The use of VR for environmental education
The use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) for environmental education is controversial. Some are concerned that these technologies might replace or disrupt outdoor experiences that can connect students to nature and develop pro-environmental behaviours.
However, learning through technology and being outdoors aren’t mutually exclusive. When VR and AR are used effectively they can support and enhance environmental education while contributing to students’ positive well-being.
Many nature locations are inaccessible to students due to distance, safety concerns, economic barriers or ability.
Access to ecologically sensitive areas like coral reefs or wetlands is limited in order to preserve them. VR can provide an alternative way to experience these locations.
Virtual technologies can also promote outdoor trips close to home and help students connect with global and local environmental issues. For example, research by virtual reality design expert Ana-Despina Tudor, with colleagues, used a 360-degree field trip of the Borneo rainforest to teach students about deforestation. Lessons were then applied to a local nature reserve being affected by railroad construction. Students worked with a local charity to help protect it.
Such research holds promise for those seeking to extend the connection between a sense of place and pro-environmental behaviour to regional, continental and global scales.
That means adopting eco-friendly attitudes that can minimize adverse effects on the natural environment wherever these effects occur.
“Wicked” or complex environmental problems require students to engage with multiple places and points of view. Improved access through virtual simulations may promote empathy and overcome inaction brought on by the psychological distance that students might feel towards nature hit hardest by climate change.
VR and AR lose much of their potential when they are only used 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 timeframes over which changes occur.
Consider a virtual reality simulation known as the Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience. During this simulation, students experience the effects of a century’s worth of ocean acidification on reef biodiversity by moving “amid coral as it loses its vitality” and observing how increasingly acidic water affects marine life. The program resulted in high levels of engagement, and significant gains to understanding and problem-solving.
Compared to traditional modes of outdoor education, VR and AR can provide opportunities to include diverse knowledges.
Practitioners of critical approaches to environmental education may take this opportunity to engage with stories produced by marginalized communities about their experiences of nature and climate change.
Those who are skeptical of whether VR and AR can support in-person outdoor education should consider the important role these technologies play in equipping students to navigate challenges today.
Indeed, skills like digital literacy, creative thinking, communication, collaboration and problem solving are more essential than ever as students transition to the professional world.
VR and AR can enable students to participate in solving complex environmental problems, present and future. A drawback is the rapid advancements in hardware, software and implementation: Schools can already be slow at implementing new technologies, due to both the time it takes to train instructors as well as economic and administrative barriers, and assessing how long an investment may seem worthwhile may be a consideration.