How can EdTech help save the ocean?

Since the beginning of the industrialized revolution, human activities have had a growing negative impact on our planet. The ocean, covering more than 70% of Earth and providing goods and services our species depends upon, is not spared; increased temperature, acidity, destruction of large marine habitats, etc. In other words, our everyday behaviors (e.g., what we eat, how we travel, what we buy) impact the ocean and humans are so dependent on the marine environment that destroying it results in threatening our own survival and the survival of the ocean’s inhabitants.

In order for citizens to behave responsibly in regards to the marine environment, they need to have some understanding on their influence on the ocean and the ocean’s influence on them (also called being ocean literate). In the past 30 years, researchers have investigated how much citizens know about the ocean and they all lead to the same conclusion; a lack of basic understanding of this environment. Let’s illustrate the conclusion of these researchers with a concrete example. In 2012 Animal Planet aired a mocumentary called Mermaids: The body found. The disclaimer mentioning the fictive nature of this reportage only came at the end and was easily missed. The fictional documentary triggered a huge wave of reactions on social media with a wide range of people being fooled as showed in the following tweets:

Animal Planet has officially made me scared of ever going in the ocean again. #mermaids

If you’re not watching Animal Planter right now, you’re missing out. Like, this is changing my life. #mermaids

anyone who doesn’t believe in mermaids are seriously ill. #mermaids

The wave of credulous reactions was so important that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) decided to release a statement to refute the existence of aquatic humanoids.

While the media coverage of this mocumentary was important, ABC News accurately summarizes the problem at stake in one sentence:

Enough people missed the disclaimer or missed basic science in high school.

It draws our attention to a very important question: How can one graduate from high school without acquiring a basic understanding of the environment that is covering more than 70 % of the Earth’s surface?

One of the causes for this absence of marine education in school is due to the struggle of bringing the ocean to the classroom. This struggle takes several forms:

  • First, the seashore is often spatially distant from schools making it difficult for students to regularly (or ever) go on a marine field trip. Moreover, even when schools are located by the coast, challenges in terms of time, safety and budget can keep the students away from the shore.
  • Second, when students do actually visit the coast, most of the marine environment remains hidden under the surface and far away from the seashore, leading to a situation where only a small fraction of the marine diversity and processes can be encountered and experienced directly.
  • Third, teachers have rarely acquired marine knowledge during their training leaving them unprepared to teach about this topic. In this case, teachers willing to integrate marine science in their practice will need the support from more knowledgeable people such as marine scientist. Needless to say that marine researchers have very limited time to dedicate to education and to spend in the classrooms.

In other words, the ocean remains out of sight, out of mind for most of the students making it difficulty for them to become knowledgeable citizens about the marine issues they contribute to and will suffer from.

Education technologies have the potential to transform the “out of sight” situation by bringing some insight into the ocean to the classrooms? I spent the last four years of my life investigating the role EdTech can play in marine education and here are few ways technologies can help students to connect with, explore and learn about the ocean.

Virtual laboratories allow students to run experiments that would otherwise be impossible to run in the classroom because of time, safety or space limitation. In the Our Acidifying Ocean virtual laboratory, students run an experiment testing the impact of ocean acidification on the larvae of the sea urchin Paracentrotus lividus. They complete all the steps of the experiment on their virtual lab bench, such as setting up replicate, feeding the larvae, making water changes and observing larval development over time. After five (virtual) days of culture, larvae are mounted on microscope slides and measured on a virtual microscope. This virtual lab helps students test and discover how more acidic water can negatively impact the marine life.

I also spent time observing students attending scientific presentations. While human contact with a scientist is a very valuable experience that cannot be completely replaced by technologies, this kind of presentation gives students a limited time to appropriate the topic, reflect and formulate high-level questions or comments. Moreover, it is a very time-consuming practice for the researchers involved. By using platforms such as VoiceThread, a scientist can easily upload slides and record their voice, creating a virtual presentation that, once recorded, can be copied multiple times and distributed to as many classes as possible. Students then can watch the presentation at their own pace, navigate back and forth between the slides and spend more time on the part that is more complex for them. Students also have more time to prepare their questions and even might be less shy to do it behind their screen than in front of an audience. The scientist can reply to the students’ questions on their own schedule or even assigned their own graduate students to reply to the students.

Another example that I find fascinating is how immersive virtual reality can be used to explore the depth of the ocean. The Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience has developed two immersive experiences. In the first one, the users start by exploring a healthy coral reef and are prompted to find as many specimens as possible of a given species. Then, they are transported to a coral reef where the water is more acidic and prompted again to find the specimen of the same species that have partly disappeared due to the negative consequences of the acidity. In the second experience, the users embody a piece of coral and are prompted to collect different items,(e.g., calcium, bicarbonate ions) to stay healthy. Then, as they embody a coral in more acidic water, gathering the items that are now rarer and staying healthy becomes more challenging.

Currently, the research on how EdTech can support marine education is in its infancy and need to expand as in the future, the faith of the ocean will become even more pressing. It is essential that multidisciplinary teams including education, technology and marine science specialists who all have an important contribution to make in this field could carry this research together.

We also need to remember that marine education should not be seen as something happening only in the classroom, as it is also crucial to provide current knowledge to all citizens. Science museums and aquariums have an important role to play along with all kind of social media platforms to communicate marine knowledge to the public at large.

Finally, I would like to answer a question I get every time I talk about this topic: Do you really think that technologies should replace first-hand experience of the marine environment? No, surely not, absolutely not. If you can go to the shore, get your hands and feet wet, by any means, do it! But if for any reason this is not possible, technologies offer interesting trade-offs that deserve to be explored and developed.

Géraldine Fauville will defend her dissertation ”Digital technologies as support for learning about the marine environment: Steps toward ocean literacy” on the 26th of January in Gothenburg.

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