Technology and outdoor education

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This presentation explores philosophical tension about the role of technology in outdoor education. On one hand, modern outdoor educators is characterised by stripping participants of modern technology in order to encourage and facilitate "low technology" outdoor experiences. On the other hand, "high technologies" (such as digital photography, video, audio, gps and digital mapping, web 2.0 (blogs, wikis, etc.), pedometers, mood monitors, virtual environments, etc.) offer new experiential tools and learning opportunities. This presentation encourages further development of both low and high technology experiences in outdoor education.




These are some 2009 notes in development for future possible articles and presentations exploring the possible role and contribution of technology in outdoor education.


I would like to share a few ideas with you about possible experiential and educative roles for technologies in the theory and practices of outdoor education.

Personally, I have a particular affinity for both low technology experiences - whether its sleeping out in the open, barefoot, naked cross-country running, or long trails - but I also have a interest in experimenting with "high technology" and the outdoors, including sharing info and resources via the internet, digital photography, online mapping, and online social networks. I have also found myself trying wondering about the extremes of primitive living and high-tech living - and considering ways in which they might come together.

So, what I'd like to share and explore with you today are some ideas around low and high technology and its connections and disconnections with outdoor education, and paths that this might offer into the future.

What would take with you - and why?

Perhaps we might start with a little self-exploration. Imagine that you have a day off, with no commitments or obligations, and that are free to do whatever you like. And you decide to indulge in a day-trip, somewhere not too far away, but in a "place apart", somewhere outdoors. Where would go? And let's just say that you decide to only take 10 things with you. What 10 things would you take - and why? Jot down your list of items - don't think about too much, its not a test. And then share your destination and list of what you'd take and the reasons why with someone nearby. Remember, this isn't a survival exercise - its about designing for yourself a pleasurable, rewarding day somewhere in the great outdoors.

What is technology?

What I'd like to do next is to consider your day-trip kits in terms of the types of technology you've decided to take along. And in doing so, I'd also to explore a distinction I've been making between "low" and "high" technology. First though, let's consider what we mean by the notion of "technology".

Technology refers to an animal species' use of tools and crafts to alter their environments. From this perspective, a bird's nest and a beaver's dam are just as much technologies as is a human's lean-to. However, a skyscraper is arguably technology of another dimension because it requires more than a single human's raw effort with nature; it involves the use of machines (technology) to create technology, it requires social cooperation to capitalise on specific areas of expertise, and a skyscraper relies upon the transition of cultural heritage and knowledge over many generations in order to be built - it cannot be built from scratch. With this example, of the skyscraper, then we have an example of "high" technology, whereas a "lean-to" can be considered "low" technology.

So, let's consider what you decided to take on your day-trip, and see if we can allocate these examples to this distinction between "low" and "high" technology...

(ask for examples and add them until the point is clearly made e.g. even food might be considered "old food" and "new food" - would your great-grandmother recognise what you are taking as 'food'?)

It probably turns out that we are taking much more "high" technology along with us than we realise e.g., who ventures out in their moccasins made from an animal they hunted and killed? In fact, we may even struggle to find a single "low" technology item in many of our preferred kits. Would this have been true even one generation ago? Two generations ago? Three generations ago? Here's a rough hypothesis - go back about 10 generations (that's about 200-300 years) and most of the items would have been "low" technology - so on average, we've been trading one low tech item for a high tech per generation in recent times. However, the acceleration towards high tech has become more profound in recent generations.

The philosophical tension

At this point, I've been careful not to pass judgment about "low" or "high" technology. Use of high technology is, in many ways, the great defining characteristic of homo sapiens and its what distinguishes us as unique in comparison to other known species. Even though we share a remarkably close genetic relationship with other primates, such as chimpanzees, we differ radically in our culture. And it is our social culture which passes on the knowledge of previous generations and allows us to build on the shoulders of others, to live three times as long, and to spend our time experimenting with increasingly sophisticated technologies and ideas.

But we are also conscious deep down that there is something not quite right about our rapid cultural evolution into a high-tech, urban societies where we increasingly live in artificial environments, eat artificial food, and where virtual, technology-mediated experiences are becoming the norm, and so-called "real" life visceral experiences are increasingly rare.

Types of technology: Low vs. high

There are innumerable ways of typologising technology, but a basic distinction which comes in handy, particularly with regard to outdoor education, is between "low" and "high" technology, where low technology refers to direct uses of natural substances (e.g., a stick to prod a puddle) and high technology which refers to use of culturally-facilitated tools which cannot be readily crafted in an immediate way by an individual from natural sources (e.g., a Global Positioning System (GPS))

Although we can make a discrete distinction between "low" and "high", it is probably more richly understood as a continuum or a spectrum. For example, direction-finding using the sun and stars might be "low" tech, using a compass might be "medium" tech, and using a GPS might be "high" tech.

On one hand, outdoor education often involves living in relatively remote locations using relatively low technology; but on the other hand, there is a strong trend in outdoor education and particular in adventure recreation, towards using high tech tools, equipment, and communication systems. Thus, the relationship between outdoor education and technology is varied and, at times, not entirely comfortable one. There is a fairly common view, for example, that mobile phones are unwelcome on outdoor education programs (in order to shut participants off from outside communication and to focus participants on relationships and communication within the program), but high-tech outdoor gear is usually quite accepted (e.g., head torches, sleeping bags, back-packs because they are seen as aiding comfort and convenience). Each of the accepted and non-accepted items for an outdoor education experience can and probably should ignite significant philosophical tension and debate. e.g., should watches be allowed? Why or why not? And, on what basis are such decisions made? One framework for considering such questions is Dewey's theory of experience. Another framework to consider is the Adventure Education Program (Mortlock; Priest etc.). Without at least considering our technology orientation and choices within the context of such theories or frameworks, the priveleging of some technologies over others in the design and conduct of outdoor education seems to be based on local, personal, and organisational idiosynchracy and convenience, rather than to have reasoned pedagogical rationale.

Interestingly, in long, ambitious expeditions, such as Tim Severin's "The Brendan Voyage", it often turns out that low tech solutions survive better than high tech solutions. Even in everyday life, this can be observed. On a recent family camping trip, we found once our digital camera failed (and with no prospect of unaided repair), we simply returned to writing and drawing which was relatively fail-safe and reliable. Thus, whilst high tech seems to offer greater power and potential, its engineering turns out to often be far from perfect and the lack of amateurship renders the equipment useless, whereas one always has a chance to at least hand-fashion or jury-rig a low-tech solution to an encountered challenge. It is arguably the skill of surviving and thriving with low-tech equipment which is a key value of genuine outdoor education experiences. And where we are unable to fashion a solution, our final innnovation can be sheer determination and perservance to succeed anyway - or find an alternative path. There's no point in crying over spilt milk - or an unbootable high tech device.

Some examples of the coming together of technology and outdoor education

Centrally- vs. self-organised outdoor education

One of the "highest" forms of human technology is that of mass "organisation". Outdoor education, in countries such as UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, and many European countries has become "professionalised", with peak body qualifications often required by government regulation. In addition, the spectre of litigation has spiralled insurance costs and dampened organisational adventuresomeness. As a result, centrally organised outdoor education activities risk being both unduly expensive and yet surprisingly "dumbed-down". Yet, ironically, the person in the street is far more empowered to get out and tackle adventures on their own or in small, self-organised groups. Area-information is much more readily available via guidebooks and the internet, good quality gear is readily available, and various forms of transport and accommodation are available, largely thanks to the tourism industry, allowing people to readily seek destinations of their choice. Outdoor participation numbers remain relatively low, thus the great outdoors is arguably more available than ever.

Where some amount of central organisation is desirable, but avoiding the relative inflexibility and costly overheads of formally organised outdoor education, the common adventure model (or some adaptation of such) may be considered. This is basically the posting of a public notice somewhere (e.g., in a shop, hostel, or on the internet) of an intent to venture to location X and requesting others to join. When enough people of the desired mix are found, the trip unfolds. Generally, there is no designated leader as the group shares the responsibility.

On the one hand, formal outdoor education organisations can be seen as delivering the vast majority of outdoor education experiences, e.g., especially to schools (if the schools don't have their own formal program). On the other hand, if we count any time spent outdoors (such as walking or riding to and from school) as at least forming the everyday basis of what ultimately constitutes outdoor education, then the formal providers are rather minor in their scope and impact - if somewhat exotic in their limited offerings. If we were take the $500 (say) from a 5-day outdoor education trip, we could give each child a high-quality mountain bike or outfit them with tent, sleeping bag, and backpack, or send them on a bus-trip around the country with accommodation and low cost accommodation. The point I'm trying to make here is that we shouldn't necessarily assume that a formal outdoor education program is necessarily the best "bang for one's buck" as a developmental investment in outdoor and adventure-based educational experiences. Some healthy skepticism can also challenge the formal programs to self-examine their effectiveness and innovation.

Distributed, asynchronous learning

One way in which outdoor education might be fostered with the aid of the internet is for global participation in specific activities by individuals distributed around the world. Project Nature Connect, for example, uses this model. When enough people sign up for a course, it starts. Participants are given readings and information, then asked to undertake specific activites in their local area, then return and discuss with fellow participants around the world. A series of such occurrences forms the basic course model. The model has several advantages, e.g., low cost (little transport is needed), time flexible, diverse range of participants etc. that mark it as distinct from traditional outdoor education programs. It could be made even more open and completely free if such courses and their activities were collaboratively developed via open learning platforms, such as Wikiversity.

Guerilla gardening

Guerilla gardening involves covert cultivation of unused land for community and ecological good. It is seen as a form of non-violent, political action, to co-operate with and nurture the presence of nature in available spaces. There are a myriad of forms of guerilla gardening. Two basic types are the re-introduction of native species and the cultivation of edible plants. From an outdoor education perspective, this is a form of environmental education that can take place at home and in one's surrounds. It can be done covertly or with local permission. It is related to and can also involve removal of litter and environmental restoration and conversation. It can help connect local community members and build a sense of community ownership and pride in the local environment. More formal, similar programs include conservation volunteer programs.

Local, low-tech

In the current age/phase of global economic downturn and increasing awareness of the ecological impacts and cost of non-renewable energy travel in order to pursue exotic, far-flung adventures, many have turned to electronic gaming for their sense of adventure. Yet, it is amazing how much adventure can be had starting with a single step outside one's door, particular with a low-tech approach. For example, camping in one's own backyard offers an exciting, low-risk, low-cost activity for kids, families, and adults. Many families already have a BBQ set up for outdoor cooking and a pergola for outdoor eating. Some have hammocks for resting. Some have flat roofs which can be slept and which provide a great way to view the night sky, even in relatively urban areas. Even in relatively built-up areas, a walk to a local park is not too far away, and a walk or cycle to a larger park offers good exercise. The routes that can be taken can avoid main roads as much as possible and one can often take in the various private gardens that others have nurtured. Although we may not be able to grow as much of our food as might be ideal, we can seek to source food as much as possible from local origins, e.g., plan a trip to visit farm - buy from the local markets - and barter with neighbours who have a few fruit trees. One can buy or sew lettuce seeds and bring them up in pots in the window-sill etc. Even if nature is hard to find and bring into one's life, we can remember that we are ourselves are nature (although its easy to forget) and we can manifest nature with small acts of cooperation each day. A little bit of water. A little bit of dirt. A seed. And some care and patience.

Low or no technologies

We can have some fascinating outdoor adventures by replacing some of our "high" technologies with low or no technologies. Take for example footwear. By removing our high-tech footwear and then taking on an outdoor challenge, everything about an experience suddenly changes. How tough are one's feet? We become much more sensitive to the terrain, we slow down, we pay attention to the ground upon which we are walking. We take more care. We become more thankful and appreciative of softer places and intimately aware of the challenge of harder, harsher places. We become intimately aware of temperature and moisture. If we go barefoot over time, our feet become more accustomed, but our senses remain heightened. I've found barefoot, cross-country walking and running, even over relatively short distances, to be far more interesting than much longer distances covered faster with the aid of high-tech footwear. What else could switch for similar effects? e.g., leave the tent behind and sleep in the open? Take a candle instead of a torch? Go naked instead of wearing clothes? etc.

Mobile electronics

Of the vast array of mobile electronic gadgetry, what possible value and application might they have in outdoor education? What if we consider, on any average outdoor education, seriously experimenting with the introduction of them, and examining what happens? Here are some ideas/examples:

  • Audioplayer - An audioplayer could be used as an information source, e.g., with pre-recorded information about the history, geography, weather etc. of a local area. As an instructor I often felt somewhat inadequate with my level of knowledge about local flora and fauna, the night sky etc. Audioplayers are now cheaper than most bits of outdoor gear that are traditionally taken - and lighter than ever. Students could be issues with a rich audio (and possibly video) library of information about the local area and also about how to use equipment, engage in various activities etc. Traditionally, outdoor education has relied on one-off "instructor briefings" to convey "expert" knowledge, but this is no longer necessary.
  • Voice recording - Outdoor education has traditionally emphasised hand-written journals or diaries as a form of private self-reflection during outdoor education programs. But writing doesn't appeal to all participants and perhaps a wider range of options for recording self-reflections could be considered, including digital voice recorders (which are now part of many audio players) and video cameras.

Mobile phone networks

In many ways now when an average person contemplates adventuring through a 21st century landscape, one of the basic questions to be asked is whether or not to take a mobile phone and where the points of coverage are likely to be. When adventuring within mobile range (and when carrying a working mobile phone), an individual might be considered to be "on belay". In other words they might feel relatively free to experiment and test themselves, knowing that the consequences of many possible misadventures are minimised due to their connectibility to the mobile phone network. Venturing beyond the mobile-covered areas or choosing not to take mobile technology involves greater self-responsibility and independence, or the use of alternative technologies such as radios, satellite phones etc. if one wishes to have more reliable electronic communication.


Parkour or "free running" refers to fluid movement through a given space (such as an urbanscape). The typical norms for how to move through a space are largely ignored, with walls, for example, instead treated as places to be jumped over or from using gynmastics-type manoevres. It is not unlike cross-country running, but there is a dance-like quality to creative exploration and interaction with the physical environment. Sequences of movements may be taught, practiced, and perfected, with the basic skills of jumping, landing, and rolling being particular useful in many other contexts, and excellent fitness training, adventurous in nature, creative in spirit, requiring little equipment and, if done gradually and simply, requiring little expertise - anyone can do it anytime. Thus, parkour itself is low-tech, but interestingly it is often pursued in urban landscapes as a creative response to the dominant physical and cultural trends of urbanity. It can be thought of as pure and simple adventuresomeness pursued no matter, or almost in spite of, the harshness of urban environments. Much as one might marvel as a weed growing through a crack in the pavement, we can celebrate the human being who vaults a wall.


Experiential learning is common seen as an integral part of outdoor education. And is commonly understand that a critical part of experiential learning is the processing of experience, via reflection, in order to better understand the experiences and extract useful lessons. There are innumerable ways in which individuals and groups may engage in processing and reflecting upon experiences, and similarly there are many ways in which low and high technologies might be used to aid this. For example, taking photographs can help to provide visual markers (benchmarks or watersheds) and aids to remember and consider particular experiences which may otherwise largely fade from memory. The details in photographs help to remind of subtle nuances which occurred during an experience. Low tech equivalents include drawing and keeping a written diary.


It has often struck me as a great irony that within the context of outdoor eduction group culture, sharing is promoted, encouraged, and rewarded, but that many outdoor education organisations are notably protective of their area notes, activities, procedures, practices etc. Part of the reason perhaps has been the technical barriers to sharing, but such barriers are considerably lower, even arguably non-existent. What remains as the only significant barrier is the will to share, or the morality of openness. There is a false and old perception perhaps of organisational competition. Really, the only competition is the higher competition of moral good vs. moral deterioration.

By way of a single example, [http:/] was created in 2002 to openly share information about outdoor education. It attracts approximately 20,000 visitors per day for an average of 5 minutes each, equating to the equivalent of approximately 110 people 24/7 (full-time) participating in the site, year after year. This represents a larger collective human engagement than the vast majority of outdoor education schools or organisations. And it has simply arisen from one person sharing a bit of information with others. Imagine if a culture of genuine, open, global sharing was adopted more widely?


With the rising crescendo of the "culture of fear" and insurisation of "safety", the prevalence of solo activities and unaccompanied expeditions within the context of formally-organised outdoor education has dwindled. However, ironically, modern technologies make the pursuit of such activities far safer than ever before, e.g., many adventurous activities can be done alone, with the safety net of being within mobile phone network range. Online 2D and 3D mapping make surveying an area and route planning much easier and more efficient. GPS technology makes getting very lost somewhat less likely etc. So arguably now, more than ever before, people should be encouraged to learn about how they can become solo expeditioners and given confidence in designing and tackling their own adventures.

Spirit of adventure

The spirit of adventure seems to be about doing more with less - or at least of doing far more with our resources than is commonly done. Thus adventure requires both innovation and endurance. In this day and age we are at risk of unadventure - doing less with more. Outdoor education, and particularly low-tech, local outdoor education, offers arguably the most significant, society-wide opportunities for educative, accessible, day-to-day outdoor education.


Some images of possible interest to track down:

  • Naked running
  • Barefeet
  • Outdoor education groups
  • A person in the outdoors, with their equipment
  • Parkour

Gear list

To consider/discuss:

  • Compass / GPS
  • Footwear
  • Sleeping bag (vs. blankets/furs)
  • Utensils
  • Watch


See also

External links

Personal tools