The role of technology in bridging the gap between humans and nature

During this time, REACH is pleased to provide information to help make our current situation a little easier. Below is an article by Arun Kapur, Educationist at The Royal Academy, originally published on Thrive Global. A link to the original article is here.

Human beings have an innate sense of oneness with nature. It is in our DNA. The biologist Dr Edward Wilson termed it as  Biophilia – the inborn affinity human beings have towards nature. It is evident in the way humankind has looked to nature as a source of sustenance, development and inspiration for generations. However, over the past decades, if not centuries, we have lost this sense of unity and identity. In today’s world, we seem to be under the impression that conquering nature is the best way forward rather than living in coherence with it and appreciating our interconnectedness. And so far we have been using technology primarily for the exploitation of nature, instead of using it as a means to reconnect with nature.

Technology, in its broadest definition, is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. For thousands of years technology of different forms has been used to change the way humans interact with their environment. These changes in interactions have, over time, changed the collective relationship between humans and the natural world. Technology has allowed humans to manipulate and enforce control over different aspects of nature, wielding it to suit our purposes, often in the name of progress and development. Often, one of the side effects of these different technologies is creating a barrier between humans and the natural world, gradually diminishing the opportunity to live in coherence. A simple example of this phenomenon is how people have increasingly begun to spend more hours of their lives in front of a gadget or on an online platform that disconnect them from the world outside.  But this does not have to be the case. Like any tool, the impact of today’s technologies emanate from the users and the applications, not the technology itself. Technology, on the contrary, can play a huge role in bridging the gap between humans and nature. Take for example, camera and videos, a technology that has been around for some time now but continues to impact how we view the world. One of the most iconic photographs ever taken was that of the Earth as seen from space, in which the image captured allowed for a sense of perspective of the vast landscapes and terrains of the world to be viewed in a way like never before. Today the images of Earth taken from space help us see the physical effects of humans on the landscapes of the world. These images are examples of how technology can be used to help humans make the connection between our actions and the impact on the natural world.

An important question to ask is when does this gap in our relationship with nature start to occur? If you watch young children playing or interacting with nature, there is no denying that they have a curiosity and fascination with nature which creates a sense of interconnectedness with the natural world. As they grow older, for many children, their day-to-day world moves more indoors and barriers to this interconnectedness start to form. They increasingly experience time constraint and their choice of how to spend their time often widen this gap. Early years education is very focused on the development of literacy and numeracy skills but how much attention is given to ensuring children continue to feel connected to the natural world around them? Yes, children learn about leaves and how to grow plants but too often these activities are squeezed in among the sea of other activities that need completing. The study of sciences and geography often takes place in silos following a reductionist approach, due to which learners fail to make the connection between what they are learning and its role in the natural world. So much of the content that students learn is taught through books and, although photos and pictures can be very powerful, they cannot provide the wholesome perspective and experience needed to bridge the gap between humans and nature. 

This is where technologies can help. Using new and old technologies in innovative ways in learning environments has the potential to help bridge this gap and restore the sense of connectedness between humans and nature. Akin to the satellite image of the earth discussed earlier, information regarding nature can be shared via various mediums such as photographs, audio clips and videos. However, we have an added advantage now because the latest technologies have enabled information to reach a large section of the population almost instantaneously. We are now in the position to find out what is happening to the environment at the other end of the globe by simply clicking a button. This opens up a huge opportunity for information sharing and activism around nature, thereby effectively bridging the cerebral and emotional, if not physical, gap between humans and nature. 

Virtual reality, not as new a technology as one may think, has yet to be utilised in education and learning to augment learning. Many EdTech companies focus on the use of algorithms and AI in order to help students learn or pass assessments but far too few are focused on developing impactful learning experiences for students. Learning experiences where theories and experience come together to allow students to explore and make connections across domains and concepts are the need of the hour to solve challenges of an unprecedented nature. The use of augmented reality could allow for cross pollination of subjects to occur and for students to experience the interconnectedness with the world around them. While this may seem rather far-fetched, we need to recognize the exponential growth in the development and accessibility of new technologies over the last few decades. Once an idea is out there it doesn’t take very long for the technology to be replicated and used on a mass scale. But you may wonder how is virtual reality any different from computer games? Won’t this simply create an even bigger gap between humans and nature rather than try to bridge it? Not if it’s done mindfully. Imagine how different it would feel experiencing the migration of birds or whales as if you were one of them rather than reading about it or watching a video. Would this experience change the way you think and feel about such phenomena and about your own sense of self within the natural world? How would you write about such an experience? Could you try to connect it to experiences you have had and identify similar traits and differences? Can you connect how the development of skyscrapers or masses of ocean pollution in the path of migration may change your journey? A technology such as this could be so powerful in helping students experience learning from and within nature. We must be able to identify with our peers, our community, animals, and nature as a whole. This will help us understand that we are not islands that can be compartmentalised into silos but rather we exist in mutual interdependence with them. Concurrently, we must also acknowledge and accept their separateness from us, their individuality, their own wholeness, because we might otherwise simply impose ourselves on them and expect others to be like us.

The portability of technology also provides new avenues to explore in terms of helping students connect with nature. With connectivity possibilities and handheld technological equipment, learning should move outside the four walls of the classroom, which is merely a human construct that has hindred learning for decades. Experiments and explorations can be done in the natural environment and results and observations recorded and stored to be taken back to the lab or classroom to be interpreted there. Using technology to help create learning experiences within the natural world itself has the potential to open up new ways of thinking for the students to connect what they have learnt in different situations to the experience at hand. 

Within the context of home and distance learning, a new opportunity has presented itself to propel the use of technology to create learning experiences to help students reconnect with the natural world. Rather than setting an agenda of what has to be learnt, why not examine what the students can experience around them and then make links to different domains and ideas. Let the learning be led by the natural world around them and set them the challenge of connecting what they experience rather than connecting the dots for them and telling them what to look for. After all Einstein’s alleged definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results — still holds true. If we want to successfully solve challenges that are multidimensional and complex we need to refine our ways of thinking. And the first step towards that is questioning our place in the world and analysing our relationship with nature. We need to recognise that the planet and nature has seen it all before. It is in our best interests to live in coherence rather than competence or arrogance.

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