Research Summary

ICT tools in environmental education: reviewing two newcomers to schools

Reviewing Technology Use in Classroom Environmental Education

Environmental Education Research

A wide variety of information and communication technologies (ICT) and digital tools have been introduced into environmental education, both inside and outside of the classroom. This review presents a range of examples of how ICT has been used by classroom environmental educators. The authors also explore whether ICT is helping meet the goals of environmental education and present suggestions for teachers and researchers exploring ICT use in environmental education (EE) curriculum.

The review begins by outlining the goals of EE, using the objectives put forward by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) based on international conferences held on environmental education in 1975 and 1977. Four of these objectives are to help individuals and social groups acquire the following:
Awareness of and sensitivity to the global environment and its allied problems
Attitude—a set of values and feelings of concern for the environment, as well as the motivation to actively participate in environmental improvement and protection
Skills for identifying and solving environmental problems
Participation—an opportunity to be actively involved at all levels in working toward resolution of environmental problems

Two additional objectives for EE are that the teaching includes:
• An international and local dimension
• An interdisciplinary approach

Next, the authors explored whether the ICT tools seem to be helping meet these goals by gathering a variety of examples from peer-reviewed articles. The criteria for choosing these articles were: (1) they discussed a learning activity employing ICT in some form, and (2) the learning activities were either clearly defined as EE or could be used by EE. Of the articles collected, the researchers chose 16 to examine more closely. These 16 examples met at least four of the six criteria outlined by UNESCO. These 16 examples covered both indoor and outdoor uses of ICT for environmental education and had a range of target audiences from elementary to higher education. In the review, the authors present a table that shows how each example of ICT either meets or does not meet each of the six UNESCO goals outlined above.

The authors began by examining the use of ICT inside the classroom. They point out that ICT offers a potential alternative to field trips and outdoor learning experiences. Specifically, these programs can provide access to places at times when they are otherwise inaccessible. Although these first-hand experiences are ideal, financial, time, and security concerns all can present difficulties for teachers. Virtual field trips could provide opportunities for students to explore beyond the limits of their classrooms and their place in time. For example, students could virtually explore the world of dinosaurs, or an imagined future. ICT can also potentially help teachers teach EE topics that are abstract or distant from students’ everyday lives. The authors examined 12 examples of ICT for use inside the classroom: virtual museum, e-Junior, virtual ecological pond, and QA, designed for grades 1– 6; Google Earth, River City, and Under Control, designed for middle school children; acid ocean virtual lab, for high school; and, for higher education, virtual field trip, video podcasts, Appropedia, and EV FL. These examples range from teaching marine ecology (virtual museum), to the history of the 50 worst oil spills (Google Earth), to soil degradation and environmental destruction linked to human civilization (virtual field trip).

Next, the authors explored ICT that has been used to enhance outdoor learning experiences, using portable computers or mobile phones. They found the two main advantages of these devices, with regard to EE, are the ability to generate scientific data and the ability to simulate an environmental investigation while in the field. The authors examined four examples of ICT used outdoors: Sense project, ED, Timelab 2100, and using mobile phones for environmental awareness. Most of these ICTs were designed for use in high school or higher education.

Based on their review of each of these 16 ICT examples (12 indoor and four outdoor), the authors discuss several key findings relating to overall affordances and constraints associated with ICT tools currently available for EE. One key finding was that there are a number of tools and applications available for teachers. However, there is a lack of research examining how each of these tools is used and what it implies for student learning. The authors conclude that there seems to be much more interest in designing the tools than in analyzing how their use contributes to student learning and understanding of environmental issues.

With regard to the six goals of EE outlined by UNESCO highlighted above, the researchers found several patterns. All of the tools seem to have the potential to raise awareness and to help acquire an attitude of concern for the environment. All the tools available also use an interdisciplinary approach. Most, but not all, of the activities seem to evoke skills for identifying and solving environmental problems. They found few of the tools seemed to include both international and local dimensions, which is important for developing both a holistic view of global problems and a sense of concrete and local implications. In addition, very few of the activities seemed to have the potential for fostering participation of students in working toward resolutions of environmental problems.

Another key finding was that teachers often lack the technical support or computer skills to address issues that arise when using the ICT software. The authors point out that most of these ICT tools are tested with expert researchers present to address technical problems, and little research exists on how easy these tools are for a regular teacher to implement.

Finally, the authors raise questions about the merit and value of using ICT to teach EE. While there are several possible benefits, there is also a possibility that the entertainment value and software itself can detract from students’ focus on the material. A concern exists that these tools could encourage teachers and students to stay indoors and participate in virtual field trips, even though actual outdoor experiences could be feasible. In this way, ICT could contribute to students’ alienation from nature instead of promoting a sense of connection. Ideally, ICT will be used in moderation, and as a complement to actual outdoor experiences in EE.

The Bottom Line

Many information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been developed for use in teaching environmental education (EE); some of these tools, such as virtual field trips, are designed for classroom use, while others are designed for collecting data and extending interactive learning in outdoor settings. Although most of these tools have merit for promoting environmental awareness, attitudes, skills, and interdisciplinary thinking, only a few of them incorporate both local and international dimensions and encourage student participation toward resolution of environmental problems. Experimenting with these tools when teaching EE may produce useful and insightful outcomes, particularly when faced with constraints that make outdoor experiences and field trips difficult to actualize.