Botanic Gardens Conservation International
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Technology for learning: friend or foe?

Volume 3 Number 2 - October 2006

Trevor Roach and Marisa Cohen

Marisa Cohen,  Assisi Herb Garden and Trevor Roach, National Botanic Gardens of Wales


We live in a technological age with devices on offer ranging from handheld computers and MP3’s to digital cameras, high definition televisions and mobile phones with internet access.  All the information you ever needed is available at the touch of a button.  

However, with our desire to instil a love of nature and educate the public about the need to live more sustainably, we need to consider whether botanic gardens should embrace technology.  Do we see ourselves as offering a haven from the outside world or should we use technology to our advantage?  What do you think?  We invited two BGCI members with differing views to discuss this controversial subject.  Their correspondence makes interesting reading and, we hope, will stimulate your thinking. 


Dear Marisa,

In case you picture me as a typical male with a love of technological toys, my original view on the use of technology in environmental education and in botanic gardens was in fact anti-technology.  My own conversion to the use of technology is based firmly on the rule that I only ever use it if it is in an authentic context and not being used just because the budget is big enough or a grant is available to shower technological gizmos on a particular programme.  So what is authentic use of technology in botanic garden education?

I believe that in our busy, often impersonalised lives, a botanic garden is a place of refuge as well as study. A garden liberally sprinkled with signs can conflict with this need to appreciate the plants and their setting. The search for the ‘wow factor’ or the big education message can sometimes override the more subtle need to create that space within us to develop awe and wonder, to nurture an environmental memory that will motivate us in our every day actions.
So, for example, the use of hand held computers and mobile phones can provide a situation where much of the clutter can be removed from gardens, freeing individuals and study groups to make their own choices as to how they wish to engage with the resources available to them.

At the National Botanic Garden of Wales we are investigating the use of hand held computers (PDA’s) for use in our Mediterranean Great Glasshouse. The PDA can detect where in the glasshouse a person is and display information about the plant in front of them.  The user decides the level of communication they want, which language, Welsh or English, which is invaluable in our bilingual society. Each plant description may also offer pictures, background information even digital film archive of its location in its natural setting. Any relevant or interesting data can be stored by the user and even e-mailed back to their home computer before they leave the garden.

Wise use of technology opens so many doors to learning. I haven’t had time to mention the role of interactive white boards, video conferencing and more. I’ll save that until next time and await your reply with eagerness.

Kind regards,

Trevor, National Botanic Gardens of Wales


Dear Trevor

We were walking through a park just outside Aix-en- Provence in France, a historic landmark, in a state of romantic abandonment. The sun was shining on balustrades of stone with totemic lions, vestiges of an aristocratic era and the water basin, obviously the focal point of the whole enterprise was, alas, drained.
This wasn’t everyone’s idea of a botanic garden, there were no choices of plants with scientific labels nor guides, well- instructed in the art of communication.

My friend and I were there just enjoying the charm of this place. Still our ‘professional’ outlook, prompted us to ask the question “Why have Botanic Gardens at all, if we can so much enjoy visiting these places devoid of any scientific interest?” We discussed the matter, my friend taking the side of scientific/technological approach and eschewing the element of pure enjoyment. “Bah”, I said. “Where is the dichotomy between scientific approach and enjoyment? There should be none.”

Botanic gardens today employ sophisticated communication skills, based mainly on web designs and interrelated information, and obsessive relevance to categories and hierarchical techniques. They have a necessary function because they impart knowledge and excite interest.  They also awaken that part of the brain concerned with dexterity which is crucial in today’s complex world of competition.  However is this, the whole story?

Our human history shouldn’t be lost but remembered: all the stages which we went through in order to create civilisations and culture.  We have a history of attachment to the world of plants, their symbolic, aesthetic and religious appeal, which is still buried in our consciousness. St.Gregory of Lissa, one of the Church Fathers said “Concepts are idols, only wonder is an instrument of knowing” Wonder is emotion. Should we ignore the perception of a reality of things that talk directly to our senses, and substitute it with theories which suffocate the innocence of the first encounter?

We live in a time of mass communication. Television and the internet broadcast ready-made concepts to everybody - ignorant and educators alike.  If the explanation of a plant is superimposed on the plant itself, its magic retreats into a fog of abstractions. To go back to reality, to the first heart beat which tells us what is beautiful, is testimony to what we seek. Before embarking on the path to knowledge, we must stroll about in a garden without care and direction into a garden, as we did on that beautiful afternoon in a decrepit seventieth century park in Provence.

Marisa Cohen
Assisi Nature Council


Dear Marisa,

I find myself in total agreement with your eloquent response, which is why I continue, undaunted, to espouse the role of ‘appropriate’ use of information technology. As you rightly point out, we live in a technological world, I see technology as merely a manifestation of our human desire to explore and inform. We cannot escape the reality of the present, but we must also acknowledge the essential human need to experience nature through emotional, spiritual and physical contact.
So, I refer back to my first example of the use of hand held PDA’s. In the future, use of this technology will liberate gardens from interpretation clutter, allowing the visitor to have the personal and emotional experiences you describe.  At the point when the learner is going to need to engage with a habitat or plant collection at a scientific or analytical level, information communication technology, in the form of hand held computers (PDA’s) could come into their own. Even for poetic expression I subscribe to the view that - “if you don’t know it, you can’t say it!” How else would Wordsworth have conveyed his vision of a host of yellow flowers beneath the trees without the identification of the daffodils? It is at this point of needing to know, that the technology can be used to make information available.

An education visit to a botanic garden offers a special opportunity for an individual to experience the world of living plants. In our case, at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, groups can spend between one or two hours travelling from urban areas to get to us.  It is part of my job to ensure that the learners are able to spend as much time as they can in the garden in contact with plants.  It would be self defeating if too much time was spent on didactic introductions, prolonged spells of filling in worksheets or, indeed, rushing the end of a visit in an attempt to collate information. So, I am now making increasing use of the interactive white board at the beginning of a visit to help focus the visiting learners on a topic or activity as quickly as possible.  Here technology is being used to save valuable time. During the visit some activities require data to be recorded.  Once again, this can be done on the interactive whiteboard as a collaborative exercise.  This data can be captured on the computer and e-mailed back to the school for follow up work – arriving back in school before the learners have left the Garden!

I would advocate that botanic educators have to understand what information communication technology has to offer and to be able to skilfully evaluate its authentic use. I hope I have begun to show you that, just as we understand the power of experiential learning and the value of living plant collections, technology can be a worthy servant and not the master of the learning process.

Trevor, National Botanic Garden of Wales

Hello Trevor,

Your latest message knocked me off my righteous chair. 

But I have some cards up my sleeve. I never denied the usefulness of information technology - all Western society is based on it. From the moment we became addicted to it, how could we live otherwise? Likewise, how could we live without fridges, cars, air travel, etc.( by the way, I live very well without car, air conditioning , and still can’t use the dishwasher…)

The point is:
What is the purpose of education in a Botanic Garden?  Is it to inform the visitors through the appreciation of a living plant collection, a task better served by technology?  Or is it to experience the world of plants, their relation to one another, in a wider context of nature conservation?  A more physical and active and participatory approach is suitable, in this case.  There’s no reason why both approaches shouldn’t be used together. With a provisio:
When using any NEW computer technology, a warning of danger against all the side effects that could arise from prolonged use, should be printed on the tool, as is done on cigarette packages. Why?

Has not every adult watched a young boy sitting in a car/train ignoring the stunning landscape outside, with eyes glued on his Playstation?  Have you noticed that children go gaga when confronted with a screen that reproduces a natural something, as opposed to a ‘real’ natural phenomena?

The much admired Ivan Illich, (1926 - 2002),who rose to fame in the 1970s with a critique of industrial technological development, deplored the tendency of modern industrial societies to organise themselves around the possession of material objects, including learning tools, as a form of acquisitio, rather than using it as facilitating the acquisition of knowledge. Against the ‘Computer-Managed Society’, he foresaw that all technologies have inevitably built in consequences that, once let loose, become separate from human dictates and desires.  It is time to stop for a moment and reflect if we are at the point of being enslaved by our tools. 

Coming back to the purpose of this discussion, certainly humanity has always used technology; even the pencil with which we draw a flower, say, is a technological tool. But it is the continuation of the hand, a more primitive and more attuned to our bodily sensitivity. The computer tends to substitute the function of the human brain with the rules of the machine. It is indeed a revolutionary step which affects intellectual work as the Industrial Revolution altered the physical nature of work. Do I sound like an enemy of progress, an unreconstructed, mystically oriented, sandal wearing Luddite?  A propos, Luddites were right about the Car, though for different reasons. If we look at the way auto transportation has changed our civilization, the way it has stretched our towns to the point of eliminating the social centre and destroyed our countryside, the paradoxical stand still of traffic jams, the pollution it engenders, the energy waste, the cultural and environmental damage . Were they not prophetic?

To summarise, yes, websites, interactive white boards, computer programmes, interpretation via mobiles, etc all have a useful function, so long as we do not forget to cultivate our natural skills. 
Now arithmetic is done on a calculator. Motorcars are always preferred to walking or bicycling. In need of some exercise? Do it on a machine, indoors.

In the case of visiting botanic gardens, I suggest re-activating complementary activities such as drawing.  After all, Leonardo Da Vinci studied in depth everything he was drawing, but he loved every blade of grass; Lynneus the botanic genius when he wrote his famous eloquent demonstration for the existence of sexual apparatus in plants, used a lyrical style which starts with :…Yes, Love comes even to the plants …”. Meanwhile, Hopkins or Keats were scientifically unaware, but that didn’t deter them from observing nature and inspire subsequent generations.  And because you brought in, at your peril, Wordsworth, he has something more to say on the approach, without tools, to nature “…we are out of tune: it moves us not- Great God ! I’d rather be a Pagan …”
Does a PDA puts us in tune? Does it move us?

Yours, Marisa

Assisi Herb Garden

Dear Marisa,

This is my final, brief, response in our fascinating exchange of thoughts on the use of ICT in botanic gardens.  My feeling at this moment is that, with each exchange, our views are converging, and given time we would be occupying common ground on paper as we probably do in our minds and hearts.

I would never argue that technology should be a replacement for authentic environmental experiences.  Indeed, I would keep young children as far away from technology as possible when providing them with what could be termed early environmental experiences.  Nothing should be put in the way of young people exploring their relationship with the natural world, secondary information will never suffice. We can no longer expect children to be communing with nature in their free play time as I did when I was a child and we must therefore allow the time for this to happen during planned educational visits. I know when this is working when a child sends us a thank you letter saying that it’s been the best trip they’ve ever been on.

I do still contend that when the learner needs to explore the world in which they live in more detail, technology can be of benefit, if used in a thoughtful manner. Botanic gardens have plant collections form all over the world.  It is sometimes difficult to relate a group of plants to real global issues. Technology such as the PDA, e-mails and video conferencing can take us to places where we cannot go, or even should go, in a quest to understand global issues. A work card may inform me that deforestation has led to soil erosion and subsequent famine in a farming community in Kenya, but it can be a much more powerful tool to be able to communicate with contemporaries in such places and to explore together how the world might be managed more beneficially in the future. Once again, I am looking at how technology is used to extend learning in the context of a progression of environmental experiences from the intensly personal through to a more holistic appreciation of how the world works or disfunctions.

Are we two now in harmony?

Regards,  Trevor

National Botanic Gardens of Wales


Dear Trevor

As the curtains falls on final scene of a friendly match, we have no winners and no losers. Oh, if only all human disagreements followed such rational discourse and reached such happy conclusion.

We set out to consider the pros and cons of two differing approaches to the subject : one taking advantage of technological aids to the acquisition of knowledge, the other based upon an updated version of old fashioned perceptions and hands-on methods of subjective experiences.

BOTH ways are appropriate, according to circumstances and with regard to differences of scope and taking into account the subjective experience of the observers. There is still much to say about the differences between the two methodologies and the benefits that they can offer to children and adults alike. Moreover, we did not begin at the very start of the educational process, which could have better explained the issues involved.

We never explored, for example, the biological relationship between the small child and nature; the first encounters that the child experiences and the later severance of that connection through socialisation, culture and formal education shapes and severs that connection.  This of course leads to an exhibition of familiar behaviours in young people, such as a fear of spiders, disgust for earth worms, an insensibility to nature’s colours and sounds, a preference for shopping malls and the allure of virtual reality.
Biographies of artists, inventors and scientists prove that the author’s interest in nature is strongest when, as a child, they have once enjoyed direct and frequent contact with nature. Moreover, the naturalists of earlier centuries who observed plants and animals, were sometimes amateur scientists, moved by sympathy for the “otherness” of the natural world. They did not have technological techniques, nevertheless they achieved important results, as a derivative of some form of general philosophical enquiry. Taking a cue from Aldo Leopold, we learn that the importance of the natural world is an ethical as well as a scientific matter, and maybe technology is not responding to that side of education.

All these considerations would be material enough for a book, and not just a simple exchange between two practitioners of education, concerned about the best way to bring out the naturalist in each of us.

Thank you Trevor, and cheers

Assisi Nature Council


Resumé - Est-ce que les jardins botaniques doivent utiliser la technologie?

Nous vivons à une époque technologique qui nous offre toutes sortes d’appareils, depuis l’ordinateur de poche et les MP3, jusqu’aux caméras digitales, les téléviseurs à haute définition et les téléphones portables à accès internet. Toute l’information dont vous avez jamais eu besoin est disponible en appuyant sur une touche.

Cependant, considérant notre désir d’inculquer un amour de la nature et d’éduquer le public sur la nécessité de vivre de façon plus durable, nous devons nous poser la question de savoir si les jardins botaniques doivent utiliser la technologie. Est-ce que nous nous voyons comme un refuge du monde extérieur ou est-ce que nous devrions utiliser la technologie à notre avantage ? Qu’en pensez-vous ? Nous avons invité deux membres de BGCI avec des vues différentes à discuter de ce sujet controversé. Leur correspondance fournit une lecture intéressante et, nous l’espérons, stimulera vos réflexions.

Resumen - ¿Deben los jardines botánicos hacer una coalición con la tecnología?

Vivimos en la era tecnológica con instrumentos que van desde computadoras y MP3’s, cámaras digitales, televisiones sofisticadas y teléfonos celulares con acceso a Internet. Toda la información que necesitamos esta a la mano con solo oprimir un botón.  

Sin embargo, nuestro deseo aun radica en el amor a la naturaleza y como educar al publico de esta necesidad de manera mas sostenible, así que tenemos que considerar que los jardines botánicos necesitan hacer una coalición con la tecnología. ¿Que visión podemos tener de nosotros usando la tecnología disponible como aliado? ¿Que pensamientos tenemos al respecto? Hemos invitado a dos miembros de BGCI con puntos de vista diferentes para discutir este controversial tema. Su correspondencia es interesante de leer y esperamos estimule sus puntos de vista en cuanto este tema.


Trevor Roach
Head of Education
National Botanic Garden of Wales
Middleton Hall, Llanarthne, Carmarthenshire, SA32 8HG, Wales, U.K.
United Kingdom

Marisa Cohen
Assisi Herb Garden
C.P. 107, Vicolo St Stefano, Assisi 06081 PG, Italy