Virtual reality can support and enhance outdoor environmental education

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This article originally appeared on The Conversation, an independent, nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.


Authors: Micheal Jerowsky, PhD Candidate, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia and Ann Borda, Associate Professor, Melbourne Medical School, University of Melbourne

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

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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 to positive student well-being.

Access and connection to nature

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

Access to ecologically sensitive areas such as coral reefs or wetlands 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 example, research by virtual reality design expert Ana-Despina Tudor, along with colleagues, used a 360-degree tour of the Borneo rainforest to 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.

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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.

This means adopting environmentally friendly attitudes that can minimize adverse effects on the natural environment wherever these effects occur.

“Wicked” or complex environmental issues require students to engage with multiple places and viewpoints. Improved access through virtual simulations can foster empathy and overcome inaction caused by the psychological distance students might feel towards the nature hardest hit by 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 scale or the time frames in which changes occur.

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Consider a virtual reality simulation known as the Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience. In this simulation, students learn about the effects of a century of ocean acidification on reef biodiversity by moving “among corals as they lose vitality” and observing how the water from more in addition acid affects marine life.

When the researchers measured the effect of this simulation by comparing students’ test scores, they found that knowledge about ocean acidification increased by almost 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 have developed the AR EcoMOBILE tool to help middle school students monitor water quality.

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

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 about their experiences of nature and climate change.

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

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Mobilizing indigenous knowledge

Camosun Bog 360 is a virtual tour of a local wetland 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 trip. 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.

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

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

In the case of Camosun Bog 360, the Musqueam teaching kit provides guidance to the researcher. This toolkit, developed by Musqueam First Nation, encourages students and teachers to learn more about 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 equipping students to meet today’s challenges.

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Indeed, skills such as digital literacy, creative 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. One drawback is the rapid advances in hardware, software and implementation: schools can already be slow to implement new technologies, due both to the time required to train instructors as well as economic and administrative, and the assessment of how long an investment may seem profitable. may be a consideration.

Tomorrow’s environmental stewards will need to adapt to new tools that researchers and professionals are using to understand, address and communicate challenging environmental issues. Without proper training and practice in the use of these technologies, students could be at a disadvantage as they enter higher education and the job market.

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


Micheal Jerowsky receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Ann Borda does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Disclosure information is available on the original site. Read the original article:



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