Holding tensions between Place Based Education and Digital Technologies

There is an internal battle I have in my head between Place Based Education and Digital Technologies. I liken it to that of Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars movies, and his inner conflict with The Force, questioning the lure of ‘the Dark Side’.

Place Based Education can allow learners to explore the stories, histories, and experiences of different cultures that have influenced the shaping of their geographical location. Such learning might instil a deeper sense of personal identity and belonging for the learner and allow for assumptions to be challenged and new perspectives to be explored (Ministry of Education, 2018).
It is this learning that excites me as a teacher. I see it as developing critical consciousness within a school and surrounding community. However, I also have a passion for Digital Technologies and the enhanced opportunities these provide regarding Learning Design Skills like innovation/problem-solving, collaboration and learner agency.

The two areas can appear to be in opposition to one another. There is a general acceptance that environmental education is best supported through direct sensory experience with the outside environment. Whereas, Digital Technologies are the perceived enemy with screen-based media exerting power and control over body and mind, and causing environmental destruction through their means of production.

Recently, I read a paper that got me wondering about my ‘internal head battle’ in a different way. Rather than viewing these two tensions in opposition, I am thinking about holding the tensions together in the development of a critical and pragmatic stance towards digital technology in place conscious environmental education. Part of Greenwood & Hougham’s (2015) paper takes an ‘adaptation and mitigation’ approach to technology in environmental learning and offers critical conceptual guidelines for policy and practice.

When analysing the concepts of adaptation and mitigation, both are intertwined with one another, as adaptation looks to develop strategies to deal with present moment changes, while mitigation looks to prevent or delay catastrophic effects in the future.

Adaptation strategies
Greenwood & Hougham (2015) state that it is common sense for educators to take an adaptation stance towards the use of new devices, especially when making the most of the inevitable relationship with digital technologies. They acknowledge learner-centred pedagogy and digital trails as part of this process and the potential of using digital technologies to enhance this process further.

Learner Agency
Putting Place Based Education and Digital Technologies aside, there is the acknowledgement that contemporary education has to overcome the separation between students’ personal experiences, subjectivities and interests, and that of school environments rooted in traditional learning methods. As Dewey informed us, ‘learners need to be met where they are’ (Greenwood & Hougham, 2015). It means as educators we embrace an online and digitally mediated world, our learners’ world. We need to assess what students already understand about digital technologies and adapt by integrating this knowledge into curriculum and pedagogy to empower students further in their learning.

Digital Trails
Greenwood and Hougham (2015) go on to discuss how digital technologies can influence the stories, movements, and legacies of plants, animals and our shared environment. They acknowledge the decades of scientific inquiry and data collection through the use of digital tools like monitoring equipment, mapping technologies and electronic surveys that have created digital trails of information about our changing environment. They do not discredit the importance of the sensory experience of the environment or the place-conscious environmental education that comes from these explorations, but instead they look at the various other forms of digital technologies and media tools which can influence pedagogical potential to support today’s digitally literate learners.

The digital technologies and media tools currently influencing Place Based Education which can be considered when looking to adapt place-conscious pedagogy are:

  • Geographic Information Systems creating citizen science opportunities
  • Environmental Monitoring Projects providing uploading of information e.g. plants, and access to a network of information creating problem-based learning and student-driven inquiry
  • Digital Storytelling – film-making and blogging to communicate
  • Virtual Worlds/ Game-Based Learning to recreate place-based learning and support knowledge acquisition
  • Internet/Virtual and Augmented Reality – bridging distant places and forming relationships between them
  • Mobile Technology/Social Media to influence direct action and movements like climate change rallies or community beach clean-ups.

Greenwood and Hougham (2015) do not shy away from a critical analysis of how digital technologies impact people, place and planet negatively and discuss the importance for educators to approach contexts with humility and critical efforts to discover who does and does not get to speak: “An environmental education that seeks multiple perspectives and purposefully looks for competing stories of places could also be a powerful way to nurture understanding of the inherent contestation in all places, near and far” (p.111). While digital technologies can enhance place-conscious environmental learning, these same innovations can have severe consequences depending on the human condition and which direction a person’s moral compass points in. It is vital as educators that we incorporate this consciousness into our pedagogy and practice, and explicitly teach it.

Mitigation strategies
In Greenwood and Hougham (2015) work on mitigation strategies they discuss two approaches which can be used to reduce the reliance on tools and technologies to open opportunities for unmediated (undigitized) experience, which can create new relationships with technology: technofasting and slow pedagogy.

Any addiction develops a patterned way of experiencing the world. Unlike trying to beat an addiction, technofasting isn’t ridding oneself of the addiction, but instead developing periods of abstinence in order to achieve a benefit. By abstaining from technology we can limit its negative effects and become open to other ways of sensing, being, knowing and communicating. “Like fasting from food, the point of fasting from technology is not never to eat (or use technology) again, but to develop a new relationship to food (technology) and to one’s body” (p.104). By cultivating this relationship we create an opportunity to step back and assess the ways we interact with technology, and what these impacts are and could be on people, place and the planet.

Slow pedagogy
Greenwood and Hougham (2015) acknowledge Gruenewald’s (2005) work on strengthening a professionalized culture of accountability. There is a current pattern that educators are in regarding a fast paced process to meet predetermined outcomes prescribed by this professional culture. Gruenewald (2005) discusses a shift from individual achievement as a sole focus of assessment to a broader view of the institution of school and wider community. Instead of focusing and judging student and teacher performance, teachers take into account and focus on the larger contexts of where learning takes place, creating a shift in responsibility where relevant and meaningful learning encompasses the community.

Greenwood and Hougham conclude their discussion on mitigation strategies with a powerful quote from Chet Bowers: “We cannot totally eliminate our reliance upon technology once it has become part of the society’s infrastructure, just as we cannot totally eliminate our reliance on the industrial approach to production and consumption. The challenge is in reducing our reliance in those areas where the technology undermine the self-sufficiency of individuals and communities, and where it has a destructive impact on the environment” (2015, p.105). By being critically conscious of how we are engaging with technology we are able to open ourselves to other ways of being, knowing and communicating in the world.

Unlike Anakin Skywalker who ultimately succumbs to the Dark Side in the Star Wars movies, allowing his two forces to stay in competition with one another, because of what I’ve discovered from my reading, I’ve learned to accept the tensions between Place Based Education and Digital Technologies. I remain critically aware of these tensions as I utilise this reading and continue to find ways to unify them further to complement and enhance student learning though my teaching practice.


Greenwood, D., & Hougham, J. (2015). Mitigation and adaptation: Critical perspectives toward digital technologies in place-conscious environmental education. Policy Futures in Education, 13(1), 97-116.

Gruenewald, D. (2005). Accountability and Collaboration: Institutional Barriers and Strategic Pathways for Place-based Education. Ethics, Place and Environment, 8(3), 261-283.

Ministry of Education. (2018). Māori History. Retrieved from http://maorihistory.tki.org.nz/en/programme-design/place-based-education/


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s