Taking the Learners and Technology Outdoors
I began my career as an educator as an outdoor educator. Now I teach educational technology. Given both the ever increasing sedentary and indoor lives of kids and the advancement of technology, the time is ripe to combine the two.
Current and recurring themes that guide my ideas about what constitutes a “good” education include:
- Learning should extend beyond the classroom walls.
- Outdoor education is good for students and adults.
- Mobile technology is engaging and interesting; and can create authentic and relevant learning experiences.
- Mobile learning should be just that – mobile.
Moving Learning Beyond the Classroom Walls
“[In traditional education]…the school environment of desks, blackboards, a small school yard was supposed to suffice…There was no demand that the teacher should become intimately acquainted with the conditions of the local community, physical, historical, economic, occupational etc. in order to utilize them as educational resources.”
- John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938
The Council for Learning Outside of the Classroom provides the following rationale for taking learning beyond the classroom walls:
Learning outside the classroom is about raising young people’s achievement through an organized, powerful approach to learning in which direct experience is of prime importance.
This is not only about what we learn, but most importantly, how and where we learn. It is about improving young people’s understanding, skills, values, personal and social development and can act as a vehicle to develop young people’s capacity and motivation to learn.
Real-world learning brings the benefits of formal and informal education together and reinforces what good educationalist have always known: that the most meaningful learning occurs through acquiring knowledge and skills through real-life, practical or hands-on activities.
There is a wealth of evidence which clearly demonstrates the benefits for young people’s learning and personal development outside the classroom. In summary, learning outside the classroom:
- tackles social mobility, giving children new and exciting experiences that inspire them to reach their true potential. These real world experiences raise aspirations, equipping young people with the skills they need to become active and responsible citizens and shape a fit and motivated workforce.
- addresses educational inequality, re-motivating children who do not thrive in the traditional classroom environment, such as those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with Special Educational Needs. Young people who experience learning outside the classroom as a regular part of their school life benefit from increased self esteem, and become more engaged in their education both inside and outside the classroom walls.
- supports improved standards back INSIDE the classroom, raising attainment, reducing truancy and improving discipline. Learning outside the classroom is known to contribute significantly to raising standards & improving pupils’ personal, social & emotional development.
Find out more about research studies which reinforce and illustrate the wide-ranging benefits for young people on our research pages.
The Benefits of Outdoor Education
A report from the National Wildlife Federation, Back to School: Back Outside, shows how outdoor education and time is connected with wide-ranging academic benefits including:
- Improved classroom behavior
- Increased student motivation and enthusiasm to learn
- Better performance in math, science, reading and social studies
- Reduced Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Higher scores on standardized tests (including college entrance exams)
- Help under-resourced, low-income students perform measurably better in school
Mobile Learning in the Outdoors = Authentic, Engaging Learning
Mobile Learning in the Outdoors Benefits, Apps and Examples
Mobile devices can form an engaging platform for teaching and learning, with the potential to expand the realm of the classroom. Functionality and context are key considerations when selecting from the myriad of mobile-enabled web sites and applications.
Like a Swiss army knife, mobile devices and their apps can provide utility and flexibility in a compact, portable package. Among the options available are:
- GPS and other location-based functionality
- Video, audio, and still image capture
- Mobile networking and collaboration
- The ability to bridge to other tools and data
- Scanning and data logging in the field
- Visual and audio recognition
- Screen readers, slow keys, text to speak, and other accessibility features
The portability and convenience provided by mobile devices enables instantaneous, contextual observations in the field or whenever spontaneous learning opportunities arise. Collecting information outside the classroom can help students hone observation and collaboration skills, reinforce topic relevancy, or provide opportunities to emulate an expert system through use of the apps.
GPS-based apps for mapping, geo-blogging, and geo-tagging are especially powerful in this regard, because they enable direct linking of observations to specific times and locations. The ability to capture, reference, and share data, multimedia, and ideas within a spatial or temporal context helps students identify broader trends and relationships, foster discussion, and develop conceptual thinking.
- Mobile Devices
Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are powerful tools for outdoor study. Access to the Internet, a camera and geospatial data (e.g. GPS) make it easy to gather, organize and submit data from observations. Applications (apps) can be downloaded to engage students in citizen science activities, like identifying wildlife.
- GPS Units
GPS (Global Positioning Systems) is a technology that communicates with satellites to pinpoint specific locations on Earth. GPS units are great tools for getting students outside and engaged in environmental field research and service-learning projects.
At Wisconsin’s Augusta Area School District, teacher Paul Tweed engaged his students in several projects that used GPS and GIS (Geographic Information Systems), one of which helped the Wisconsin Department of Nature Resources (DNR) track orphaned black bear cubs released into the wild.
- Digital Cameras
Students can use digital cameras to document their local environment, track their progress on science projects, collect evidence and present their findings in the classroom.
Students at Monroe City Schools in Louisiana use tech tools like digital cameras to enhance environmental education programs at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Learn more at: fws.gov/northlouisiana/blackbayoulake/environmental_education.html.
- Digital Weather Stations
Digital weather stations are small monitoring devices put in place to collect real-time weather data. They can be installed near home, school or in nearby parks, enabling students to add weather conditions to their study of the local environment.
Students participating in outdoor education programs with NatureBridge check digital weather stations at Olympic, Yosemite and Golden Gate National Parks for weather data to add to their field research. Learn more at: naturebridge.org/your-naturebridge-program-olympic.
Here is a list of apps and websites that can assist learners in becoming citizen scientists:
Links to these websites:
- Project Noah – http://www.projectnoah.org/
- Journey North – http://www.learner.org/jnorth/
- Weatherbug – http://weather.weatherbug.com/
- Creekwatch – http://creekwatch.researchlabs.ibm.com/
- What’s Invasive – http://whatsinvasive.com/
- Nature’s Notebook – https://www.usanpn.org/natures_notebook
- Nature’s Find – http://www.naturefind.com/
- iNaturalist – http://www.inaturalist.org/
- Google Earth – http://www.google.com/earth/index.html
- Marine Debris Tracker – http://www.marinedebris.engr.uga.edu/
Mobile Learning in Outdoors Viewed with the SAMR Model
The SAMR model (http://www.hippasus.com/rrpweblog/) is being used to discuss technology integration. The SAMR model, developed by Dr Ruben Puentedura, aims to support teachers as they design, develop and integrate learning technologies to support high levels of learning achievement and student engagement.
The guiding questions for the SAMR Ladder include:
It becomes apparent that these outdoor-based mobile learning activities can be categorized in the transformational levels of modification and redefinition as learners engage in tasks that are uniquely possible given the mobile technologies.