Rather than viewing technology as an enemy of environmental literacy, technology-based learning can help cultivate an environmental sensibility by serving as a “bridge” to the outdoors.

By Ryan Johnson

When I was ten years old, I was absolutely obsessed with the original Nintendo Entertainment System. My cousins had one, my best friend had one, it seemed like everyone I knew had a Nintendo. I would have done just about anything to have one as well, but my parents refused, despite my continuous complaints and numerous solicitations.

I thought I was the most neglected ten-year-old child in the world, while my parents, patiently suffering my pleas, would remind me that the Beartooth, Big Horn, and Pryor Mountains, the McCullough Peaks, and Shoshone River were just beyond my doorstep. These natural features were, in fact, truly magnificent and unavoidable constituents of the landscape, dominating every view with snow-capped peaks, granite cliff faces, rainbow-colored bluffs, and crystal clear riffles, containing everything from wild horses to Grizzly Bears to rattlesnakes. Now, perhaps needless to say, I prize every single second I am able to gaze upon the mountains and deserts of northern Wyoming, and I cherish every memory of running through alpine forests and mountain biking through tumbling sage brush. But a conscious acknowledgement of my privilege of being born into such natural wonder eluded me, and as a result I still found modern, escapist forms of entertainment media seductive. Even in a place completely dominated by mountains, peaks, rivers, valleys, prairie, and high desert, I still found a way to explore MTV far more often than Heart Mountain. Taking for granted what you are born with is obviously not unique to me. Nor is seeking out replacements for direct experience through television, the internet, gaming, etc., which have become pervasive in our society and, with the exception of the internet, were common ways to replace experience in my youth (I did a fair share of mountain biking, hiking, and kayaking in my middle and high school years, but not nearly as much as I could have or wish I would have).

It could be argued that human beings are genetically predisposed to seek entertainment, at least that which conveys a story; the ability to transport oneself to distant lands and imagine oneself in an infinite number of alternative settings has been a compelling part of human history via oral stories and the written word for thousands of years. Only relatively recently, however, has it become a nearly unavoidable aspect of our cultural landscape, available 24 hours a day and 7 days a week by means of innumerable glowing screens. Our society generally and our youth specifically spend an enormous amount of time “plugged in” to various types of entertainment media. The inexorable progression of technological innovation has led to the production of a multitude of gadgets that provide constant channels to maintain one’s connection to digital content; we’re voluntarily (and often involuntarily) inundating ourselves with images, videos, links, buttons, logos, and just about anything and everything else imaginable. And all too commonly, our youth are “discovering” their own backyard, its geography, cultural history, ecology and biodiversity, through pixels on a screen rather than boots in the mud, if they learn about it at all.

IMG_2168There are now so many ways to replace actual experience with virtual experience it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference. Video games, Second Life, GoogleEarth, Facebook, and many more electronic media all provide avenues for replacing physical reality with a digital substitute, abstracting relationships and, perhaps arguably, contributing to feelings of alienation and detachment in an age of unending connectivity. From a look around it is starting to seem as if digital devices that maintain that connectivity are viewed by their owners less as tools for productivity or communication than necessary prosthetics of the new digital self. We are, quite frankly, culturally enslaved to them. While this isnít necessarily problematic in itself, there is now unassailable evidence that we are living in an age of ecological crisis for which we will need to retool the ways in which we view technology and it’s social, economic, cultural and ecological significance. The days of driving technological innovation predominantly for entertainment media, unsustainable forms of energy production, or simply conspicuous consumption will need to come to a close. We need a new technology, or at least a new perspective on the role of technology in our lives, one that embraces ecological principles and aims to more effectively align human society with sustainable forms of living and working. To do this, we will need a new generation of technologically and environmentally literate citizens for whom technological innovation is viewed as a powerful way to collaborate, communicate, and democratically solve the ecological problems we now face. Technology must cease to be an end in itself and become a means to confront the enormous environmental problems future generations will face. We must find a way to direct our collective, and vast, technological literacy toward ecologically sustainable and socially equitable solutions to our environmental problems, while continuing to explore emerging technological innovations in promising and environmentally sound fields, such as green energy and biomimicry.

In order to direct SalmonWatch3our technological prowess to address our environmental problems, we must have an environmentally literate society, one that understands the consequences of failing to address the tremendous environmental challenges that confront us globally. To that end, media has been instrumental in communicating the issues, from the likely repercussions of global climate change, as portrayed in the films “An Inconvenient Truth” and “The 11th Hour”, to media-heavy, environmentally focused expeditions, such as “Summit on the Summit” and “The Plastiki”. These latter so-called “eco-adventure” spectacles have attempted to leverage the profound pedagogical opportunities of media technology to bring awareness to environmental issues, in this case clean and accessible water and plastics in the ocean respectively. But is environmental literacy as delivered through a screen enough to cultivate a new generation of environmental stewards? Does there not need to be a second movement, one of direct connection with our biological neighbors and our geological phenomenon? Furthermore, these often smart, creative, and important media projects meant to attract attention to an environmental cause tend to focus overwhelmingly on the potential calamities that could result from our currently precarious global environmental state. While this awareness is vital to a 21st Century environmental literacy, it can all too often result in a feeling of hopelessness in the audience, particularly for young people who may have never seen a spawning Pacific Northwest salmon in their home watershed but know all to well of their declining numbers, just to offer up one example. Recently, this despair among young people regarding the state of the natural world has been given a name: ecophobia. If the only exposure our youth have to ecosystems comes from YouTube or Google Earth, regardless of how charismatic that exposure may be, their sense of what the natural world is, and the environmental issues that threaten it, will not only be abstract but often times lead to resignation or detachment. While the knowledge, or even environmental literacy, gained from these media may be perfectly relevant and the amount of information prodigious, what is lost in translation? Unsurprisingly, if our youth are only consuming information about the environment by way of their television or laptop screen, it isn’t hard to imagine a certain level of ambivalence or even dread dominating their perspective of the natural world. Consequently, there is evidence that our next generation of environmental stewards may be giving up before they even start.

Is there a union of technological and environmental literacy to be found, one that uses technology to encourage our youth to experience the natural world for themselves? One that uses technology as a bridge to outdoors? One that adds that unquantifiable experience of being surrounded by nature and feeling part of it? It is just such a union that can help us forge a new era of environmental stewardship while encouraging the use and creation of new tools to confront environmental degradation.

Technology as a “Bridge” to the Outdoors
The educational possibilities that modern, web-based technology provides are startling in both number and content. Combined with the fact that we now have an entire generation that cannot imagine life without an iPod and a cell phone (and are rarely seen without both), the opportunities to employ technology in the classroom are limitless. As outlined above, the problem isn’t technology itself, but our propensity to let it take us outside of ourselves and replace actual experience with virtual experience, while promoting detachment and even hopelessness regarding the state of the environment. So how do we utilize the manifold educational applications of emerging technology without compromising the vital, irreplaceable, and less quantifiable educational and ecological benefits of hands- on, authentic, experiential learning? Today’s students are so comfortable with technology, its use to supplement authentic, place-based investigations seems both timely and necessary to reconnect students to the outdoors and support their role as active, lifelong environmental stewards.

FreshwaterTrust2There are now multiple web-based tools, rich internet applications, and geo-RSS mapping interfaces that educators and students can use to find place-based venues for study, create dynamic research projects, and share the product of their study online. Moreover, the open source movement, one of the most promising and unapologetically democratic developments in the short but extremely prolific evolution of the web, is offering up professional tools, from blogging to video editing to GIS mapping, that are beginning to change the landscape of content creation and dissemination on the web. No longer are the tools needed to create dynamic media projects or sophisticated geographic models only for those with high budgets for the latest plastic-wrapped software package. The open source movement, essentially an organic network of software and website developers working collectively to create new and revolutionary ways to use the web, is churning out free, accessible, and innovative alternatives to the software applications that have been the (expensive) status quo for at least two decades. In addition, there are now numerous ways to access and post local information geographically on the web. Several mapping application program interfaces, the most popular of which is provided by Google, allow users to convey their own content and geographically relevant information directly onto a dynamically generated map. These tools were almost unthinkable just a decade ago. Now they are both changing the way we think about place while offering incredible opportunities for educators.

Now that so much information is available online using these dynamic tools, especially if that information can be customized locally, how do we avoid replacing the authentic experience of place with such tools? For example, there are now online mapping tools that allow for such sophisticated hydrologic and land-use modeling, it can be tempting (and, for the first time in history, less expensive) to use them as a replacement for field investigations, providing as they do access to so much information in one place. Despite this temptation, and with the realization that there is no replacement for field research,  these sophisticated web-based tools are valuable supplements to field study, helping to draw connections between concepts and contextualize data sets. To use an example of the how these connections can be made using emerging technology, the United States Geological Survey automatically updates streamflow measurements throughout the country,  allowing students to compare stream discharge in multiple locations with ease. In Oregon’s  Tualatin River basin, students collecting water quality data in the field can compare their data with that being continuously updated thanks to an Oregon USGS map that syndicates real-time water quality data from numerous locations in the watershed.

With reference tools like these, perhaps the most profound educational possibilities with respect to technology, environmental literacy, and service-learning lie in “ground-truthing,” the process of confirming or disputing information derived from computer models and GIS applications by gathering data and observations on the ground. Today’s ground-truthing practitioners often make use of multiple technologies, from GPS units to geo-tagging digital cameras to sophisticated monitoring equipment. Educators can effectively employ both the process and tools of ground truthing, beginning with the study of aerial photos and online geographic and hydrologic models, as well as research conducted by NGOs, agencies, or other organizations.

This information helps introduce concepts and allows students to formulate guiding questions and draft hypotheses before moving on to field-based research to explore realities on the ground.

Students and educators can access multiple online databases to help them prioritize areas of investigation and make use of numerous web-based outlets to share the results of their findings, making available their work to the larger community via presentations, videos, photography, and other creative pursuits. Students can utilize social networking sites to organize events at which to share the results of their field work with the community and alert regulatory agencies to potential anomalies in their data sets. Also, students can use a variety of new so-called “cloud-based” tools to create presentations, spreadsheets, and other documents and easily embed them in virtually any social networking site, blog, or webpage using simple cut-and-paste HTML code. These exciting new networking possibilities are providing new avenues for students and educators to share their work and, in the process, helping to reestablish classrooms as central to thriving communities while cultivating a new generation of civic leaders and environmental stewards.

Perhaps human beings, and especially those among us who advocate for sustainability and environmental conservation, will always have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward technology. As we know, technology has allowed human beings to extract the earth’s natural resources with increasing speed and efficiency, find and burn fossil fuels at an almost incomprehensible rate, and ultimately alter the very climate in which we (and everything else) live. For our youth to confront the ecological challenges they will undoubtedly face, they will need to re-tool their relationship to the technological “tools of the trade”. They will need to embrace a new view of technology that encourages innovation, creativity, and sustainability. In order for coming generations to feed an increasing world population while beginning to address natural resource limits and climatic disruption, they will need all of the tools of human ingenuity they can possibly muster.

Perhaps our most important role as educators is to try to prepare the next generation to face those challenges through new tools and a new perspective, simultaneously guiding them and ourselves to a future that embraces technology as a means to live more sustainably on this planet.

Ryan Johnson is the StreamWebs Coordinator for the Freshwater Trust in Portland, Oregon. To find out more, visit