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Field Reports

Understanding How Remote Learning Is Changing Our Relationship with Nature

Stanford University’s Veronica Lin and the Social Ecology Lab used everyday moments to spot trends in at-home learning and compare two models of content delivery.

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Thumy Phan

How can technology promote and provoke us to engage with the most non-technological resource in the world...the world itself? How might that technology support community focused activities and spur interest in our wider ecosystem, especially at this perilous time in human history?

Veronica Lin is a doctoral researcher at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education in the Learning Sciences and Technology Design program. Her work focuses on the intersections of educational technology, access, and the environment. As part of her dissertation research, she partnered with dscout to investigate the ways technology might support families' learning about climate issues. The global pandemic's effects on schooling made for a timely study examining challenges—and opportunities—the remote context offered.

Veronica worked in Cape Town, South Africa and California’s San Francisco Bay Area examining issues of inequity and access differences in how computer science was (or was not) taught in and beyond schools; this includes informal settings like museums, gardens, and libraries. With the YouthLAB, Veronica and colleagues conducted a pilot study with dscout to experiment with remote methods; their advisor was especially impressed with the quality and scale of data, as well as the access it offered.

"I would say in our discipline of the learning sciences, we mostly lean more qualitative than quantitative. This is primarily because we don't feel like there's a test or exam that can 'prove' with enough confidence how much you've learned. So a lot of it is really looking at the finer things. Learning outcomes, including learning transfer and the process itself, are nuanced outputs that require a nuanced method set."

But above and beyond qualitative, Veronica thought the pandemic and remote learning offered an exclusive chance to discover the needs of families learning at home and how—when access is made flatter through online tools—environmental education changes, if at all.

"With computer science education, I was primarily looking at tangible technologies that are consumer-facing -- tools that are either free or easily accessible for parents to provide for their children. In environmental education, especially, I think it's a cross-cutting subject that should be covered in schools. Climate change absolutely should be a thing there. But that’s not always possible, for various reasons, and so one of the levers that we work on is all of these other places that people and kids are learning, whether that's gardens, museums, libraries, and parks.

"Because of that, I think dscout was a really natural method. I'm really interested in looking at all these everyday moments. We encounter the environment all the time, every day, and so for this project, it was really fascinating to see the ways in which, especially during the pandemic, our relationship with nature is changing. People are just realizing that there are so many other ways to learn about nature that aren't kind of the typical way we would think of."

The Approach

Veronica leveraged the Diary, Live, and Recruit tools to conduct both moderated and unmoderated work. She recruited families with younger children from across the US, with differing attitudes and beliefs on climate change. She was careful to not frame the "issue" of the environment and education around it as a purely political one; she wanted the focus to be on the content and the modes of delivery.

Veronica's unmoderated research included multiple activities:

  1. Getting to know the families' at-home context, including informal science learning activities and experiences with the environment
  2. An intervention, which involved showing families two pre-selected videos in a randomized order: An animated short on types of reusable bags and a more traditional speaker discussion (a TED talk) on a species of fish found in coral reefs
  3. An artifact sharing exercise, where caregivers engaged in an environmental education activity with their child and reported on the learning experience
  4. A final reflection on the entire mission, including the videos, self-directed learning experiences, and attitudes and beliefs on climate change

She followed the unmoderated work with 13 semi-structured interviews designed to offer more space for families to share their perceptions and experiences, and for Veronica to dig more deeply into the motivations around environmental education moments.

Even after launching her screener, Veronica started to notice patterns of cross-over between geographic location, political view, and how environmental education might be approached:

"With the screener, my sampling strategy leveraged 'The Six Americas' framework from Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. When people think of general perceptions about climate change, many think of just two groups: ‘believers in climate change’ and ‘deniers of climate change.’ But in reality, it's not quite that simple. There are people who are more alarmed and then there are people who are just concerned. There are people who are cautious–who know about it, but won't really act about it. And then there are people who are doubtful, and so on."

I tried very much to match my recruited sample to the general population statistics on ‘The Six Americas’, both for the Diary mission and Live. It was really fascinating to hear all of the different experiences. Even for the people who were skeptical about climate change, they actually spent a lot of time connecting with nature and learning about the environment with their children. Then on the flip side, there were some people who said, 'I'm really worried about climate change,' but that sentiment wasn’t really reflected in their actions when they shared how they engaged with their kids. That was a really interesting piece, this misalignment of beliefs and actions. I’m super excited to dig in deeper on why that is."

"Another big hitting point was that dscout has this giant database of scouts who are eager and motivated to participate, and they're all over the country, and I have this ability to recruit for different types—like the Six Americas classifications—and really get the diversity in the pool was really important for this work. I wanted to understand the perspectives and experiences of families who hold different attitudes and beliefs regarding climate change and who have access to different kinds of learning experiences."

The mixed methods allowed for organic moments to surface in the unmoderated part that Veronica could surface again in the moderated interviews. She felt the mobile moments approach offered a flexibility to participants: They could submit what was relevant, important, and natural to them on their own time. The diversity of the sample meant that, similarly, there was diversity in interpretation of moments and experience.

"The interviews allowed participants to share rich stories that I couldn’t get otherwise. There was one participant who talked a lot about her family's history of using the land to survive and medicinal plants. Then there was another participant in rural Ohio and runs a farm. To hear her talk about the impact that COVID has had on their family farm and the way that they're able to run the farm and their life is just incredible. I would have never thought to ask that in the diary study, because of course, it's not relevant to the general population. But to hear them talk about things like that was really, really powerful."

"Being able to combine the two approaches allowed me to be both evaluative and exploratory. I don't know that my original intent was to have it be partially descriptive and partially an intervention, but certainly being able to combine those two methods and then do the live mission to really dive into all of the moments—and also just into their lives more generally—to know them as people was super, super helpful from a research perspective."

To help make sense of the complex and rich data, Veronica leveraged a spreadsheet, where she created new columns for themes, copying quotes from the dscout transcript and notes offering more detail derived from the interview. She's tagging and thematizing those data, pairing it with the video, open-end, and quant data from the unmoderated research. Together, she'll be able to paint a clearer picture of the opportunity space for educational technology and the ways it currently does—and does not—support families in everyday environmental learning.

The Impact

Veronica is still immersed in her varied and rich data, however some themes are emerging, especially around political identity and behavior related to education. For example, parents on both sides of the political spectrum hesitated to accept the term "environmentalist," either because they felt they weren't doing enough or because of the activism it implied not matching their broader identity view.

As for the learning experiences that motivate and engage children to learn more, many parents seemed puzzled and frustrated:

"I asked a magic wand question [Imagine that you could wave a magic wand to create an experience to help your child learn about the environment. What would this look like?] at the end of the interview to understand parents’ desires and frustrations when it came to environmental learning. Some parents talked about wanting their children to feel motivated, well-equipped, and empowered; they shared a variety of ideas that they thought might be effective for their own kids, but in general, This question gave parents the opportunity to reflect on why they weren't able to seek out those experiences right now.

At the end of the study, many parents came back and said, 'Well, if you have more resources, it'd be super great because I feel like there is a lot of stuff on the internet, but I have no idea how to find it.' A couple of them actually did mention the age-appropriateness of learning about climate change at all. Parents of younger kids seemed torn; they didn't want to scare their kids, while parents of older kids seemed to already know how hard it is to engage with them on...well anything."

Importantly, the parents of the children—Veronica's participants—seemed to appreciate the moments of reflection and focus. There was a meta-discursive benefit of being part of a study exploring the impacts of technology on one's children, and many folks mentioned this during the research study.

"When designing the study, one of the really important things for me was to really put myself in participants' shoes and walk around with them for two weeks. I actually participated in dscout studies as a scout prior to running my own study in order to know what it’s like to be on the other side. Essentially, to understand, are all these parts going to fit together? Am I asking them to do things that feel very unnatural?

I think there were one or two comments where a scout said, ‘this is not something we ordinarily would have done,’ but overwhelmingly all of the reflections were really positive where people said, ‘I'm so glad we had this excuse to do things, and even though my child didn't want to do it at first, once we were in it, they really enjoyed it, and even reflecting at the very end, they said, 'Wow, this mission was really interesting.'"

Veronica hopes this work will inspire other designers, researchers, and technology companies, especially those working on learning technologies used by families and younger children, to consider the effects—primarily or secondarily—on how those kids begin to understand the world, the changes taking place, and the wonder that is the intersection of humans and their ecology.

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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