Classroom Practice - Ah, the great outdoors: there's an app for that

15th November 2013 at 00:00
Some say technology can enhance the way that students experience nature, but isn't it defeating the object of taking lessons outside?

For many teachers - and non-teachers, for that matter - nothing is as depressing as seeing a child sitting in an idyllic natural beauty spot staring at a piece of technology. Why take them into the real world if they ignore it in favour of a virtual one?

And yet, contrary to appearances, that piece of technology may be enhancing, not distracting from, the experience of being outdoors. In the past few years, hundreds of apps for outdoor learning have become available, and all claim to be able to improve a student's interaction with Mother Nature.

The apps range from guides for spotting pond life or identifying leaves to compasses and maps for orienteering, geocaching platforms for high-tech treasure hunts, instruction videos, and photo-sharing and annotation tools. All try to make outdoor learning as productive and interactive as possible.

The trouble with all this "help" is that one of the primary aims of outdoor learning is to tempt children away from computer screens and to encourage them to embrace instead the multi-sensory wonder of nature. So it could be argued that the growing use of technology defeats the object of outdoor exercise.

Deanna Fahey, from US lobby group Bringing Back Outdoor Play, based in Maine, believes that the age of the children in question is key in any debate on this topic.

"I see no reason for younger people to be attached to technology when they are outside," she says. "There is no need for superficial additives that clutter the joy and natural learning that comes from being outside and playing."

With older students, however, Fahey can see the benefits. "We may not like it, but older students are using and are interested in technology," she says. "So as educators, we need to use technology strategically to create stimulating outdoor lessons without destroying what we're trying to accomplish by bringing our students outside in the first place."

Technology can enhance outdoor lessons in many subjects, Fahey says. In science, for example, it can be used to monitor experiments, and in geography to record information during field trips.

But where technology really comes into its own is as a teaching aid is in garden projects, according to Julie Parker-Dickerson, youth education programme director at the US National Gardening Association.

"Students old and young can benefit from the use of technology in the garden," she explains. "There is a plethora of technology resources for students to learn how to identify insects (and) plants, and to diagnose plant diseases and pests. 'How to' videos are also really useful. The more immediate the information, the better."

Technology also presents a perfect way for students to record the progress of their personal projects in photo albums and on blogs, says Mandy Morrison, regional schools adviser at the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK.

But just because technology and nature can coexist, that doesn't mean they necessarily should. Juno Hollyhock, executive director at the UK charity Learning through Landscapes, says that teachers must carefully assess the benefits or otherwise of technology. If it is adding to the learning experience, embrace it; if it is just complementing learning, or not contributing at all, don't use it.

Out of range

Using technology also poses practical problems. For a start, few schools have wi-finetworks that are robust and extensive enough to enable connectivity throughout the school grounds. Schools are gradually installing better wi-fi networks, but that doesn't come cheap.

Even when the network is robust, you may still experience difficulties. Fearns Community Sports College in Lancashire, England, has recently improved its wi-fi to facilitate outdoor learning, but the school's network manager, Martin Brown, says that other problems still need to be overcome.

For example, teachers have to ensure that they are leading the lesson, rather than handing responsibility over to the technology. "The teachers need to lead, as the technology is just a tool for better engagement," Brown says.

He adds that there are scenarios where technology will prove ineffective: some touchscreen devices cannot be used in the rain, and glare from the sun can make them difficult to read. Then there is the matter of expensive technology not getting on particularly well with dirt, water or being dropped on to hard, rocky surfaces.

There are, admittedly, solutions to many of these quandaries - screen shades, robust covers and so on. But these do not answer the fundamental question of whether all this hassle to get technology outside is worth it.

It is up to individual schools to make that call, but Hollyhock offers a final word of advice: "There is a risk that if we spend too much time having children look down at the screens in front of them, they will always see a filtered reality and never just stand and absorb the multi-sensory experiences of being outdoors in a range of seasons."


Get some inspiration about teaching in the great outdoors with this series of resources. bit.lyICTOutdoors

This extensive collection has some great ideas for early years and primary students. bit.lyOutdoorsCollection


Technology in the form of apps and gadgets is increasingly becoming a part of outdoor learning.

Some say that technology can enhance learning and engagement, but it can also take students away from embracing the outdoors. And, arguably, being glued to a screen defeats the object of going outside.

Schools have to find the right balance to ensure that technology is a benefit not a hindrance.

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