Teaching about the sea through digital technology
More than 70% of the Earth's surface is covered by the ocean. Despite this, the public has little knowledge about the sea. Marine biologist and education researcher Géraldine Fauville wants to change that. Using digital technology and virtual reality, she is developing new ways of teaching marine science.
Géraldine Fauville has a vision of how children and adults in the future can learn more about marine life and its impact on our climate. Using Virtual Reality (VR) headset, students will be able to swim in an ordinary pool, but experience it as if they were in the depths of the ocean while being able to communicate with each other.
“It would be great to be able to give students the opportunity to explore underwater environments together, to interact as a group while being present in an underwater environment," says Géraldine Fauville.
In principle, this is already possible. VR technology has developed rapidly. Today's VR headsets are far more comfortable than they were just a few years ago and the software is evolving rapidly. Géraldine and her research colleagues have already tested the technology in Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab on the West Coast of the United States.
A fascinating environment beneath the sea surface
For as long as she can remember, Géraldine has been fascinated by what lies beneath the surface of the sea. She grew up in Belgium, which although it has a shoreline, that coast is, as Géraldine puts it, mostly "one long sandy beach".
“It's not an ideal place for someone who is more interested in life below the surface," Géraldine notes.
While most of us flock the shore for its sandy beaches, Géraldine instead sought a deeper knowledge of the sea. Even as a child, she read all the books about the sea she could find in the library and scoured the TV schedules in search of programmes about the sea.
“I have always been attracted by the beauty of the sea. That something so distant and out of sight from us is so beautiful and at the same time has so many unexpected and strange life forms. Learning about the sea is like reading science fiction”.
From marine biology to educational research
Géraldine trained as a marine biologist in Belgium and then moved to Sweden to work at Kristineberg Marine Research Station, which is part of the University of Gothenburg. There, she managed a collaborative project with Stanford University in which pupils in each country learned about the ocean with the help of digital technology. However, the research team lacked experience in educational research and Géraldine contacted several researchers from the Department of Education, Communication and Learning. Åsa Mäkitalo, professor of education and then research director of a research environment at the University of Gothenburg focusing on digitisation and learning, accepted the challenge and invited Géraldine to join her.
“At the first meeting, I had no idea what they were talking about. Educational research was new to me. But I was learning.”
Géraldine became a PhD student in Education and wrote as her thesis Digital technologies as support for learning about the marine environment: Steps toward ocean literacy. In it, she explored how virtual presentations and digital communication can help in teaching about the ocean.
Pandemic kicked off research on video conferencing
Subsequently, a Wallenberg Fellowship gave her a two-year postdoctoral position at Stanford University to study how VR can be used to teaching students about the sea. But just as students were about to try out the technology, the pandemic struck. A frustrated research team suddenly found themselves sitting at home in hour-long meetings on Zoom instead of conducting research with pupils.
“We were not allowed in the lab and had to come up with alternatives. We spent most of our time in Zoom meetings and ended up discussing how we felt about it and especially about the "Zoom fatigue" that we and many others were experiencing.”
The research team launched a study on the impact of video conferencing. They identified reasons why we experience Zoom fatigue and found that women are affected to a greater extent. The study was the first of its kind and led to hundreds of articles across the world in everything from the New York Times to local newspapers.
“It was the first time I experienced so much media interest in my research. It was interesting to be interviewed by so many different journalists and to understand how to answer in order to make yourself understood while avoiding questions outside of the scope of our research.”
Knowledge needs to be translated into action
The research team is currently working on its third major study on video meetings. But despite the attention surrounding that research, knowledge of the sea is the main focus of Géraldine's research. She has recently been awarded funding from the Swedish Research Council for a four-year project on how VR can contribute to increased knowledge of the importance of the sea for a sustainable environment. In this project, the researchers will test different ways of using VR in education, and it will be carried out in different settings such in schools or in museums.
A key question, of course, is what knowledge of the sea do students take away with them. Géraldine uses the concept of ocean literacy, which includes three aspects of awareness of the sea:
- Knowledge about the marine environment
- The ability to have a discussion about the sea and its importance for the environment
- The ability to make informed decisions in one’s everyday life and understand their consequences for the sea.
“Knowledge of the sea is not the final goal. This knowledge needs to translate into pro-environmental actions for the marine environment. That is my goal.”
The importance of the sea for the climate
The importance of the sea to the environment and climate is enormous. On the one hand, the sea is affected by climate change and environmental degradation through increased temperature, and acidification, among other things. On the other hand, the sea plays a major role in mitigating climate change through its ability to absorb carbon dioxide.
“The aim is to change people's actions and behaviour," says Géraldine, continuing to explore how VR could be used to raise awareness of the sea.
“Imagine if we could simulate the impact of mankind's actions, that we could use VR to let children and adults experience how the ocean will look like in the future if we continue to live as we do now. Or what the ocean would look like in the future if we drastically reduce our carbon emissions. That would be a great way of utilizing the power of digital technology.”
Academic title: Associate senior lecturer in pedagogy at the Department of Education, Communication and Learning (IPKL).
Research interests: Digital technology in learning about the sea, and the impact of video conferences on people.
Background: Marine biologist.
Thesis: Digital technologies as support for learning about the marine environment. Steps toward ocean literacy (University of Gothenburg 2018).
Books: Exemplary Practices in Marine Science Education (Springer 2018).
Dream project: “It would be great to be able to give students the opportunity to explore underwater environments together, to interact as a group while being present in an underwater environment."