Raising Deforestation Awareness Through Online Education; The Diffusion of Digital Education

Clabby, Henry, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Ibrahim, Ahmed, EN-Comp Science Dept, University of Virginia
Baritaud, Catherine, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Every year, humans destroy thousands of square miles of the Amazon Rainforest. Each lost tree further exacerbates the planet’s already dire climate emergency, as it represents a loss of carbon dioxide consumption, a release of greenhouse gases, and often an increase in gas producing livestock on the newly cleared land. Yet, most people remain unaware, or at least unconcerned, as deforestation rates have been increasing in recent years. The Amazon Aid Foundation plans to put pressure on the governments and companies responsible for the deforestation by raising awareness through multiple avenues, including online education for middle school students. The Foundation’s site initially suffered from numerous design flaws, so the technical project sought to fix them and prepare the site for launch. The loosely coupled STS research studied how digital education’s innovators can encourage widespread adoption of their devices, for the benefit of organizations like Amazon Aid as well as startups trying to revolutionize modern education.
After working with two capstone teams in earlier years, Amazon Aid’s communications specialist Ben Eppard presented this capstone team with the learning site’s first iteration. Users could log into the site, post their thoughts about the Amazon to a collaborative blog, and play through a long educational game to learn about the rainforest and its deforestation. Unfortunately, the initial designers failed to consider that using password protected login for students forced middle school teachers to request special administrative permission to use the site, which most teachers were unwilling to do. Also, the lack of navigational features in the learning game made it cumbersome to progress through as a class. Users could only view the content linearly, unable to return to previously completed tasks.
To solve these problems, the capstone team restructured the login process so that students could log in with codes distributed from a central teacher account, allowing them to track progress without needing password protected accounts of their own. Additionally, the team gave users the ability to click back and forth among any unlocked content, so that classes could easily view material simultaneously. These improvements, along with various other new features and bug fixes, left the Foundation with an easily implemented and intuitively navigated learning site. By primarily addressing the needs of teachers, the capstone team minimized obstacles to adoption.
Despite the Internet’s rapidly expanding reach and the ever increasing abilities of the machine learning technology commonly employed in the digital education industry, traditional educators continue to resist major digital innovations. The STS research examined this phenomenon and sought to determine how innovators could promote further adoption. Included in the study were academic papers on the potential disadvantages to digital education, as well as the assets it could offer, and the results of numerous early stage experiments with new screen-based learning models.
Researchers cited lower levels of reading comprehension when using screens as the primary reason to stick with traditional textbook and chalkboard-based learning, but, more importantly, digital education offers greatly increased personalization and worldwide online distribution at extremely low costs. Though, in schools that experimented with new digital methods and enjoyed these benefits, many teachers were forced to redesign curricula and learn new teaching styles without additional pay or time to do so. To solve this, the research concluded that innovators must primarily address the needs of teachers and other traditional educators, offering sufficient paid training, adequate transition time, and structuring material to best suit their goals. If teachers enjoy the innovations, they will recommend them to other educators, overcoming resistance to innovation through personal communication channels.
Failing to cater to teachers was the Amazon Aid Foundation’s fundamental flaw in designing their learning site, though they amended the error by reevaluating the importance of their various stakeholders. If innovators across the industry can do the same, the benefits of digital education could soon be fully enjoyed, leading to more effective schools, and better informed global citizens.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Diffusion of Innovation, Online Education, Digital Education, Educational Technology

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Computer Science
Technical Advisor: Ahmed Ibrahim
STS Advisor: Catherine Baritaud
Technical Team Members: Trevor Bedsaul, Ryan Coulter, Sammy Hecht, Dylan Peters, Teddy Vallar, and Rob Wallace

Issued Date: