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The Role of Technology in Outdoor Education

Op Ed

I've been approached by outdoor enthusiasts for decades asking how the heck can I promote the use of technology in outdoor learning? After all, isn't a main reason to go outside to get away from technology?  Sometimes I respond by asking how the questioner gets to their outdoor learning destination.  In my graduate classes, I tell the students on the first day that anyone can get an "A" right now by 1) Handing over their cell phone and car keys, 2) removing any non-natural clothing, and 3) walking home right now.  My thoughts and intentions behind this are to help them recognize that we use a variety of technologies in our daily lives - why should we have to put it away to learn in an outdoor setting? (A key point is using it to learn - not distract or entertain.)

I've been approached by outdoor enthusiasts for decades asking how the heck can I promote the use of technology in outdoor learning? After all, isn't a main reason to go outside to get away from technology?  Sometimes I respond by asking how the questioner gets to their outdoor learning destination.  In my graduate classes, I tell the students on the first day that anyone can get an "A" right now by 1) Handing over their cell phone and car keys, 2) removing any non-natural clothing, and 3) walking home right now.  My thoughts and intentions behind this are to help them recognize that we use a variety of technologies in our daily lives - why should we have to put it away to learn in an outdoor setting? (A key point is using it to learn - not distract or entertain.)

 

Why should we handicap learners by taking away tools that they use on a daily basis?  Tools they know how to use - and do use - as they work to make sense of their lives?

Here's how I think of educational technology:

  • Technology supports our efforts to appeal to different learning styles. With a variety of learning tools, students can understand their experiences through oral, written, spatial, quantitative, and/or graphical means. As a result, many more students become engaged in the learning process.
  • Technology supports an integrated approach to learning. A curriculum that integrates different disciplines helps students combine their mathematical, logical, scientific, linguistic, artistic, and social knowledge to make their lives and interactions with the world clearer.
  • Technology is integral to modern science. Modeling the research practices of biologists, engineers, and other professionals, students use technology to measure, document, interpret, obtain, present, and manage data.
  • Technology aids efforts to support teachers. Technology allows us not only to demonstrate teaching strategies, but also to deliver training – providing teachers the skills and confidence to become leaders in their classrooms and schools.

I promote the use of technology for three main reasons:

Augment Our Senses

Everything we know and understand comes through interactions with the world through our senses. Many technology tools have been developed to augment these senses. Consider “sight.” Binoculars and telescopes make far things closer. Microscopes and hand lenses make small things larger. Time-lapse cameras make slow things faster. All of these tools help learners to make more careful, and hopefully insightful, observations of their world.

Collect and Analyze Information

Understanding a phenomenon often requires thoughtful consideration of various aspects of the phenomenon. Bubbling, oily water at the edge of the pond may look "gross," but determining if it is healthy means understanding a variety of aspects: temperature, pH (acidity), presence of useable oxygen and many other things. We use technology to collect data to help us understand these parameters. Data easily collected and analyzed includes:

  • Temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen and turbidity of water
  • Quantity and diversity of macro-invertebrates in water and soil
  • Height & girth of trees
  • Light intensity and canopy coverage
  • Weather data: rainfall, wind direction, air temperature
  • Frequency and location of animals (including radio telemetrically tracking the resident barred owls.)
  • Frequency and location of fungi.
  • Earthquakes & tremors
  • Soil moisture
  • Water salinity
  • Sound levels

Communicate Ideas

Communications tools allow us to present our ideas in many ways – reflecting our dedication to addressing the varying learning styles (and needs) of our the learners. Some learners will grasp the concept of a watershed from hearing someone speak the definition. Some grasp it by reading the written definition. Some "get it" by examining a drawing. Others gain understanding by watching a short animation/video. Others by climbing on a concrete model. All learners will reinforce or refine their understanding when presented the concept by many of these methods.

 

Learn WITH Technology - don't "learn the technology"

I remember when we used to spend days learning software (GIS for example) and then it would take less than an hour to actually do some meaningful analysis.  If you find yourself or your learners spending a significant amount of time learning how to use a tool, you should ask yourself if you are teaching the tool or teaching with the tool.  I'd suggest that what we want to do is make the tools as invisible as possible - so the learners can focus on the phenomenon.  Fortunately, there are many fairly useful tools now that have simpler and simpler interfaces.  And they are becoming so common that it is reasonable to expect that learners will already have many skills for using the tools. I'm constantly looking to use things that are dependable, affordable, and easy to use. A few examples of current tools and applications include:

  • Apple's iPod Touch has become a "Swiss Army Knife" of tools. The ability to bring to hand pictures, videos, text and audio of organisms and phenomenon turns the chance encounter or question into a teachable moment. The built in camera allows one to measure distances and size, light intensity, canopy coverage, sound levels, wind speed and more. New, emerging technology allows us to (somewhat effectively) identify plants and clouds merely by snapping a photo. We also have a variety of reference tools: field guides for birds, mammals and plants.
  • Digital cameras provide opportunities for documenting observations, field research and activities. The camera is also a fun way to explore perspective - looking at things from new angles.
  • GPS (Geographical Positioning Systems) and Geocaching is a great way to motivate getting to new places.  Earth caches even help you learn as you explore - consider this one that helps explore tidal forces.  For real understanding, try creating your own earth cache!
  • Where I work (IslandWood) we even use iPads as video cameras - to capture education strategies – both for the professional growth of our instructors, but also for professional development of other teachers through the web.
About the Author
Clancy J. Wolf, Ed.D.

SENIOR FACULTY FOR SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION, ISLANDWOOD

Clancy has worked with students, teachers, and researchers from Forks, Washington to Key West, Florida, exploring how technology helps students learn and challenging students to think about their role in the world around them. He is the past President of the Northwest Council for Computer Education, the country’s oldest organization for teachers who use technology in the classroom. Education: B.A. in Mathematics/Physics, Whitman College; M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction, Secondary Education, Bowling Green State University; Ed.D. in Science Education, University of Michigan.