Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop

Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop digital explorer

Explorer, teacher and technologist Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop is working hard through web-based education to bring the ends of the earth into the classroom.

'The world is a long way away from the classroom,' says Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop. He should know, because he's spent his adult life exploring both environments. As an expedition leader he's ventured from Antarctica to the Himalaya; as an educator he's been head of citizenship at an Essex comprehensive.

Today he's the mastermind behind Digital Explorer, an organisation dedicated to linking the classroom with the wild world using emerging technologies. He describes himself on various profiles as a 'social entrepreneur joining education and expeditions'.

'I had this idea that I'd try to bring the two together. That was the problem I was trying to solve and, as with all problems, you analyse the best tools available to you for solving it. The conduit for this was digital communications technology.'

We're sitting in the Lowther Room of the Royal Geographical Society in London, where Buchanan-Dunlop is a fellow, and where he also holds the distinguished post of Council Member. In this very room some of the greatest and most famous expeditions were planned, debated and approved.

Today, despite our august surroundings, there's not much time for history, as we're talking about the next phase in exploration. If a century ago the likes of Scott and Shackleton were the mainstays of the Heroic Age, today it's young people in classrooms throughout Britain who are going to be the main players in the Digital Age.

Advancements in technology have always pushed back the frontiers of global exploration. Whether this was in the form of John Harrison's marine chronometers or the development of windproof fabrics for combating hostile conditions, our ability to penetrate into the unknown has always been dependent on how technologists have responded to the needs of the explorers of the age.

Today, though, the boot is on the other foot, with explorers adopting and adapting existing low-cost – sometimes free – digital technology to do the one thing that all explorers need to do: communicate their experiences to the wider public.

'Digital technology has changed the focus of how explorers communicate, the way they gather data and navigate,' says Buchanan-Dunlop. 'If you look at the course of navigation – from the hand-drawn map and compass to now when we're using GPS units and satellite photographs – you can see how technology is helping us to move more accurately around the planet.'

Getting hands-on with the world

The notion that there's no longer a need to physically go out into the field and explore because of modern marvels like Google Earth is a misapprehension, he says. 'We have wonderful images of swathes of rainforest canopy available to us in the classroom. But we still need people to go in there and find out what's underneath. We have satellite images of the great expanses of ocean ice, but we still send explorers out there with old-fashioned technologies like ice-core samplers. We drag around ground penetrating radar in the Wahiba Sands to examine dune composition.'

The digital age may have ushered in better ways to get to where we're going, but where technology wins hands-down is in the provision of the means to send back information from the field. If you look back only a few decades to the 1970s and 1980s we were still exploring along the principles of the Heroic Age and before. Determined explorers set off on feats of endurance and bravery, often for years at a time, to the remotest corners of the planet, to return with a carousel of slides and tales of derring-do and discovery.

'Now we can speak live to an audience from the field, which not only captivates more, but allows an element of interaction. You can ask an explorer a question from the comfort of your school, sitting room or boardroom. You can talk to someone living on the edge of human knowledge and endurance and ask them what it's like. It's this live story-telling that is one of the major developments technology has brought.' It's all about the 'digital chain', says Buchanan-Dunlop.

This chain amounts to 'the bits of kit you need to create content. Map-making using data from a GPS, images created on a digital camera or video from a camcorder. You get this data into a laptop or PDA, format it correctly and upload it via a satellite link. You can take your power with you in the form of renewable solar power or batteries. There are blogs – basically online explorer journals – where you can communicate directly from the field.'

Shackled to Shackleton?

With all this inexpensive technology available to virtually anyone, does this mean that today's explorer is a different type of person from Shackleton's day? The answer is a firm 'yes and no'.

'Can a modern explorer use a theodolite? Probably not,' says Buchanan-Dunlop. 'Can a modern explorer use a sextant? Probably not. We can see the technology and the skills that go with exploration have changed. But the real change is in how technology has allowed explorers to tell and share their stories. But I don't think technology itself has changed exploration. It's still about those great journeys of discovery: finding out new things about the world. But what it's allowed us is more immediacy, feeding back what's going on in an expedition fresh from the field, episodically, as it happens.' As for telling a story in itself? 'Explorers have done that for donkey's years.'

Many worlds, one goal

Buchanan-Dunlop's background ideally places him for being today's digital explorer. He has a wealth of experience in 'old school' exploration ('going out into remote places and finding stuff out'). He's also been a teacher, worked in the commercial sector developing web applications for blue-chip clients, and he's a new media geek (his word), trawling through and learning on-the-fly the emergent technologies that will assist him in 'joining education and expeditions.'

He blames his interest in exploring on Heinrich Harrer's book 'Seven Years in Tibet', which inspired him to go on expeditions in the Himalaya during and immediately after his time at university. In his early twenties his interest was in 'sacred geography', and in examining the relationship between tribal culture and 19th century imperial expansion.

Then he became 'really interested in education. I think these days a lot of explorers go off and see the world and meet the people, and they want other people to be engaged with what they've seen. That's all well and good. But you need to find a compulsive and persuasive way to tell that story.' For Buchanan-Dunlop the answer was to engage young people, and it became his mission to 'get that storytelling into schools'.

The next step was typical Buchanan-Dunlop logic: he became a teacher.

His first discovery was that he couldn't develop the level of engagement he wanted to achieve using traditional teaching methods and tools. 'So,' he says, 'I took a bunch of kids to Morocco, where we did the first live lesson in the UK from an overseas youth expedition.'

According to Buchanan-Dunlop, the benefit of this kind of broadcast link is that it overturned entrenched educational obstacles. 'How do you make learning about the world real?' He uses the example of climate change, which he regards as a 'very good, intellectual, knowledge-based subject.' For most people in the classroom, knowing how it works and what its impacts are, the problem is visualising climate change as a relatable, tangible issue. 'What does it look like? What does it mean? Where's the texture of the engagement with that?'

With live links from the field, Buchanan-Dunlop has been able to illustrate the effects of climate change by standing on a glacier in Antarctica transmitting the sound of the trickle of melt-water over a satellite phone powered by a renewable energy source. 'You're then moving from knowledge and understanding of a topic to compassion and action. That shift in approach is incredibly important. And one of the tools needed to create it is digital communications.'

Earth calling the Digital Explorer

And so Digital Explorer, a Web-based organisation providing linkage between field and classroom, was born. 'Digital Explorer,' says Buchanan-Dunlop 'is really a social enterprise enabling young people to get live, up-to-date education in order to become better global citizens.' The organisation is funded by sponsorship of its field programmes and through providing professional services – such as Google Earth training – to other expeditions and institutions.

Projects that use Buchanan-Dunlop's expertise with Google Earth might include producing a data layer for government departments to show what a 4°C rise in temperature would look like globally. With the business he has created he can now harness the potential of Google Earth to create interactive 3D displays related to global geographical topics such as habitat conservation or climate change. 'I'm always asked how you engage young people in global issues. I'm continually trying to develop the model to do this.'

Buchanan-Dunlop is often to be found in the training rooms of the Royal Geographical Society teaching others how to use Google Earth. He is keen to explain what the platform's true uses are, when it's often seen as little more than an aerial photography resource.

'Start off by looking at the conceptual basics,' he says. 'Basically it's a geo- or Earth-browser. You have a Web-browser and you have an Earth-browser. If the starting point for a Web-browser is essentially a blank sheet of paper on top of which you put digital media, interactive content or links to other content, then that of a geo-browser is a 3D satellite image-based world.'

He elaborates by wondering if, once you get into that set of thinking, 'we really should be using a blank sheet of paper at all? Or should we be using a zoom-able, spin-able and engaging 3D globe?'

Working with teachers, expeditions and governments, he has found that, by moving away from the blank sheet of paper and by using 'this great tool with its free template, we can work differently. People say that Google Earth is just a glorified globe. Yes. But by that thinking the Internet is just a glorified piece of paper.'

It's all down to how it's used: 'if you're tracking an expedition, you can put 3D graphs across the planet. You can create maps by shading areas of, say, a biodiversity study. And you can join those together. Instead of having a dull printed report you can have something with different kinds of integrated media, with all the data and communications bundled together. I think it offers a really exciting proposition for explaining what's really happening in our world.'

It's all about the story

Which brings us back to Buchanan-Dunlop's opening thought: that modern exploring is in one sense identical to historical exploring. It's all about telling stories about different parts of the world. It's just that we now have a different set of tools available to explain these stories to a public that has different expectations as to how it receives its data. But one of the biggest changes is what Buchanan-Dunlop describes as the 'barrier to entry' for sharing your information.

'Now you don't have to be a big brand name or get a book deal to share your story. The Internet has made self-publishing much easier. You don't necessarily need magazines, institutions, books or TV to do that.'

So has low-cost digital technology really opened up the planet for young explorers, and is our world really the land of opportunity for them? 'Here at the beginning of the 21st century there are massive global issues to deal with. How are we going to deal with them? What do we need? We need great stories to engage us with what's really going on. Through that there is an increased chance of the wider public understanding the issues and taking action.'

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