Adventure learning – Changing the world of online teaching and learning

How do we engage students while assisting them to learn in a way that the learning ‘sticks’ and is transferable to other areas of their lives? This is a concern that educators have grappled with since at least the time of John Dewey, who emphasised the importance of spurring a continuum of learning with a focus on collaboration and creative problem-solving.

As we think about online learning, this challenge deepens. Technology may open new worlds to learners but does not, by itself, inspire critical or creative thinking, or deep and engaged learning.

In fact, many online learning environments use generic or stock media and text to feed content to learners, are focused largely on cognitive elements, and offer little to no venue for learners to interact with others or to share their own questions, stories and discoveries.

Thus, the opportunity to generate a more meaningful, personalised and engaging experience for the learner is rarely achieved.

Adventure learning

Adventure learning, or AL, is a form of hybrid education that is changing the online teaching and learning experience.

This model – first defined by myself in 2006 after a successful online education programme that tied student learning and teacher instruction to a six-month expedition across the Canadian Arctic – emphasises real-world, authentic learning while blending an online learning environment and multiple technologies with teacher-led classroom activities.

Grounded in a strong curriculum and pedagogy, as well as an exciting adventure-based narrative, AL focuses on transformative, multidisciplinary learning experiences. It has been shown to have a positive influence on student engagement, motivation and learning outcomes, and to be a successful model for teaching and learning across the curriculum.

The principles, practice and community models for AL

Within an AL programme, a team undertakes an expedition or exploration centred on a specific location and topic, for example, climate change in the Arctic. The team develops an inquiry-based curriculum tied to that issue and location, and then travels into the field to capture authentic data and narratives that are synched with the predesigned curriculum.

The field experiences, data, media assets and observations of the team are shared online in an environment in which learners are able actively to participate and collaborate with the explorers, their peers around the world, their teacher(s) and a variety of field experts.

These online collaboration and interaction opportunities allow learners to form connections between what is happening in the real world and their studies.

Learners complete activities related to those real-world events, engage in online and face-to-face discussions around them, and present potential solutions to issues that are raised, all the while following along with the adventures of the team of explorers who are out in the field.

In AL, field expeditions and authentic narrative play a key role, and help communicate content to learners in the form of a compelling real-world story. These assets also bring excitement, risk and challenge to the learning and serve as journeys of discovery that are synched with the curriculum that has been written for the AL project.

Technology also plays a heavy role in adventure learning, both in the project team’s delivery of an AL programme, and in a classroom’s and learner’s engagement with an AL project.

AL teams typically make use of laptops, handheld devices, GPS units, cameras and satellite technologies, among other devices, to collect and share data and narratives from the field.

Participating classrooms employ desktop and laptop systems to access the AL online learning environment, and multiple technologies to engage in online interactions with the project team and outside field experts, as well as to complete and share project-related activities and collaborate with other learners and classrooms online.

AL programmes, advances

The first AL programme supported by theory and research was the GoNorth! Adventure Learning Series of circumpolar Arctic dogsledding expeditions. This programme focused on climate change, sustainability, Arctic culture and traditional knowledge and engaged millions of learners worldwide.

AL delivers real-world field experiences tied to an interdisciplinary curriculum to students within an online learning environment.

Another prominent AL project is Earthducation. The Earthducation project is examining intersections between education and sustainability in communities around the world. The overarching goal is to consider how education might influence a healthier future for our planet.

As such, the Earthducation team is travelling to climate hotspots on all seven continents over a four-year period. While in the field, the team is documenting local culture, education and environmental issues.

The team members are also collecting video narratives from diverse individuals discussing individual and cultural beliefs about education and sustainability, and how education impacts on sustainable development in that region of the world.

While in the field, the team is posting photos, videos and field reports online, and sharing these assets on a website that includes background information about the communities and environmental issues being explored, along with associated educational resources and classroom activities for teachers.

There is also an online area for teachers, students and the general public to expand upon and discuss sustainability and education issues via self-posted videos in an EnviroNetwork.

Alhough the best-known AL programmes, including GoNorth! and Earthducation, have involved large-scale expeditions and remote locales, it’s important to emphasise that AL programmes can just as effectively focus on ordinary, everyday adventures with people and issues familiar to us.

User-driven adventure learning environments (UDALE) are a new advancement in AL, in which learners create and share self-initiated AL projects online. My colleague Dr Charles Miller, PhD student Jeni Henrickson and I work at the Learning Technologies Media Lab (LTML), creating such environments.

These environments allow learners to act as teachers and facilitators, strengthening their knowledge of a subject and a geographical area as they communicate with others about it. They also allow learners to practise their social networking skills as they interact with others online around a topic that is important to them.

A prime example of a UDALE is Explore15, a unique, custom-designed environment from LTML that scaffolds learners through the process of creating an AL project and sharing it online.

There is also an AL tool in development in the form of a mobile learning app designed to facilitate the collection of media artefacts, field notes and geographical data in an organised manner tied to the specific issue and location being explored by an AL team, and to then be able easily to share those assets among team members, within both the mobile environment and an online learning environment.

There is an existing AL app as well, titled simply “Adventure Learning”, that introduces the AL model along with key AL projects and publications (the app is available for free through Apple’s App Store).

When done well, online learning takes into consideration not only content, content delivery and learning outcomes, but also learner experience.

In order truly to engage learners in content and facilitate transformative, deep learning, designers need both to consider the aesthetics of their online learning environment and to focus on creating rich, authentic, participatory learning experiences through a thoughtful combination of pedagogy, technology and real-world interaction.

The AL model can serve as a model for creating online learning environments that do just that.

* Aaron H Doering is associate professor of learning technologies and co-director of LT Media Lab at the University of Minnesota. He is giving the keynote address at the forthcoming EDULEARN conference in Barcelona from 2-4 July. His blog is here.