Since Covid-19 began, the transition to virtual learning has certainly thrown a wrench in education everywhere. And environmental education has perhaps faced additional harm, given the importance of experiencing nature firsthand. That said, online learning could also offer new avenues of outreach, potentially allowing even more people to access vital environmental information.
With this in mind, the future of environmental education is perhaps more promising than ever before.
Where online environmental education falls short
The shortcomings of environmental education are all too evident. Without in-person instruction, students studying the environment can no longer go on field excursions, gather samples, or even analyze ecological trends in a lab.
But younger children will probably be the most affected by this transition. Especially since at a young age, our interactions with the environment help establish a natural relationship that tends to stick with us for the rest of our lives.
“It is always best to start at an early age to ingrain the idea of sustainability and the understanding that we humans don’t exist in a vacuum,” said marine biologist Dr. Christine Figgener in a recent interview with theRising. “We need clean air, water, and food to survive, and when we destroy our planet, we will not be able to survive.”
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has severely restricted access to nature for countless children. This may result in an uptick in cases of nature deficit disorder—the phenomenon wherein too little exposure to nature can have profound physical, mental, and developmental consequences.
With children often the most susceptible and vulnerable to nature deficit disorder, finding ways to keep kids engaged with the outdoors during this pandemic is of the utmost importance.
Yet while we must contend with this consequence, social isolation could also mean more people are appreciating the importance of the environment to their health.
“Following the pandemic and this incredibly hard period of social isolation, people will have a new-found appreciation for nature and pent-up demand for conservation efforts,” predicts Figgener.
Needless to say, it’s certainly possible that this present switch to online learning could actually help environmental education efforts.
Organizing and scaling with online learning
If you discount the obvious shortcomings of online learning—seemingly endless Zoom calls, more independent work, and the isolation of it all—there are still benefits to virtual education.
Namely, online learning allows us to widen access to information. Oftentimes, in-person education unwittingly restricts the flow of knowledge by constraining it to those enrolled. But now, as instructors begin to move their teaching materials online, we may see an influx of educational resources made public.
And with the increasing number of online materials, we can further expand environmental education. This transition may be especially promising if educators can provide easy access to learning materials online, alongside promoting these materials on sites people visit every day. Everything from campaigns, outreach events, and live streams can help push environmental education forward.
While we are certainly in the beginning stages of this transition to somewhat-online learning, there’s promise that we can expand environmental education to reach an even larger audience.
“With online virtual learning we have the ability to organize and scale to reach to many more people than possible during in-person interactions,” Figgener added.
And once it’s safe, coupling online learning initiatives with in-person instruction may prove even more valuable for a sustainable future.