Being in nature is restorative. But when the natural world is less available to us, might it be possible to access the benefits of nature online? This is a story about a trip across the Bass Strait, nature and wellness – and some of the latest web technologies and how we can use them in learning and teaching.
Our sense of wellbeing has taken a big hit over the last 18 months. Lockdowns, isolation, the see-saw of pandemic numbers and Zoom fatigue have all left their mark.
And especially for young people.
According to UNICEF Australia, only more than half of 13–17 year-olds in Australia rated their ability to cope with the pandemic as ‘good’. Slightly over one third reported that COVID-19 had negatively affected their levels of stress and anxiety. A quarter said that their level of hope had been adversely affected by the pandemic.
These numbers could be a lot worse, but they are concerning. As a result, there has been a growing push to support young people’s psychological wellbeing.
In Victoria, Australia, the state government has allocated $277 million to deliver a comprehensive range of reforms to address student health, mental health and wellbeing, including $218 million for a School Mental Health Fund to support schools in implementing mental health and wellbeing programs.
We have also seen a dramatic increase in the range of digital resources to promote wellbeing — mindfulness, meditation, yoga, healthy eating —and everything in between. Perhaps the most successful and well-known is Headspace, the meditation app with millions of users in more than 190 countries.
Early in the pandemic, HaileyburyX published a series of ‘little handbooks’ called LEVELUP!, which aimed to help students get to grips with the challenges of online learning, building resilience and developing a growth mindset. These were experiments in talking about these issues in a student-centred way, in language they are familiar with. The LEVELUP! handbooks have been downloaded thousands of times.
Now we’re excited to support our students and try another experiment as we publish 19 Days at sea in the Bass Strait.
It’s an online meditation intended for K12 students, based on the experience of Haileybury teacher Tamsin Vinick, who completed a 19-day sea crossing of the Bass Strait from little Musscleroe Bay in Tasmania to Port Welshpool in Victoria.
Aside from contributing to our students’ wellbeing, we are interested in two things: if is it possible to access the benefits of being immersed in nature through an online experience, and if there are innovative ways to deliver that experience that can be extended to other learning experiences.
As we’ll discuss later, 19 Days uses Google Web Stories to structure a visual narrative experience combined with Amazon Polly, a text to speech system that produces synthetic speech. 19 Days uses them to present a meditative exploration of the five elements — sky, air, fire, water and earth — by sharing aspects of Tamsin’s journey.
There’s no doubt our relationship with nature is metaphysical. It tempts and allows us to question and search for the truth and our version of reality.
As Michael Bonnet, a researcher looking at holistic educational strategies and learners’ relationship with the natural world, says
“The highly anthropocentric motives embedded in modernist humanism that prevail, and that view nature as essentially a material resource ultimately comprehended through natural (including ecological) science narratives, has led to important aspects of nature becoming invisible.”
Bonnet suggests that nature is transcendent essentially because it’s mysterious, something often neglected in our thinking about and experience of nature. He says:
“Clearly, indigenous knowledge — the kind of knowledge gained by intimate living with nature — is heavily discounted in such a view, and the abstraction and idealization set in train leads to a stance that readily transmutes into supposing that nature is a human construction — a product of our categories, theories, narratives, and texts.”
When our relationship with nature — in many countries and for many people — is fragile and distant, exploring alternative ways to access being in nature and its transcendence and mystery seems worthwhile. As Edward O. Wilson argues, our natural affinity for life — what he calls biophilia — is the very essence of humanity and binds us to all other living species.
Australian Geographic, amongst many other organisations, are trying to find ways to bring these benefits through online experiences of nature.
They cite a meta-analysis of 32 studies that shows that virtual contact with nature improves emotional wellbeing, even if that contact is brief.
One study explored the effects of viewing online nature scenes on promoting recovery from ostracism. The results show that participants experiencing social exclusion and who viewed nature photos subsequently reported significantly lower levels of social pain and higher levels of self-esteem. Another study investigated how natural sounds — acoustic ecology and nature-based sonic therapy — promote psychological and physical healing.
There are now many natural world experiences online.
These include the VR-based Oculus Go Nature Treks VR and the Lights Over Lapland experience that starts with a morning at the ICEHOTEL followed by a journey northwest towards the Arctic birch forest, ending in Abisko National Park.
Or take a look at The Guardian’s Wilderness: an immersive 360° journey into Patagonia, a virtual tour of the Los Glaciares national park.
These experiences work because they provide restorativeness — tapping into deep roots of wellbeing and breaking our predominantly urban everyday life routine.
Our small contribution is 19 Days at sea in the Bass Strait.
Haileybury teacher Tamsin Visick travelled for 19 days and over 60 hours on the water for 370km, facing winds of up to 30 knots, breaking sea and two to three-metre ocean swells, surf landings and high winds.
“The essence of this expedition was spiritual. It drew me to spirit and nature. It guided, nurtured, challenged and made me question my version of reality. This experience was truly metaphysical as it led me to understand, promote and develop the relationship I have with nature.” — Tamsin Visick.
19 Days tries to convey some of this experience.
It is a series of images accompanied by an audio meditation that encourages the viewer to become more grounded in the elements — sky, air, water, earth and fire.
You can view a short excerpt above as a video, and the entire Web Story with its guided meditation, which lasts around 15 minutes, is available at:
It’s best viewed on a mobile device in portrait mode with your headphones on but can equally be experienced in a browser window on a desktop, tablet or laptop.
We built 19 Days using Google Web Stories.
Web Stories is a web-based version of the popular stories format that you’ll be familiar with from Instagram and other social sites. It blends video, audio, images, animation and text to create a dynamic experience. The stories format first appeared on Snapchat in 2017.
The idea is to provide a user-driven experience — exploring content at your own pace, or with minimal automation, by tapping or swiping from one piece of content to the next, supported by a simple narrative arc.
Stories are now a feature of lots of platforms, and since Google Web Stories arrived, there are now many tools available to build Web Stories, such as MakeStories, which we used to make 19 Days.
Unlike social app-based stories, creators of Web Stories own their content (as opposed to it being embedded in a social platform). As Google say, “the goal with Web Stories is to enable publishers and creators to easily build and take full ownership of their content.” There are now over 20 million Web Stories online, with 100,000 new stories being added daily.
Under the hood, Web Stories is based on AMP or Accelerated Mobile Pages. Google launched AMP because they recognised that everything should be mobile-first as people’s go-to platform is mobile, whether at work or home, and mobile internet usage has surpassed desktop usage all over the globe. More than 1.5 billion AMP pages have been created.
Without the computing power available in desktop computers, whatever we look at on our mobiles needs to be fast, which is what AMP does – ensuring that mobile webpages operate at optimal speed.
The whole idea is to make everything as fast as possible. For example, the tech news site Gizmodo say AMP has helped make their mobile pages three times quicker than their regular mobile website.
AMP also provides the opportunity for much more functionality to be embedded in stories — such as quizzes, polls and immersive 360-degree images or videos that use a mobile device’s gyroscope.
You can learn about some of the ways that AMP works in this video.
There are lots of ways to create learning content — almost, one might observe, too many.
In the face of the onslaught of edtech, it’s tempting to retreat to the familiar — usually, an LMS integrated into schools’ suite of software resources.
But there are a few reasons to believe that Web Stories might be an excellent choice for creating more engaging and compelling learning experiences.
The first is speed.
Web Stories are super fast. In an age when the attention span of a human has dropped from 12 to 8 seconds, students’ (and everyone’s) expectations of how quickly things should happen are raised. For students brought up with Insta and Snapchat on a mobile device, a slow loading LMS page can be incredibly frustrating. No matter how great the content, if students are frustrated before they get to it, it’s less likely to result in effective learning outcomes. Even though 5G is approaching 1000 Mbps download speeds, mobile browsers need highly efficient and optimised web pages.
The second is the quality of the experience.
While not everyone can approach the polish of CNN’s Antarctic Web Story above, the format is simple, as are the creation tools. The availability of high-quality image, video and audio resources, along with well-designed templates, makes creating polished Web Stories relatively easy. And — unless you want to get your hands dirty with complex components such as scrollbound animations, parallax effects and transitions — there’s not a line of code in sight (and even then, comprehensive documentation is available).
Of course, the best Web Stories will have ultra-polished graphics, audio, video and interactive effects. Even if they have well-resourced digital learning support, many schools may struggle to produce high-quality Web Stories.
But tools like Newsroom AI provide lots of support. Like MakeStories, Newsroom AI is a SaaS platform that, amongst other things, integrates with Getty Images, allows teams to work together on stories and also allows you to record webcams directly into a story.
You can see an example of a Newsroom AI Web Story about HaileyburyX below. It was incredibly fast to produce and includes animation, images, video, outbound links and an interactive poll.
Because they are short, Web Stories foreground issues of media, narrative and design that many learning experiences lack due to an absence of guardrails in the software platforms used to create them. Minimalist, elegant design and emotional resonance can be hard to achieve with some of the tools that educators routinely use.
Finally, because web stories are tied into Google’s search ecosystem, they are much more easily findable.
Unlike social app-based stories, Web Stories are available on the open web without any restrictions. Anyone with a device connected to the internet can view Web Stories: you don’t need to be signed in to an app, the Web Stories you create don’t expire, and they can be shared on any platform by embedding or linking to them. Using MakeStories, we created 19 Days onboard our WordPress site where the story lives with its own URL.
AMP-enabled pages will appear above paid ads in search results, and faster loading pages and mobile responsiveness are typically ranked higher in search engine algorithms. They appear in Google Discover, Google Search and Google Images.
While this might not matter much of the time, being found becomes critical for schools that want to serve global online markets. If students are choosing between competing online offers, then speed, user experience and surfacing in search may be the difference between having a student sign up or click elsewhere — and the difference between a learning experience being effective, or not, when delivered to the mobile device that students would undoubtedly prefer to use.
19 Days is about two things: delivering a restorative wellbeing experience online and doing that using emerging technology. Hopefully, these two things collide to create more engaging and effective learning experiences.
As we experiment with Web Stories — and with more sophisticated uses of text-to-speech systems like Amazon Polly, conversational AI tools like Google Dialogflow or the Soul Machines digital people AI software that is used in our HaileyburyX AI platform of microcourses — we will add more features to our stories such as interactive visual, audio and interactive elements, geolocation and dynamic content.
We used Amazon Polly to create the spoken meditation in 19 Days. This was because firstly, we wanted to make the workflow easier to manage (the synthetic speech can be continually revised, downloaded and embedded); and secondly, because we can change languages and voices easily – and even alter pronunciation, volume, pitch, speaking rate using SSML (Speech Synthesis Markup Language). We’ve only just scratched the surface of what Amazon Polly can do — an education example might be sending text created by students to Amazon Polly’s API and returning the audio as a stream that can be played inside an application, or as a podcast, creating some intriguing opportunities for hearing student voices.
Some other interesting technologies allow for richer media interactions that can be added to the mix, too — for example, Odyssey.js, an open-source tool for journalists, designers and developers to create interactive stories. You can see the Odyssey format used on the ABC News Lab to create highly visual stories like the one below.
Like Web Stories, Odyssey.js lets users build interactive stories using text, images, videos, and maps without coding skills. Although its primary use has been for journalism, it’s easy to see how it could be used to create learning experiences, especially in subjects where visualisation of data would be helpful. Odyssey was built by CartoDB, a company that provides animated maps and data journalism visualisations.
Can everything can be delivered in a Web Stories format? Of course not.
But it’s these kinds of technologies — built on modern codebases, part of an ecosystem that encompasses modern interactive online content, designed with customer experience in mind, taking advantage of the technologies we use every day, mobile-first and incredibly well-thought through — that present some of the most exciting opportunities for technology in learning and teaching.
Can the benefits of nature be delivered online – and can this approach be used in learning and teaching more broadly?
19 Days, and what we build next, will help us find out.