Environmental education is difficult because of a disconnect between theory and experience. People cannot see the environment changing as a consequence of their own actions, and it is difficult to imagine that seemingly innocent habits can cause such extreme outcomes.
However, if environmental issues were perceived as psychologically closer or brought to observers directly, perhaps people could learn about the issues and be encouraged to take pro-environmental action. Such is the hypothesis tested in a recent article reporting on fours studies testing the efficacy of immersive virtual reality as an education medium for teaching the consequences of climate change, particularly ocean acidification.
As the name indicates, “virtual reality” enables the production of artifical experiences, which are perceived and processed as if they were real. This is all the more true with “immersive” VR, characterized by the use of a head mounted display enhanced with sensory feedback giving the virtual world a genuine feel.
Over the four studies, 270 participants (high school and college students) experienced an immersive underwater world designed to show the process and effects of rising sea water acidity--a decrease in pH due to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels that has dramatic effects on ocean ecosystems. As they were witnessing some these ill-effects such as the decline in fish populations and invasion of algae, which were accelerated to represent a period of 40 years, participants listened to a narration and were finally told that there was now little time to act.
In all four investigations, participants demonstrated gains in both knowledge and inquisitiveness about climate science, as well as more positive attitudes towards the environment (measured by the New Ecological Paradigm Scale).
What is more, researchers probed the participants “sense of presence” and found that the more people reported being attuned to the virtual environment, the more they learned and reported environmental concerns. This confirms the idea that experiential learning helps process information at a deeper level, thus favoring data retention and leading to authentic learning, i.e., changes in beliefs and attitudes.
Interestingly, the studies could not confirm the benefits of embodied cognition, i.e., the notion that people learn by performing actions that are relevant to a specific context. When it comes to learning, being active is not as important than “being there”.
Reference: Markowitz, Laha, Perone, Pea, and Bailenson (2018), “Immersive virtual reality field trips facilitate learning about climate change”, Frontiers in Psychology.