|United Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 15, Number 1, 1998 (UNU, 1998, 12 pages)|
By Norman Longworth
One of the most fruitful encounters on the road to sustainable development could be between the computer and environmental education. The computer has a demonstrated ability to present vividly the multidimensionality of ecological interactions. And any hope of a massive restructuring of consumer behaviour would seem to rest ultimately on education.
Because of growing environmental concern, there will likely be a worldwide increase in demand for environmental education. In meeting that challenge, the use of information technology as flexible and innovative tools of learning could be vital. It could be immediately useful in helping to knit together more closely efforts at environmental education now under way. The European academic community, for example, has fostered a number of cooperative efforts at environmental education; this is an endeavour in which the new UNU Rector, Hans van Ginkel, was particularly active in his previous post at Utrecht University.
In the following article, Norman Longworth of the University of Southampton, UK, examines some of the issues at stake. He is a member of Southampton's Geodata Unit, recognized for its innovative use of computer programmes in environmental learning. The article is excerpted from a paper he wrote for Higher Education Policy, the journal of the International Association of Universities. - Editor
As a matter of long-term survival, we should be deeply committed to increasing public knowledge of the environmental sciences through effective educational and other programmes. The problem is immediate, and needs to be implemented to present generations in industry and the community, as well as to future generations in universities and schools.
Information technology is already highly active in monitoring, managing, digitizing, recording, analysing, communicating and synthesizing environmental affairs. By the same token, information technology has long been established as a potential tool for the development and dissemination of education. While the analogy is not an exact one, it is nevertheless useful to look at the ways in which it can be used in very real and exciting ways to satisfy the new imperative of environmental education in the 1990s.
The use of information technology in environmental education is increasingly important in view of:
· the fact that there is an urgent need for a mass environmental education programme reaching many millions of people - a task which can only be performed using open and distance learning methods with information technology tools; and
· the increasingly versatile capacities of these information technology tools and techniques to improve interaction, enhance personal involvement and solve environmental problems.
The role of the university in promoting such use is obvious. It has the equipment and the expertise to make it happen, and the links to encourage people to participate in the protection of their own environment.
Networking: Power of Ideas
One important area for universities is networking. Networks are nothing new. People networks have existed for centuries between human beings of like mind, business or objective. They are examples of the power of ideas to progress through common concerns into affirmative responses.
The addition of an electronic component through which messages, concepts, responses, information and debate can be traded easily, quickly and inexpensively represents a huge increase of network capability.
Certainly, electronic networks represent a breakthrough in education as a whole - and their positive impact on learning motivation is well documented. Environmental education can be enhanced at all levels through the use of networks. Consider the following possibilities:
1. Networks of scientists working on environmental problems. Many of these are, of course, already in touch with each other through their own scientific networks. Their availability to educational networks - if properly monitored - could make them a very valuable resource for teaching, learning and material development. They could even be used to bring eminent scientists more directly into the teaching and learning process.
2. Networks of education and curriculum developers worldwide. Through like-minded centres, for example, which assess needs for the region in which they operate, the collaborative development and testing of courses and materials would be a great boon. The electronic facilities would be used for distribution of course modules, ideas for new courses, assessment of needs and much else.
3. Networks of teacher training institutions in universities and colleges. For pre-service and in-service training of teachers in schools, for the development and testing of materials locally, for accessing the information needed to create new courses, and for the exploration of cultural differences. There is great value in being able to perform such tasks over days rather than months.
4. Networks of schools, universities and industrial training establishments. There could be many benefits in sharing access to environmental data and research and being able to combine in practical participation projects on environmental subjects locally, nationally and/or internationally.
Access to Databases
Networks can also be used to give access to environmental databases which abound in many places. (See "Software for Development" on UNU's environmental databases. - Editor). In purely educational terms, databases represent one of the frontier posts in the development of discovery techniques of learning (I do, and I understand). In environmental education, there are perhaps three ways in which databases could be valuable:
1. As accessible resources to underpin strategic teaching and learning - in which the data are made available to the learner, and it is the learner's task, assisted by the teacher, to make the right scientific inferences from the information available. This is often a skill which is neglected in both schools and universities. At Southampton, we have been using such techniques, drawing on data available at our CERES project to establish an infrastructure to make the UNEP-GRID global monitoring information available to education in Europe.
2. As teaching and learning strategies in which the database is itself built up by the learner, either by original observation or through secondary data. This is an opportunity to impart information-handling skills right from the collection stage through storage, analysis and dissemination.
3. Much more difficult to implement is the technique of using the database as a teaching tool in its own right. This means initially mastering the access software to the right data at the right time for the right purpose. Also involved is incorporating additional learning software into the database.
Hypermedia: New Teaching Tool
The use of the personal computer (PC) as a teaching machine has opened up fresh possibilities, particularly in new hardware and software developments. At Southampton, for example, we have been able to incorporate hypermedia - a recent development in software - into the database. Hypermedia is an improvement on presentation techniques from computer-assisted learning (CAL) software, which itself has not been widely used. It has the facility of presenting new information and concepts as hierarchies to be called up as required, the facility to flip in and out of the mainstream programme. Probably most important, hypermedia has the ability to present graphic material, digitized and motion pictures or maps and diagrams on the screen.
An example is the "water programme," developed at Southampton's I.T. CERES Centre. Learners are asked to build up, on their screens, a diagram of the processes though which water goes from river to tap. At any time in the programme, the students have available the stages of the diagram completed to date, digitized and labeled pictures of each stage, pictures of the purity of water at each stage, and an examination to be taken to pre- and post-test understanding of the subject matter. Such versatility had not existed before outside a large mainframe computer.
There is obvious scope for expanding the use of hypermedia to explore relationships between issues, systems and ideas - for example, to build up a picture of the connections between the build-up of greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, pollution control measures, etc. with pictorial, diagrammatic and textual back-up in a way that is easily understandable and manipulable by the learner.
Many of the major manufacturers are now marketing powerful tools for the creation of self-learning programmes for the training market. These are an extension of the hypermedia approach allied to videodisk and other external education storage devices and offer simplified programming techniques accessible to a wider range of education developers. It all presages a future for open learning flexibility which may hopefully overcome the inherent resistances to new approaches to learning.
It is evident that the development of environmental education is a global need which should be satisfied using local, national and international action. The use of networks, databases, software and open/distance learning systems are key tools for evolving new strategies for developing information technology. The coordination of the educational effort is essential to the effective use of valuable and scarce resources.
There is a need for a network of centres which can satisfy such needs, and which can communicate its products and services to a wider audience - including industry, education, government and professional associations. There is an equally great need for the implementation of a wide vision which encompasses the global opportunity and meets the twin educational challenges of promoting environmental awareness through information technology capability. It is the higher education system, working in cooperation with others, which should make it all happen.