Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Geolocation in learning

I am intensely interested in the ways location affects learning and development, as I've written in the past. I think the rise of geolocation technologies will have profound and subtle effects on the way we teach. I'm using geolocation in two senses here: one being the (relatively broad) sense of using GPS and other technology to describe two-dimensional position in latitude and longitude, and the other being a more general term for electronically-mediated spatial awareness: a sense of "knowing where things are".

Some of the technology here doesn't exist yet—but that's the nature of technological prediction. I owe a debt to Educause's 2009 Horizon Report for getting me thinking about some of these issues in a new light.

NatureMapping (as referenced on Edutopia) is one sort of educational use, but there are others. I found relatively little information about geolocated learning on Edutopia; perhaps the field is so new that little has yet been written. With luck, I'll be able to contribute something one day.

Maps have always helped me learn. From the day I discovered them, they fascinated me. They help me understand topography and illuminate historical trends and wars, but I realize now that the map is one of my fundamental metaphors for interacting with the world. Here, then, are a few ideas about how new mapping tools—geolocation tools—could be used for instruction.


There are obvious opportunities for tracking and data collection. But what might that mean? Students in libraries could be automatically directed to the nearest open study carrel, and music students could be automatically sent to the nearest available practice room.

A mobile phone with a store map and Hamiltonian circuit calculator could read your shopping list from your email (or, e.g., and help you find and follow the quickest route to getting all of your groceries; it could also help you determine where to park for optimal shopping speed. If we combined fine-grained geolocation with communications ability, we could have shopping carts scan RFID tags when you placed groceries into the cart. When you arrived at the checkout counter, your cart could just communicate its contents to the cashier, saving time for everyone.

Location as metaphor

There are other exciting possibilities, too: we could also use geolocation to provide metaphors for teaching other concepts, in a cognitive theory sense. We can use geolocation to unlock other ideas for our learners, giving them a scaffold to hold onto.

Imagine a whole class of high school students wearing location trackers. We run several iterations of an exercise where all of the high school students start in one location and race to another—the first n students receive a reward. The iterations:

  1. We put the students in a hallway and give a reward to the first students to reach the classroom at the other end.
  2. We put the students in a hallway and give a reward to the first students to run down the hallway, up the stairs, and into the classroom.
  3. We put the students in the same hallway as (2), but we allow them a choice: run down the first-floor hallway, then climb the stairs; or climb the stairs, then run down the second-floor hallway. Reward the first ones to arrive.

When we've finished, we come back into the classroom and upload all of the location tracks into a computer and superimpose them on a map of the building.

What are we teaching? We're teaching electrical concepts in physics class. We've given people kinesthetic experience with a few important physics concepts—which is important because kinesthetic intelligence is underused in most science classes—but there are some other parallels too:

Scenario (1) simulates flow of electricity in wires of different gauge. Students run with low resistance through the wide wire (hallway), but the resistance changes when they all try to cram through the narrow wire (doorway), and they slow down. I bet some of the students would jostle in the doorway, too, which illustrates the principle that added resistance leads to heat (or arguments). By giving a reward for the first ones to finish, we've gotten the students to behave kind of like electrons (or molecules in an ideal gas): they're all moving as fast as possible in whatever direction they're pointed.

(2) does the same thing, but it's a longer race, so some of the front-runners get tired and fall back; here we might still be talking about electricity, but we could be talking about the movement of sperm in biology class or the changing fortunes of political campaigns. In looking at the position traces over time, students might come to understand the group dynamics in flocks of geese, or the positional strategy of car racing. We could use the example to talk about chemical diffusion, too.

(3) runs back to electricity: increase the number of paths, and you decrease resistance. But the same concept has applications in plumbing, civil engineering, event planning (bathrooms), packing algorithms (math)... and you might then relate it back to educational theory and talk about how multiple-intelligence instruction offers multiple paths and makes it easier for more students to move more quickly through material.

In each case, the students will have a bunch of concrete memories to associate with the new concept, and they may start to hook together such disparate topics as electron flow, fluid dynamics, crowd behavior, and plumbing. By letting us show the individual movement within the crowd, geolocation offers a lot of interesting opportunities for "real world" simulation of complex topics.

The rise of geolocation technology also offers the opportunity to talk about trust and privacy issues in terms that are relevant to today's learners. Today's students are comfortable sharing their personal lives on sites like Facebook, and my students often laugh at me for talking about privacy concerns—but how would they feel about a smart bathroom stall that published the user's name to its data log? Geolocation is neat, but do you want your girlfriend and your mom to be able to look up where you were last night? What if your boss can tell that you were in the bar all afternoon even though you claim that you were at an important meeting? Are these things privacy concerns? What if police could use your cell phone to track how fast you were moving and send you speeding tickets automatically?

We could use geolocation to start a discussion about critical thinking and information sources, too: we frequently assume that location data is "true", somehow. What if the photographs of Rodney King being beaten in Los Angeles had included location tags showing that they happened in the Mayor's parking lot, or if someone published a Photoshopped picture of Tiger Woods and his mistress and geocoded it to be taken from her house?


Location underpins a great deal of our society, and geolocation devices offer a great opportunity to make that underpinning visible. They could be used in behaviorist contexts (imagine a weight-loss program that wouldn't let you leave the gym until you had spent five minutes on each machine), but the best uses are cognitive and constructivist contexts. Location can help us to develop rich metaphors that connect learners to the concepts in the world around them, and geolocation tools can also help learners to create knowledge and seek out things that interest them. When we include geolocation within the greater sphere of always-on communication devices, it becomes a real tool for connectivist theory, because it allows us to pull relevant knowledge from our networks whenever we need it.

1 comment:

  1. Hello
    I've just been thinking about this!
    Have you learnt anything more?