Research Summary

Children's use of iPads in outdoor environmental education programs

iPads in Environmental Education

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Young people are increasingly learning about the world around them through digital technologies. In the classroom, researchers find that digital technologies can increase student engagement and aid in understanding lesson content. Environmental education centers and facilities have been incorporating digital technologies, ranging from microscopes to e-books, into their programs, but not enough is known about how best to integrate these technologies with studying the natural world. Therefore, this research examines children’s responses to using digital technology, specifically iPads, during an environmental education program.

Taking place over six months, the researchers observed the introduction of iPads into the River Connections environmental education program at the Riveredge Nature Center in Saukville, Wisconsin. The program teaches fifth graders about the macroinvertebrates in the Milwaukee River and the impact of water quality on those organisms. The iPads replaced a paper worksheet used for data collection during the program.

One researcher, acting as a non-participatory observer, watched nine classes weekly. Each class had different students. The researcher noted how the children behaved with the iPads, both as a class group overall and in smaller groups. This study was framed through a social constructivism model, or the idea that children develop intellectually through social interactions. The study gave particular emphasis to questions of how children used the iPads in relation to and in collaboration with their peers.

The researchers compiled and analyzed observations and notes based on grounded theory techniques so that the data generated the following seven codes:
Reaction to mobile device encompassed the children’s reactions when educators first revealed the iPads; generally, the children’s reactions indicated positive attitudes toward the devices.
Group interactions related to how the children shared the iPads. In some groups, children would not share the device and required teacher intervention; however, the children resolved most disputes on their own.
Nature prevails addressed the time children spent looking at the macroinvertebrates versus the iPads and showed that the children were often captivated by the invertebrates.
Digital natives versus digital immigrants addressed the fact that, as digital natives, few children had difficulties operating the iPads; this was in contrast to the adult teachers.
For introduction of mobile devices, researchers noted that the way the educators introduced the iPads majorly affected how children used the device. Lengthy introductions bored them.
Mobile devices in the hands of children related to observations of children handling the iPads (mostly carefully and gently).
Instruments for learning addressed how children used the iPads to further their understanding of the macroinvertebrates, often reading individually about a single invertebrate, or working collaboratively (in groups of two or three) to compare different invertebrates.

Overall, the results from the study showed that children were engaged and interested in using the mobile devices. Importantly, the study found that the children’s interest in the mobile devices did not overshadow their interest in nature. The authors conclude that mobile devices can be introduced effectively in a variety of outdoor learning environments as educational tools, but that they should not be the primary focus of an outdoor education activity or program.

The Bottom Line

With the growing use of digital devices as teaching supports, not only in classroom settings but also in outdoor, field-based settings, it is increasingly important for educators to understand the social and ecological implications of such technological interactions. Devices such as iPads can be effective in augmenting learning during environmental education programs, but educators must be careful in the ways that they use and introduce such devices. If educators emphasize that the devices are a tool for furthering scientific understanding and exploration, this can help ensure that the devices support learning rather than distracting from the focus of the lesson.