameras and reported that they took the time to reflect" (p. 13).
- "In reporting their results on the website, students expressed the usefulness of the photographs as an effective way to convey their findings to the community" (p. 13).
"What can we show students [about a] tree? Safluous censors can show students how a tree drinks from the ground. Infra-red can show students how a tree cools itself outward towards its leaves. Infra-red can also show disease and decay in the trunk as we see here. We can place a device over the top of the tree in the forest showing carbon in, and carbon leaving. In other words we can show students how a forests breathes." -Alan Keeso
Students are beginning to innovatively harmonize technology and nature. A six-year-old had the desire to teach other children about weather; he, along with his father (who happens to be a meteorologist) created an app called Kid Weather. The app teacher students about local weather conditions and what to wear. The app extends and enhances children's understanding of weather, its patterns, and climatology. Another youth, named Andy Kuhlken, uses Minecraft in biophilic way. He builds landscapes in the apps that reflect real ecosystems; demonstrating an innovative approach to a game that many perceive to be keeping children away from nature. Sixteen-year-old, Benjamin Shrader (aka Commander Ben), has his own website. At his young age, he is a filmmaker who creates videos about nature, namely, educating other youth about native plants and how to fight invasive plants that don't belong in a specific ecosystem. You can take a look at the videos below to see these innovative youth blending technology and nature in meaningful ways. The more educators empower students to use their technology in ways that facilitate environmental literacy, the more examples of children taking their understanding to the next level we will have.
What I have discussed above gets children interacting with nature in innovative ways both indoors and outdoors, which will breed restorative effects and play a meaningful part in eroding Nature Deficit Disorder. We know that most children are engaged with technology; with the approaches explored above, we are not taking away their devices (which sends a message that we don't trust them), but rather, we are empowering students to use their devices for greater good, which will ultimately engage them. Technology allows for differentiation and increased independence as well, which can help students experience success; success is directly related to well-being and a positive sense of self. For those teachers who teach vulnerable youth who do not have opportunities to explore nature, experiences enabled by technology will give these students opportunities to connect with nature, both locally and globally, in a way they might otherwise never have the opportunity to experience. Furthermore, Louv tells us that exposure to nature increases well-being. If we create positive, engaging experiences for our students, they may relate these experiences to being connected with the outdoors and create more experiences for themselves in the future.
Technology infuses and mediates a large part of our daily experience; it is my belief that technology can play a supporting role in connecting students to nature and enhancing their fascination with the natural world… but only if we, as educators, facilitate it. We must deny the perceived incompatibility of technology and nature, acknowledge that they can co-exist harmoniously and intermeshed, and work to ignite their relationship. The key for teachers is design--it's ensuring that technology is not integrated for the sake of flashy tools and gadgets, but for the sake of deeper learning and connection. Louv, himself, says that when used wisely, "high tech can open us up to high nature". I unequivocally believe that learning opportunities are lost if we restrict technology to an indoor activity and dismiss its potential to connect with nature. I will end with a powerful quote from Barry Lopez (1986), who once said, "To bring what is actual together with what is dreamed is an expression of human evolution" (p. 414).