In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and will understand only what we are taught.’ ~ Baba Didum

I don’t know about your school, but organising excursions (field trips) are becoming anxiety inducing experiences. Permission forms (electronic  and/or paper), Risk assessments and medical authorisations can really turn one off the prospect of initiating any rich, immersive learning experience for students- quite frankly, is it worth the effort? And these are just domestic excursions – trips to the local museum or park. I can’t imagine how many forests need to be felled in order to produce the paperwork for international travel?

As educators our first consideration on embarking on an excursion is relevance. Our recent Year 7 Geography unit on the Grasslands of Africa is an interesting case in point. How engaging and meaningful can a study of this environment be to students? Traditional methods – researching from websites, watching Nature documentaries and writing information reports about endangered species are all very well, but in those instances the student is framed as an outsider rearranging existing information into new patterns that may or may not be particularly engaging.

Some key questions arose in our planning.

  • What involvement or emotional engagement do students have with issues associated with these fragile environments?
  • What impact do students have upon that which is studied?
  • Of what use are out student efforts to the communities who live on the Savannahs?

The solution was easy: to make it relevant and meaningful and useful we should clearly go to Africa.

This is where Quest Atlantis and OPEN (One Planet Education Network) saved us on the immunisations, language lessons, packing, airplane food, the risk of DVT and, of course, paperwork. The immersive ‘playable fiction’ offered by QA sees the students framed as advisors to the Tanzanian government who were asked to interview the stakeholders and make recommendation for how funding should be allocated – should it go to Ecotourism or Agriculture. What’s ingenious is the way in which the students can then see the consequences of their decisions on the environment, endangered species and the people.

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Screenshot of Mkomazi Game Reserve

Clearly, this addressed our key questions.

  1. By having the various points of view on how the Game Reserve should best be managed through ’embodying’ them as characters with distinct roles and mannerism, students were able to see more than just the facts and figures- they connected emotionally to the situation. Discussions with students were peppered with emotionally tinged, socially aware statements like ‘But this man has to poach animals to feed their families. He’s run out of alternatives – this is all he has left. Are we going to judge him for wanting to keep his family alive?’
  2. Through being encouraged to make a decision between two extremes, students were able to define the essential role of compromise in complex situations where multiple perspectives are equally valid.When one student imagined that ecotourism was the best option for the Reserve and later saw the results – increased pollution and urban development- she commented – ‘Sometimes you do something with the best of intentions but it just doesn’t work out.’
  3. Of what use is this engagement? Well, the game characters are the ones who benefit or suffer as a result of the students’ actions though it can be argued that the data gathered on student engagement is of value to educators who are always seeking more motivating learning opportunities for their students.

Our ten week adventure in a virtual Tanzanian Game Reserve proved to be an enormous success with gains not only Geography skills but in opening students minds and hearts to some significant global issues such as threats to endangered species, the need for compromise and the differing perspectives on the value of ecosystems. What’s more, we even brought back some souvenirs – screenshots though frankly, when Quest Atlantis manages to discover how to allow students to experience African food, I may consider moving to Tanzania permanently. Virtually, of course.