Since the onset of Covid-19, the shift to virtual learning has certainly upended education everywhere. And environmental education may have suffered further damage, given the importance of experiencing nature first-hand. That said, e-learning could also offer new avenues for raising awareness, potentially enabling even more people to access vital environmental information.
In this light, the future of environmental education may be brighter than ever.
Where online environmental education fails
The shortcomings of environmental education are all too obvious. Without in-person instruction, students studying the environment can no longer go on field trips, collect samples, or even analyze ecological trends in a lab.
But the youngest will probably be the most affected by this transition. Especially since at a young age, our interactions with the environment allow us to establish a natural relationship that tends to accompany us for the rest of our lives.
“It’s always best to start at an early age to ground the idea of sustainability and the understanding that we humans don’t exist in a vacuum,” marine biologist Dr Christine Figgener said in a recent interview with the climb. “We need clean air, water and food to survive, and when we destroy our planet, we won’t be able to survive.”
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has severely restricted access to nature for countless children. This can lead to an increase in cases of nature deficit disorder – the phenomenon in which too little exposure to nature can have profound physical, mental and developmental consequences.
With children often being the most susceptible and vulnerable to nature deficit disorder, finding ways to keep children engaged with the outdoors during this pandemic is of utmost importance.
Yet, although we have to deal with this consequence, social isolation could also mean that more people appreciate the importance of the environment for their health.
“After the pandemic and this incredibly difficult time of social isolation, people will have a new appreciation for nature and a pent-up demand for conservation efforts,” predicts Figgener.
Needless to say, it’s certainly possible that this current shift to online learning could actually help environmental education efforts.
Organizing and scaling with e-learning
If you discount the obvious shortcomings of online learning — seemingly endless Zoom calls, more independent work, and the isolation of it all — there are still benefits to virtual education.
Namely, e-learning allows us to expand access to information. Often, in-person education unintentionally restricts the flow of knowledge by limiting it to enrolled individuals. But now, as instructors begin to put their teaching materials online, we could see an influx of teaching resources made public.
And with the growing number of materials online, we can expand environmental education even further. This transition can be especially promising if educators can provide easy access to online learning materials, while promoting those materials on the sites people visit every day. Everything from campaigns, awareness events and live streams can help push environmental education forward.
While we are certainly in the early stages of this transition to somewhat online learning, there are promises that we can expand environmental education to reach an even wider audience.
“With online virtual learning, we have the ability to organize and scale to reach many more people than possible through in-person interactions,” Figgener added.
And once it’s safe, coupling online learning initiatives with in-person instruction can prove even more valuable for a sustainable future.