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Insect perched on the edge of a leaf.
Insect perched on the edge of a leaf.

Toward a Simple Rule for Evaluating Apps

From desktop and laptop computers two decades ago, digital technology has now expanded to embrace iPads, smart phones, even watches with computer capabilities.  Given the degree to which the younger generations is incrasingly relying on these devices for everyday entertainment and engagement, how do we harness this new technology to promote meaningful environmental learning?  Do we accept all new comers -- anything that purports to provide students with some sort of ecological component -- or do we become neo-Luddites, shunning all technology in favor of "back to the land" outings where children can experience nature unmediated by buttons and screens?  Is there a middle way?

I have been pondering this question for years now.  I began as a staunch adherent of Thoreau, with his call to simplify, abandoning the technology of his day (the pencil factory) in favor of living in a hand-built cabin and hoeing beans.  And I still see great benefit in promoting children's direct, unmediated, sensorial engagement with the real world -- contact, contact, as Thoreau put it on the slopes of Kataadn in Maine.  But time, and a degree in Education in Instructional Design and Technology, have led me to wonder if and how we might harness technology to promote environmental learning and even, perhaps, a sense of place.

To that end, I would like to propose a simple rule for evaluating all the opportunities computers and their ilk offer students in the guise of environmental education today -- what I am collectively calling "Apps" here, for lack of a better term.  Here it is:  Apps that point beyond themselves, out into the world, can be meaningful tools for promoting environmental education; those apps that only refer back to themselves and other digital content do not serve this purpose well.  

How might we apply this simple rule to various apps out on the market today?  First, consider the Virtual Ecological Pond I wrote about in an eePRO Technology and EE discussion thread a couple of months ago.  The purpose of the virtual pond is to replace an actual ecological pond, once a feature of many elementary school grounds in Taiwan.  Instead of going outdoors to explore a pond, students could now do so from their classrooms, dipping virtual nets into the virtual water to examine virtual life.  While this approach might be helpful in teaching basic facts about the environment, it does not point beyond itself -- unless, that is, the teacher specifies a follow-up activity visiting an actual pond.  There are quite a few immersive EE apps out there; several can be viewed here, for instance.  Yes, these apps can teach basic principles of how biomes work and how they are different from each other.  But they also involve manipulating abstractions, and while the student may emerge from an experience knowing much about a tundra biome, he or she has likely learned little to nothing about the local biome and the plants and animals inhabiting it.  Simulations are entrancing, and they can help with problem-solving in addition to being great fun; but unless they point beyond themselves, they cannot foster the affective bonds to wild places that are, in my opinion, vital to childhood nature experiences.  

What apps "work", then?  Ironically, very simple features on the smart phone offer tremendous opportunity for getting children (and adults) outdoors, having fun and connecting with nature.  Consider GPS coordinates, for example.  That feature on a smart phone opens up the world of geocaching, which is a marvelous tool for learning about, and exploring, local natural areas.  

Then there is the digital camera on the smart phone, which enables everyone to explore their surroundings using photography.  A rewarding afternoon in nature can be had by simply inviting children to photograph their surroundings in creative ways, then share their work with each other.  What did they notice, as they slowed down and started observing their surroundings more closely?  What did they discover?  What did they learn? 

The camera on a smart phone can also be used in nature identification apps, a number of which are on the market today.  This will be the topic of a later blog post; for the time being, suffice it to say that these are mostly in the development stage.  Ultimately, they offer the potential for a child to find an interesting something out in the woods (plant, animal track, etc.), photograph it, and get a tentative identification of what it is, without having to carry field guides.  It would then be possible for a student to log the discovery, effectively keeping "life lists" of his or her encounters with nature.  

Is there no room for virtual reality, or even augmented reality, in EE?  Consider the amazing success of Pokemon GO.  Never intended to promote environmental engagement, the app has at least gotten children outdoors, into their neighborhoods and local natural areas, even if the journey is in search of things that aren't really there.  Are there ways we might apply this basic format to an EE app where children seek out things that are real, like an old tree or a wetland with frogs calling?  Could there be an app that is a scavenger hunt, akin to geocaching but focused specifically on natural places and things?  Perhaps when players arrive at a feature of interest, augmented reality kicks in -- a screen might show them what the site looked like a hundred years ago, or it might highlight certain features of the place. There are myriad possibilities here -- the challenge is to avoid scenarios where children become so immersed in apps offering them endless virtual worlds that they risk overlooking the real one.