From sea to screen: Bringing the ocean inland with online learning at the Monterey Bay AquariumKaty Noelle Scott Monterey Bay Aquarium
Jeanine Ancelet Audience Focus
Andrea Montiel de Shuman Independent Contractor & Collaborator @ Audience Focus
While museums have been providing distance learning opportunities for over thirty years, the demand for online education programs skyrocketed in the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic. Environmental organizations faced the added challenge of moving outdoor education to digital platforms. The Monterey Bay Aquarium responded by rapidly developing English and Spanish self-paced online courses for PK-12 students and their caregivers, releasing the first of 15 courses within three weeks of the national shutdown. Designed to help learners build empathy for animals, connect to local outdoor spaces, and take conservation action, these free online courses have since attracted more than 55,000 enrollments from more than 95 countries.
In 2022, the Aquarium partnered with Audience Focus for an in-depth study of the online courses. Their evaluation reached more than 4,500 learners, using a mixed-methods approach that incorporated quantitative and qualitative lines of inquiry, including embedded assessments, an online survey, in-depth interviews, and a survey that was sent to the field. The study uncovered the motivations and satisfaction of the courses’ main audiences. It also measured how well the courses met the intended learning outcomes, and how they impacted user affinity for the Monterey Bay Aquarium as an organization.
Surprising the Aquarium, 40% of online learners who completed the survey described their communities as rural or small towns. Though it wasn’t an initial goal of the courses, this indicated that they reached children who traditionally have less access to large cultural and scientific organizations like aquariums, zoos, and museums. We also found that the courses increased access to children who don’t live near oceans and may not be able to travel easily.
Although the courses were built for working parents with children learning from home, they were also heavily utilized by classroom teachers. The evaluation helped us understand the different enrollment motivations for parents, educators, and students. And, despite their different motivations, the study found an overwhelming majority of all audiences were satisfied with the courses, leading most to develop an increased affinity for the Aquarium – and likely transition from passive consumers to more actively engaged ocean advocates.
The courses for young children were designed to increase animal empathy – an early indicator of later conservation activism. Most of the courses for older students aimed to build students’ agency to take environmental action. Audience Focus devised various methods to measure success in reaching those indicators. Using innovative embedded assessments, the evaluation showed that courses specifically designed around less-loved animals (e.g., sharks) led to large jumps in animal empathy. It also showed that students’ confidence in their ability to take environmental action increased, especially in courses for older students.
We also address:
- Our approach to rapidly designing and releasing courses in creative sprints based in an Agile Scrum framework;
- Our innovative use of embedded assessments to gather data from children;
- Strategies for measuring empathy and environmental identity with children;
- The expanding opportunity for digital engagement with early learners (preK-2), in particular.
While museums have been providing distance learning opportunities for more than thirty years (Ennes and Lee, 2021), the demand for online education programs skyrocketed in the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic. Environmental organizations faced the added challenge of moving experiential, outdoor education to digital platforms. The Monterey Bay Aquarium responded by rapidly developing English and Spanish self-paced online courses for PK-12 students and their caregivers, releasing the first of 15 courses within three weeks of the national shutdown. Designed to help learners build empathy for animals, connect to local outdoor spaces, and take conservation action, these free online courses have since attracted more than 55,000 enrollments from more than 95 countries. This paper outlines the development process for these courses and details their impact, with a focus on increasing empathy for wildlife , building environmental identity, and reaching rural audiences.
Our hope is that this work contributes to the large and growing field of informal distance learning (Milligan et al., 2017; Cieko, et al., 2020), with specific focus on asynchronous experiences and online programming for young children. This paper adds new dimensions to these topics by addressing the added layer of utilizing distance learning for connection to nature. In that regard, it also joins the increasing body of research of informal and formal educators into the examination of learners’ development of empathy for wildlife (Owen and Khalil, 2015; Khalil et al., 2020; Wilson et al., 2022), as well as years of research on supporting the development of students’ environmental identities (Williams and Chawla, 2016).
At the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Education division, we have been pilot testing various distance learning programs since 2012. We struggled to find a solution that allowed us to deliver online learning that aligned with the goals and experiential pedagogy of our in-person programs. This experiential pedagogy consisted of students achieving conservation learning outcomes through hands-on investigation; building their own knowledge collaboratively; and connecting to their local, outdoor spaces.
The mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the ocean. For PreK-12 students, this conservation work is centered around two outcomes: building empathy for wildlife and supporting environmental identity. “Empathy toward wildlife is an important factor in predicting an individual’s willingness to take conservation action” (Owen and Khalil, 2015). And one of the best ways to engender sustained, pro-environmental action is to focus on developing individuals’ environmental identity (Williams and Chawla, 2016), meaning how you view yourself in relationship to nature and how that impacts the way you see the world. We knew our distance learning programs needed to do both of these things.
In 2019, as part of an expansion of our education programs, we decided to focus our online learning programs on three hard-to-reach and generally underserved audiences that were unable to easily visit any aquarium: students in hospital schools, juvenile detention centers, and rural areas more than 150 miles from the nearest aquarium. We began this work by developing a program for students in hospital schools. A team of three staff educators began the front-end work of reviewing literature, interviewing teachers in hospital schools, and exploring learning management systems. We soon recognized that, for this audience, we would need to build a series of asynchronous courses that centered our experiential pedagogical values, as well as empathy for wildlife and environmental identity outcomes.
As we considered how to do this, we identified Thinkific as a platform to support the content creation we were looking to do. In the fall of 2019, we started testing Thinkific, building basic courses as an add-on to in-person programs for teachers and homeschool families. Simultaneously, our team of three started brainstorming how to create an online environmental program for students who spend much of their time inside.
Just a few months later, in March 2020, nearly every student in the world became a student who spent much of their time inside.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium closed its doors to the public on Thursday, March 12, 2020, and didn’t open them again for 14 months. Our Education team of more than 30 staff was no longer leading in-person programs for teachers, teens, and school students.
Instead, while working from home, we almost immediately pivoted our team toward online learning. Parents were working from home, and schools were closed. There was huge demand for high-quality, entertaining educational resources that children – even very young children – could engage in independently.
Our staff came together via Zoom and pitched ideas for online courses. The parameters were to bundle existing, vetted curriculum into cohesive storylines. The goal was to identify curricula that students could complete using whatever they had at home, and that we could lead via video and other multimedia products. After two days of developing pitches and offering peer feedback, the management team identified three projects to move forward immediately.
Teams of three to five educators were assigned to each course. Using the Agile Scrum method (Sliger, 2011) for rapid iteration, the teams self-organized and self-managed. The STEM Integration Manager acted as “scrum master,” a type of overall project manager. Teams met with the scrum master in daily “scrums” – 15-minute check-in meetings to keep momentum and identify barriers early. Every week, specific deliverables were due, which the “product owner” (the Education Vice President and Education Director) would approve or deny, with comments. Within three weeks of closing, the first courses were posted on the Aquarium’s website – one for PK-2nd grade, and one for 3rd-6th grade. In a month, these courses had more than 10,000 enrollees.
We continued using the Agile Scrum process to create more courses. Eventually, we modified our process to a more sustainable 6-week model. We’ve now released 15 courses, including 5 in Spanish, and have nearly 60,000 enrollments from more than 95 countries and every U.S. state.
In 2021, to gain a clearer and in-depth understanding of how our online courses were being used, we collaborated with external evaluation firm, Audience Focus, to investigate who was using the online courses and why, and how the courses were impacting users. The results focused on three key impact areas: reach, empathy, and environmental identity. The study covered 10 online courses, five of which were done bilingually, in English and Spanish.
To understand reach, we asked: who is taking our online courses? Did the online course format reach beyond our traditional onsite audiences? For empathy, we investigated: do the online courses influence a positive change in empathy among course users? Did we see evidence of empathy development? And lastly, regarding environmental identity, we asked: does participating in the online courses foster confidence leading to agency? Do the courses help build deeper affinity to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, leading to stronger ocean advocates?
Audience Focus used a mixed-methods approach which included embedded assessments, an online survey, in-depth interviews, and a survey that was sent to the informal education field. The data used in this paper was collected between March and July 2022, but the survey and interviews include users who enrolled between Jan 1, 2021 and July 31, 2022.
For the embedded assessments, open and close-ended questions were embedded directly into all the courses. These questions were designed to follow the flow and tone of the existing course content and feel like part of the course. Importantly, the questions were designed to match the different developmental levels of the course users. The online survey was sent to half of all users who had enrolled in an online course between January 2021 and June 2022. The invitation to participate in the online survey was also embedded at the end of each online course. The other half of enrolled online course users were sent an email invitation to participate in a 30-minute online interview conducted over Zoom. People who were interested were asked to take a quick eligibility survey, which then directed them to an online scheduling page. The interviews were designed to help Aquarium staff better understand people’s thinking and the “why” behind their actions.
Through the evaluation, we found that different methodologies were better at reaching different audiences. We received a roughly 90% response rate on the embedded assessments, with 4,407 online course users responding to at least one question embedded within a course. Of these users, 72% were children. For our online survey, 154 people responded, with 110 completing it fully. Educators were more likely to complete the online survey than other audiences – 49% of the online survey respondents were educators. Finally, we conducted a total of 20 interviews with course users, including 10 interviews with children and their parents or caregivers, and 10 with educators. All of the children who were interviewed were under the age of 14 (Figure 1).
We were interested in who was taking the online courses, and whether the courses were reaching beyond our traditional onsite audiences. The online courses are available for free to anyone with an Internet connection through the Aquarium’s website, at https://www.montereybayaquarium.org/learn. We ran a small marketing campaign for the courses, mostly using our email lists and some social media ads. We also partnered with non-profit Code.org for one of the courses, “Exploring the Deep Bit by Bit,” which was marketed through Code.org’s networks.
Using Google Analytics (which we activated after the courses were live for a month), we found that, as of February 2023, 94 percent of learners enrolled in the courses from the United States, with 52% from California. Online survey and interview respondents comprised a similar sample, with 95% of respondents saying they currently reside in the United States and 49% saying they reside in California. In total, people from all U.S. states and 101 other countries have enrolled in the courses, compared to the study sample of respondents from 42 U.S. states and 11 other countries.
Of the online survey respondents, 40% reported that they resided in rural or small towns. This was unexpected but noteworthy, as it indicates the online courses are reaching people in areas that traditionally have less access to large cultural and scientific organizations like museums, zoos, and aquariums (American Alliance of Museums, 2019).
The interviews expanded on this finding, with several subjects sharing that the courses increased access to children who don’t live near oceans and may not be able to travel easily. This was reflected by an interviewed caregiver, who said of the courses “We live in Iowa, so this environment is not our backyard. It was very engaging for her to see an environment that she would not normally get to see.” This sentiment was also echoed in an interview with an educator, who stated that “my school serves children in difficult financial situations. I can’t even take them to the Toronto Zoo… so having this available is so valuable… they would not have these types of experiences otherwise.”
Additionally, Black/African American participants were underrepresented in the study sample, compared to the national and California population. To understand whether they are also underrepresented in the population of online course users, we are considering adding a question about race and ethnicity to either the enrollment form or the courses themselves in the future.
In addition to understanding who was taking our courses, we wanted to better understand why they were enrolling. Results of the study show the courses are primarily being utilized by children and their parents/caregivers and/or teachers (94%). Interestingly, we found differences in the motivations of these three audiences for enrolling in the courses.
Predictably, students came to the Aquarium’s online courses for the animals. In the survey, roughly 80% of children and caregivers/parents responded that they took the courses because they wanted to learn more about ocean animals. The majority of children (81%) also said they took the online courses because they like/care about animals, demonstrating an existing foundation of care for animals and an entry point to further develop their empathy for animals. There was a marked difference in motivation for the courses between children/caregivers and educators. Educators (46%) were less likely to choose that they took the courses because they want to learn more about ocean animals, and even less likely (41%) to choose because they like/care about animals. Caregivers of the children were also less likely (61%) to have chosen the courses because they themselves loved/liked ocean animals (Figure 2).
The majority of caregivers (84%) said the primary reason they enrolled their children in the online courses was to encourage their child’s sense of wonder and connection to the natural world. Connecting children to the natural world and inspiring awe was selected by fewer educators (50%) as a motivator for enrolling their students in online courses. Educators were more focused on locating free, fun, and interesting resources to share with their students. Overall, our findings show that children are highly driven to take the courses because of their pre-existing love for animals and curiosity to learn more, and their trusted adults (parents, caregivers, and educators) are using the online courses to nourish and deepen those interests and connections.
We were also interested in whether the courses were achieving our goals to support empathy for wildlife development. We were especially curious because, unlike with traditional in-person programs, online course users engaged with Aquarium animals solely via multimedia.
Several of the courses utilized recognized best practices to build empathy for wildlife, including activating imagination (perspective taking and storytelling), framing (how stories about animals are narrated), and increasing knowledge (comparing and contrasting animals’ needs and behaviors to our own) (Owen and Khalil, 2015). Some of the courses purposely centered overlooked and stigmatized animals, such as “Fin-tastic Sharks,” a course designed to help elementary students challenge shark stereotypes.
In the courses focused on developing empathy, we measured our impact using the embedded assessments designed to align with the flow of activities. While there are a wide variety of forms for measuring empathy, many are inaccessible to early learners (Neumann et al., 2015; Khalil et al., 2020). To address the developmental and reading level issues, different versions of the embedded assessments were created for different courses based on the need of the grade level. For instance, to measure empathy, we included a question near the beginning asking users to select words from a list that they’d use to describe different animals. Third- through fifth-graders enrolled in the “Fin-tastic Sharks” course were asked “which words would you use to describe sharks?” The choices included: scary, weird, gross, beautiful, ugly, unfriendly, friendly, cool, interesting, not interesting, important, not really important. For courses designed for younger learners, like “Otter Spotters,” we used fewer word choices and accompanied the words with emojis. In order to measure the effect of the online courses on students’ emotional responses to animals, around two-thirds of the way through the course, students were asked to reflect on their perceptions towards the animals again, using the same prompt and word choices (Figure 3).
The results of our evaluation show that changes in empathy were less likely to be seen in animals for which children already have an affinity, like sea otters, sea stars, and penguins. When courses focus on single animals and children get to know their habitats, behaviors, place within the larger ecosystem and, in some cases, the personalities of individual animals at the Aquarium, empathy measures increase. This shift in empathy toward animals was the most prevalent in courses that focused on a single animal, especially ones that are traditionally associated with more negative perceptions, like sharks and Pacific Blackdragons. For instance, the embedded assessments in “Fin-Tastic Sharks” showed significant increases in students associating positive words with sharks, and decreases in students associating negative words with them at the end of the course, compared to the beginning (Figure 3).
When we asked online survey respondents “how much did the online courses impact your feelings about your relationship to animals and nature?” out of the possible options to choose from, the most popular were “I am an animal person,” “I love nature and how I feel when I’m in it,” “I am concerned about the wellbeing of animals in the wild,” and “I am awed by animals.” As Figure 4 shows, 71% reported they are more awed by animals and they feel more like an “animal person,” and 65% said they feel more strongly that they love nature and are more concerned about the wellbeing of animals in the wild. These responses were the highest in children, indicating strong alignment between the target audience for these courses and the intended outcomes.
During the interviews, we learned more about how the courses encouraged empathy among children. One child spoke about the stereotypical image of sharks, saying “in movies and sometimes documentaries, they make [sharks] look scary, and the course cleared that [up] about them.” Another child even shared “I’m no longer afraid of sharks,” demonstrating the potential of online learning to connect students to animals.
Research has shown that a strong environmental identity is embedded in a connection, a relationship, to nature. Chalwa (1999) and others (Stapleton, 2015) have also shown that this environmental identity is reinforced through connections with other youth and adults, and clear positive actions. Given this, we designed the courses to encourage students to engage with the outdoors and local wildlife accessible to them – through a walk around their neighborhood, visiting their yard, or acting as a “window biologist” from inside their home. We also wanted to connect students with a broader community of ocean lovers; however, we didn’t have the staff or resources to monitor or engage in chats or other social features. Instead, we worked to connect the students to the course instructors and, more broadly, the Monterey Bay Aquarium as an institution. With some courses, we also engaged teen and young adult alumni from our in-person programs to develop video content, speaking directly to young enrollees. For one course, “#TeensCan Make a Difference,” we highlighted these volunteers further, sharing their biographies at the end of the course.
With these strategies in mind, we specifically wanted to measure students’ sense of confidence to make positive environmental impacts. We also wanted to know whether the courses helped build deeper affinity to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, potentially leading to ocean advocacy. Toward this goal, we used developmentally-appropriate embedded assessments at the end of the online courses designed for younger children. We asked the question: “how much do you feel like you can help the ocean and the animals that live there?” A total of 80 children answered the question. Most of the PreK-2 children (59%) said they felt they could help a lot and another 26% said they felt like they could help a little. Only 15% said they were not sure how they could help. These numbers were the average across all courses for early learners with no significant differences found among the different courses.
A similar question was embedded within various courses designed for children in grades 3-12. For these courses, a total of 536 children responded. Similar trends emerged, with over half saying they feel like they can help protect the ecosystem, keep animals safe, and inspire their friends and family to think about how their actions impact the ocean.
Results from the online survey found similar levels of confidence among older children, with most saying taking the courses helped them feel more confident about their ability to have a positive impact on the environment than before (Figure 5).
This increased confidence was more evident in courses built around conservation topics that encouraged action for middle and high school students, like “The Ocean, Plastic, and Me” and “#Teens Can Make a Difference.” Older children who took these two courses were more likely to say they would inspire their friends and family to think about how their actions impact the ocean than those who took other courses (Figure 6).
During our in-depth interviews, participants shared stories of how the courses helped increase their confidence. One told us they felt they could “inspire my friends. There’s this sewer thing, and they throw their trash in there and it goes out to the sea. I can inspire them not to do that anymore.” One educator shared, “when my students show passion for something, I feel passion. I see my students wanting to care for the earth and it renews my own optimism to help this planet a bit.”
Through the online survey, children also expressed high levels of affinity for the Monterey Bay Aquarium after taking the online courses. Almost all of them said they want to continue to watch the animals through the live cams and a majority said they would like to visit the Aquarium in person and/or take another online course, indicating future potential for strengthening their connection to the ocean (Figure 7).
After the necessary pivot to digital program delivery in 2020, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Education division found that asynchronous online programs delivered the desired goals of meaningful experiential programs. In addition to supporting the development of empathy for wildlife and environmental identity in students, these courses also reached new audiences, specifically those in rural communities and small towns, which traditionally have less access to large cultural and scientific organizations.
We also gained insight into how we can better support and evaluate different digital audiences in the future. Children, parents/caregivers, and educators all shared different motivations for enrolling in the courses, indicating differing needs. In terms of methodology, we were excited to see the success of well-designed embedded assessments in attaining data relatively easily, quickly, and effectively, even from difficult-to-evaluate audiences like young children.
Lastly, we’re excited by indications that online programming can effectively build affinity for institutions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and lead to longer term connections, including in-person visits. Given the learning from this evaluation, our Education team is excited to spend the coming months iterating on our existing courses and creating a long-term plan for future course creation.
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0 Katy Noelle Scott Monterey Bay Aquarium
0 Jeanine Ancelet Audience Focus
0 Emily Kotecki
0 Davis Mendez
0 Andrea Montiel de Shuman Independent Contractor & Collaborator @ Audience Focus
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