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Feb 13
Another Look at Technology in the Outdoor Classroom

LAST MONTH WE RECEIVED A GREAT COUNTERPOINT to the piece "Useful Apps for Outdoor Learning", which focused on iPhone and iPad applications, or apps, to assist with Wisconsin tree identification. The article was intended to showcase a few of the apps our staff members have used and to help educators find a suitable digital field guide for Wisconsin trees and shrubs. The counterpoint article, "Wild Ideas", summarizes a fascinating study, "Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings", designed to evaluate participants' cognitive function after spending three days immersed in nature without computers, phones, or other electronic devices. The investigators concluded that experiencing nature without technological distractions elevated participants' creativity and problem-solving skills by 50 percent. And while we were not surprised by the study's findings, it generated a lot of discussion within the office about the place of technology in the outdoor classroom and how to limit the interruptions it often causes.

Although the study was inconclusive as to the exact cause of the cognitive advantage, the investigators hypothesize that it was a combination of increased immersion in nature and decreased exposure to distractive, "attention demanding" technology. So, if teachers decide to take technology into the outdoors, how do they reduce intrusions and interruptions?

Below are some of our thoughts. They may seem obvious, but we hope they provide a good starting point for those of you who decide to venture out with technology in tow.

  • Have students turn off ringers and alerts - this may be evident but it's worth mentioning... and will likely be repeated more than once in class.
  • Have copies of a printed tree identification book (available at the Wisconsin DNR's Education Connection web page) for students who use their iPhone or iPad for anything other than the assigned task. The threat of having to physically turn the pages of a dichotomous key should encourage most students to turn off incoming communications for the class period.
  • Limit the use of smartphones and tablets to a predetermined time. Allow students to use their devices only when the entire class has stopped for a discussion of a certain species or topic. When you decide the time is right, set a time limit and provide incentives for correct answers.
  • Practice, practice, practice. This too, probably goes without saying, but it is worth repeating. Don't assume that because your students know their way around social media sites they'll know how to use a digital dichotomous key or field guide.

Remember, technology is relative to its time; the printed page was once high-technology and a similar debate took place in the early twentieth century when the camera was seen as a major intrusion to the burgeoning nature study movement. So, what seems intrusive and foreign to many of us today will likely become a staple of tomorrow's outdoor classroom. As with your indoor classroom, a little planning goes a long way and regardless of where you stand on technology and the outdoors, we hope you'll find time to take your students outside to learn.


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