Virtual reality can support and enhance outdoor environmental education

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The use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) for environmental education is controversial. Some fear that these technologies replace or disrupt outdoor experiences that can connect students to nature and develop pro-environmental behaviors.

However, learning through technology and being outdoors are not mutually exclusive. When virtual reality and augmented reality are used effectively, they can support and enhance environmental education while contributing positively to students. welfare.

Access and connection to nature

Many natural sites are inaccessible to students due to distance, security concerns, economic barriers or ability.

Access to environmentally sensitive areas such as Coral reefs Where swamps is limited in order to preserve them. Virtual reality can provide another way to experience these places.

Virtual technologies can also promote outdoor outings close to home and help students connect to global and local environmental issues. For instance, research by VR design expert Ana-Despina Tudorwith colleagues, used a 360 degree field visit of the Borneo rainforest teach students about deforestation. The lessons were then applied to a local nature reserve affected by the construction of a railway. The students worked with a local charity to help protect it.

Several points of view

Such research holds promise for those seeking to extend the link between a sense of belonging and pro-environmental behavior regionally, continentally and globally.

That means adopt eco-responsible attitudes which can minimize adverse effects on the natural environment wherever such effects occur.

“Mean” or complex environmental issues require students to interact with multiple locations and viewpoints. Better access through virtual simulations can promote empathy and overcome the inaction caused by the psychological distance students might feel towards nature hardest hit by climate change.



Read more: From the Amazon, indigenous peoples offer a new compass for navigating climate change


Make the invisible visible

Virtual reality and augmented reality lose much of their potential when used only to simulate outdoor environments. Instead, these technologies become transformative when students can experience environmental processes that would otherwise be invisible to them due to their magnitude or the time frames over which the changes occur.

Consider a virtual reality simulation known as Stanford Ocean Acidification Experiment. In this simulation, students discover the effects of a century of ocean acidification on reef biodiversity moving “among the corals that are losing their vitality” and observing how increasingly acidic water affects marine life.

Jeremy Bailenson, professor of communication at Stanford University, discusses Stanford’s ocean acidification experiment.

When researchers measured the effect of this simulation by comparing student test scores, they found that knowledge of ocean acidification increased by nearly 150% and was retained after several weeks.

Combine sources of information

Augmented reality can be effective in combining different media sources and information on environmental processes. Harvard researchers developed the AR tool EcoMOBILE to help college students monitor water quality.

Students can play an augmented reality game designed to engage students in learning about aquatic ecosystems on a smart phone while monitoring water outdoors.

EcoMOBILE demo video.

The program resulted in high levels of engagement and significant gains in understanding and problem solving.

Critical environmental education

Compared to traditional modes of outdoor education, virtual reality and augmented reality can provide opportunities to include various knowledge.

Practitioners of Critical approaches to environmental education can take this opportunity to engage with stories produced by marginalized communities on their experiences of nature and climate change.

Teachers can then engage students in self-reflection while highlighting the larger issues surrounding social and environmental justice.

Mobilizing indigenous knowledge

Camosun Bog 360 is a virtual tour of a local wet area in Vancouver, and is an example of this approach.

Community interviews with volunteers engaged in peatland restoration and videos produced by the Musqueam First Nation are integrated and linked throughout the field visit. This content is also available to students in person using QR codes and their smartphones.

One of the authors of this story, Micheal, has developed related resources in partnership with the Pacific Spirit Park Society and the Camosun Bog Restoration Group for use in educational settings.

Musqueam community member Louise Point talks about plants in a video embedded in the Camosun Bog 360 virtual tour.

The purpose of the field trip is to introduce students to creatures and plants, to help them reflect on colonial stories of Camosun Bog, and encourage them to protect the bog through volunteering.

However, you have to be careful. As Métis anthropologist/otipemisiw Zoe Todd explains, Indigenous knowledge is too often filtered by white intermediaries. The issue is that Indigenous voices can be lost or distorted. It is of vital importance that Indigenous peoples tell their own stories.

In the case of Camosun Bog 360, the Musqueam Educational Kit guide the researcher. This kit, developed by the Musqueam First Nation, encourages students and teachers to discover their culture, language and history. It provides links, videos, and other educational materials to share with students.

Building Environmental Stewards

Those who doubt that virtual reality and augmented reality can support in-person outdoor education should consider the important role these technologies play in empower students to meet today’s challenges.

In fact, skills like digital literacycreative thinking, communication, collaboration and problem solving are more essential than ever as students transition into the professional world.

Virtual reality and augmented reality can enable students to participate in solving complex environmental problems, present and future. A disadvantage is the rapid progress in hardware, software and implementation: Schools can already be slow to implement new technologies, due to both the time required to train instructors and economic and administrative barriers, and the evaluation of the length of time an investment may seem worthwhile may be a consideration.



Read more: Investing in Technology for Student Learning: 4 Principles School Boards and Parents Should Consider


The environmental stewards of tomorrow will have to adapt to the new tools that researchers and professionals use to understand, treat and communicate thorny environmental problems. Without proper training and practice in the use of these technologies, students could be at a disadvantage as they enter higher education and the workforce.

Educators have a role to play in empowering students as stewards, for example by finding new ways to include emerging technologies in environmental education.


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