Learning at the Ocean School

In this era of global warming, the health of the planet’s oceans is a major international issue. And the situation is critical: the water temperature and sea level are rising, the ocean is accumulating hundreds of tons of plastics and biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate. While world authorities try to agree on measures to avoid the catastrophe, initiatives are taking form to raise the younger generation’s awareness of the importance of caring for these ecosystems that are crucial to our survival. Whether they live near a stream, a river or the ocean, youth know that protecting these fragile environments is essential to their survival and their future.

Ocean School was founded out of profound love for marine life, a dedication to ocean science, and the desire to develop a tool for raising awareness among youth. This new, interactive education platform has students travel through the world’s oceans to discover complex and fascinating universes as well as concrete actions that they can take to ensure their vitality.

The genesis of an interactive school

The year is 2012. Dr. Boris Worm of Dalhousie University is travelling in Indonesia, where he discovers a floating school that teaches students the importance of the oceans. He returns home inspired, with sparks in his eyes, to discuss the idea with his friend and NFB producer Paul McNeil. Together, they start working on what will become, several years later, the Ocean School that we know today. The project’s development curve is as fascinating as the subject itself. Creating this one-of-a-kind interactive school required many brainstorming sessions and meetings and met up with several dead ends!

It took five years and a few exploratory trips to kick-start the project, along with a major contribution of research and development funds from Nova Scotia’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development as well as Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who financed the prototype. Paul McNeil and the executive producer, Dominic Desjardins, bowed out, and Jacques Gautreau became executive producer. Gautreau knocked on the door of Akufen, who had worked with the NFB's Interactive Studio on a few projects, to initially create the project' brand, which had a lot to convey through a small logo!

As the collaboration progressed, discussions tended to diverge toward the platform and its possibilities and ignite the designers’ creativity. There was no doubt in Jacques’s mind that the studio represented the ideal partner to create the education platform.

“We knew at that moment that we had consolidated all of our partners. We were ready to begin making choices to develop the project’s form. We quickly decided to position ourselves at the crossroads of science, education and storytelling to create a unique interactive school. On the one hand, we wanted to use truly innovative technologies to surprise and impress youth. On the other hand, we had access to exceptional scientists who knew everything there was to know about the issues. And, finally, we could count on key partners in education to support us. Everything was in place!” Jacques Gautreau, executive producer at the NFB

Bringing a school into the world

Although there was an abundance of ideas and the funders were engaged and enthusiastic, including a new partner, the Canada Museum of Science and Technology (Ingenium), the team was still far from reaching its objective. Everything remained to be done. Akufen had a titanic (no bad pun intended) task ahead of it. On the one hand, the design team had to create an interactive platform that would allow youth to discover the content in an engaging and surprising fashion. On the other hand, it was faced with a real technological challenge given that accessibility was at the heart of the project’s objectives. The platform had to be accessible on all devices, in all browsers and with all types of connections from coast to coast.

“The primary objective was to create an immersive environment to spark creativity and wonder among youth while dealing with significant accessibility constraints! We knew that we wanted to use augmented reality and virtual reality technologies, but we nevertheless decided not to develop an iOS or Android app. We developed the entire platform for the web to make it easily accessible by all. There is nothing easier to access than a website! All schools’ computer labs have an Internet connection and it’s what made the most sense to all of us to enable youth to access the content.” — Christian Lebel, technical director, Akufen

In educational terms, inquiry-based learning, which was championed by the NFB's Education team, quickly proved its worth as the best way to guide students within the Ocean School. The principle is simple: the student is asked a very general question having to do with oceans and must then search for parts of the answer in order to build up a rationale. Therefore, the students are the ones who are leading the learning process. The only objectives that are to be achieved are to make use of critical thinking, demonstrate reasoning, develop awareness and make deductions to form one’s own judgment on the problem. Starting from an initial assumption, the students experiment with different situations through interactive modules together and discover the influence that each part has on the entire project.

“The primary objective was to create an immersive environment to spark creativity and wonder among youth while dealing with significant accessibility constraints!”

The first step was to create a learning environment based on a user experience that would accompany both students and educators as they discovered the content. In this respect, Akufen literally served as a catalyst by developing navigation concepts, an information architecture as well as fun, stimulating and significant interactions for youth.

“We regularly discussed with the scientific and educational teams to have them present us their learning objectives and to ensure that we fully understood all of the issues. Afterward, we brainstormed on ideas among ourselves and, as soon as we had something concrete to present to them, we all discussed it together to ensure the ideas evolved. It was a real collaborative process in which all forms of expertise were pooled and each person around the table contributed to the advancement of the project. It was a very complex yet fluid work dynamic. We had a single Slack group and exchanged constantly on all aspects of the project. Both developers and creators were fully involved, which is essential when working in Agile.” — Frédérique Marquez, Akufen project lead at the time

The Ocean School experience

First of all, the platform is accessible to educators who use the Google Classroom platform to create classrooms in which students register and create teams as well as flags for their respective teams. By entering the experience, they navigate through a three-dimensional environment in which content buoys are placed to point to where the inquiry items are. It is then up to all to discover the content through their questions and interests.

Ocean School currently offers three online interactive modules. The first has youth dissect a cod and understand all of its parts, the second teaches them how sharks migrate and the third demonstrates all of the dramatic consequences of the accumulation of plastic in the planet’s oceans.

In addition, a virtual reality experience concretely explains to youth the influence that agriculture has on marine biodiversity. Two students take part in the experience: one puts on a VR headset and the other is posted behind a computer console. The first is catapulted onto an oyster farm whereas the other is a farmer who grows produce on his land. When the farmer adds fertilizer, the student who is at the bottom of the ocean notices that products spill into the water and the oysters die. When he asks the student-farmer to stop using fertilizer, the latter notices that his land is much less productive. How can a balance be struck between healthy water and healthy land? There resides the full value of inquiry-based learning: it is up to the students to negotiate and decide.

“What we were seeking to create was pretty much closer to a techno start-up than a film or a classical interactive experience”

“The platform itself had to be immersive and propose a non-traditional navigation experience. We had a lot of design work to complete upstream as well as a lot of optimization to ensure that everything functioned in WebGL, used to display in 3D on the web. How can one create an ocean bottom that is accessible regardless of the media or connection? It also has to look cool and present an artistic direction that will interest youth.” — Christian Lebel

It should be remembered that Ocean School is also a series of videos shot with scientists who bring the young participants on an expedition with them!

“The protagonists who took part in the project are real scientists who actually work in science! Everything is shot live. We start by filming content on site and then edit it before designing activities and modules that deal with the content we filmed. We have filmed in the Northern Atlantic, in Costa Rica, on the Coco Islands and in Bella Bella, British Columbia. This last expedition was made very special by the fact that we worked with Bella Bella’s indigenous community. We first made our way out there and discussed with them to familiarize ourselves with the issues that threatened their community. It is based on our discussions that we came up with the content for Ocean School. We intend to make our way to Raja Ampat, in Indonesia, the most biodiverse place on the face of the Earth, as well as to Australia to film a module on biodiversity’s role in climate change.” — Jacques Gautreau

A multi-institutional challenge that unites

Ocean School was a sort of constantly evolving technological start-up that needed to survey its users regularly to understand how they wanted to use the platform and what needed to be improved along the way. Necessarily, the fact of working with a variety of scientific, academic, cultural and governmental institutions was challenging!

“On the one hand, there were scientists who found that we sometimes lacked clarity! We would always repeat to them that it was not important if we didn’t have the answers before doing the expedition. But they were more or less comfortable with the idea that they could end up making no discovery at all. We also experienced culture clashes. What we were seeking to create was pretty much closer to a tech start-up than a film or a classic interactive experience. Finally, we need to present a new formula to the world of education and inspire it to take part in the adventure.” — Jacques Gautreau

However, a theme that unites is at the origin of all of these problems: raising awareness among members of the younger generation of the importance of saving the oceans. Joining Ocean School means rallying around this objective that is broader than the project itself and that necessarily involves doing everything required to make this great mission a reality. Moreover, it is this common calling that allowed the actors to develop unwavering ties between each other and enabled the work to resume quickly each time things went off track.

“Ultimately, we all had the desire to carry out a great project for a great cause”

“We often had to settle issues and bring the stakeholders back to our common vision around the table. Everything became clearer when we started from there. There were so many grandiose demands, desires and ideas for the project that the main challenge from a management standpoint was to help the different teams prioritize their needs in accordance with the different phases. We all had the profound desire to make things enjoyable! Ultimately, we all had the desire to carry out a great project for a great cause.” — Frédérique Marquez

A project in constant evolution

More than 700 educators have already expressed interest in working with the educational platform. That therefore represents a pool of close to 60,000 youth who could have access to it. But a great deal of patience is required to break into schools, especially given Canada’s asymmetrical context in which education is of provincial jurisdiction. However, despite the years that have passed, the project’s creators have lost none of their enthusiasm. To the contrary!

“I sincerely believe that change will happen through the younger generation. There is nothing like a young person who has an idea in his mind and who decides to get his entire family to take part in his mission. That is how, at 12 years old, I convinced my father to stop smoking! Youth understand the issues and it is important to give them access to tools that will encourage them to reflect and inspire them to take action. We are very proud that Ocean School is part of that.” — Jacques Gautreau

The professed objective is to cross borders and open the Ocean School to youth throughout the world to give them free access to the content and interactive modules. The producer hopes that the participation of several international partners will accelerate the process. In the meantime, the project continues to gain ground and Akufen’s team is currently working on the creation of an interactive dome. Imposing and immersive, the dome could easily be incorporated into a museum’s programming or showcased as part of a school tour. At the heart of this experience is the story of a 100-year-old turtle whose world was disrupted by the arrival of plastic. Once again, the designers juggle with significant technical challenges but all agree that the survival of our environment depends on it after all!

To learn more about the project’s technical development, consult the case study produced by the team of developers and integrators that recalls the many challenges that the team had to overcome during the creation of the Ocean School.

Anne-Marie Archambault
Anne-Marie Archambault is the Strategy and Content Experience Director at Akufen. Versatile and centred on the user experience, she considers herself as the bridge between content and container, between strategy and emotion. She has worked as a freelancer for many years in television and digital, working in creative teams in experimental and interactive. Anne-Marie is fascinated by the process of creation, the clashing worlds and the ideas that come to life.
Read Bio