Place-based Learning with locative technologies: situating learning in the cultures of place.

©2006 John Martin

Abstract: All human activities are constrained by the interconnected and overlapping factors of: biological abilities, time, space, and social narratives. My research focuses on how the interplay between two of these factors, space and narratives, can be mediated with the cultural tools of locative technologies, such as Augmented Reality games and GPS units. In order to answer the questions: How can and do place-based pedagogies affect learning? and How do locative technologies, like Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Augmented Reality Games on Handhelds (ARGHs), help connect learners to the cultures of place? I will look at middle schoolers’ experiences with place-based video games. To better inform my investigation, I draw on research in design, embodiment, environmental education, experiential education, human geography, sociocultural education, and video games.

There are problems in Education. We are bored in school and increasingly look to online spaces and video games to fulfill social needs. But in these spaces our bodies are largely ignored or abused — eyes, wrists, necks and backs are strained. Obesity is on the rise, due in part to the sedentary nature of our time online and in video games, which distracts us from tending to our physicality. Socially, we are becoming increasingly distanced, with connections (friendships, news, and stories) developing across the globe more readily than in our own neighborhoods. We are overlooking our need for a sense of place.This is significant: place shapes identity and learning — and identity and learning shape place. We live, and learn to live, in a culturally relevant, physical world. We learn its stories and its rules, and then we redesign and interpret them to better fit our needs and perspective. We are shaped by stories that make the spaces in which we work and play into culturally rich places. Then we modify those stories to exert our own interpretation of the significance of those places into our identities and the identities of our children.

The American education system has downplayed the role of place in learning, and overlooked its importance. To adapt Brown and Duguid’s metaphor of the ripple to learning: “we notice the ripple and take the lake for granted. Yet surely the lake shapes the ripple more than the pebble shapes the lake” (Brown & Duguid 2000: 138). I believe that we must better learn to connect to the particular places we live in — for, as Geertz prompts, “no one lives in the world in general” (Geertz 1996: 262).

My task in this stage of my educational career is to work towards and shape this change. I propose to do this via locative technologies that depict relevant cultural stories as participants play in, and move through, various places. As a way of making their own cultural mark on the places they move through, my research allows participants’ addition of their own stories by encouraging their modification of the experience for others.

I draw from and bridge research in design, embodiment, environmental education, experiential education, human geography, sociocultural education, and video games, in order to weave together a broad theory of Design in Place Learning that posits, simply, that motivation for meaningful learning occurs when we can exert some element of cultural power in the community and places in which we are connected. This is a theory in progress that I will address and develop in work beyond the scope of the research outlined here, although it is supported in part by this work.

Significance of the Problem

Place, Meaning, and Motivation

The mainstays of traditional classroom teaching do not adequately address the optimal learning needs of humans. Part of the problem is that traditional education is often not compelling. The classroom is typically designed to be a placeless space; not culturally-relevant or specific, but rather flexible and generic enough to support the teaching of multiple, often-disconnected subjects taught with top-down behaviorist or pseudo-constructivist teaching styles (Dewey 1900; Kliebard 1986; Ladson-Billings 1995; Lackney 1999, Tyack 1974). Jay Lemke describes the problem this way:

Classrooms are very small, cramped, over-crowded spaces that can afford not much resource of place for more than conversation, reading, writing, and a few simple activities with not very interesting materials. They were designed for mass education on the cheap at a time when education was mostly about basic literacy and not much else. Each room and subject and age-grade is cut off from the others, and all are cut off from the authentic communities of practice in the rest of society for which education is said, not very credibly, to prepare us (Lemke 2004).

One of the “authentic communities of practice” Lemke mentions here is a growing technological divide between the structure of traditional classroom education and youth — the social learning spaces that technology is broadening. The advent of these online social spaces and their educational merits are being addressed on many fronts in education research, from the study of the New Literacies (Black 2006; Lankshear & Knobel 2003; Leander 2002, 2003), to educational video games (Barab, Thomas, Dodge, Carteaux, & Tuzun, 2005), to the study of learning in commercial video games (Gee 2003; Kafai 1995; Shaffer, Squire, Halverson, Gee, 2005; Squire 2004, 2005; Steinkuehler 2005; Turkle 1995). These affiliation-based learning communities operate in ways counter to the top-down knowledge transmission models of traditional formal education.

But life online is not a life our bodies can tolerate for long. Studies decry the strained eyes, wrists, neck and back, and an epidemic of obesity due in part to the sedentary nature of our time online and in video games (Gillespie 2006; Stettler, Signer & Suter 2004; Vanderwater, Shim & Caplovitz 2004).

Since we know that we are both cognitively situated and motivated by our culture and the nature of our own places (Cole 1990; Cole & Engestrom 1993; Lave 1990; Lave & Wenger 1991; Pea 1993; Scribner 1985; Brown, Collins & Duguid 1989), it should be no surprise that even as the economic layout of the world becomes increasingly “flat” (Friedman 2005), regional uniqueness is being reconsidered, polished, and marketed (Oldenburg 1999). This demand extends to, and counters, the flat nature of the Internet, which is being ‘thickened’ by a demand for increased connection to community and place through social networking and locative web applications.

New opportunities are being developed that closely knit the information handling affordances of online space with the locative affordances of Global Positioning Systems (GPS), a satellite-driven system that can help precisely identify and map one’s location on the earth. This opens up the ability to organize the vast repository of online information and mete it out as needed — a precept of just in time learning (Gee 2003). This categorization by place also offers an opportunity for bottom up grassroots content creation and expertise in place, since no one knows a place in the same way, but each has unique expertise through perspective.


The time to develop tools for situated learning is now. Locative technologies are becoming ubiquitous — in the form of navigation systems in vehicles, handheld GPS units, or even the E911 technology in all U.S. mobile phones since 2002 that enable authorities to locate emergency 911 callers to within 100 square feet. Additionally, social movements are springing up that emphasize and support local foods, local business, local neighborhoods and cultures. Web-based applications like Mapquest, Google Local and Google Earth are being developed to address our desire to learn about the spaces we live and move in.

Advances in portable computers, through technological miniaturization and mobile telecommunication, can further shift the vast data available on the Internet to the specific locations where it can be most usefully meted out.

At the same time, video games are quickly emerging as a tremendous force in society, with sales and popularity approaching movies. People are turning away from television and to video games in their leisure time. Console and controller technologies such as Nintendo’s Wii, Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, Eye Toy, and others are adding a greater degree of physicality to video game play than traditional joysticks and controllers had offered, but they still limit the actual experience to (typically) the living room (Harmonix 2005; Konami 1998; Marks 2004; Nintendo 2006). Mobile gaming devices, like Nintendo’s Game Boy and DS, Sony’s PlayStation Portable, and others offer portability to play outside, but their games are typically disconnected from the places they are played in (Nintendo 1989, 2004; Sony 2004). Combining technologies that so broadly and richly support the places where we live with the immensely popular medium of video games is an endeavor that can and must now be taken.

Statement of the Problem

In order to answer the questions: How can and do place-based pedagogies affect learning? and How do locative technologies, like Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Augmented Reality Games on Handhelds (ARGHs), help connect learners to the cultures of place? I propose to undertake a case study (Stake 1995) examining the activity of playing and iteratively redesigning a place-based GPS-assisted video game in the context of a four-day camping experience. Bounded in two 25-day summer camp sessions, groups of 3-5 boys, aged 11-15 will play, critique, and redesign the Mystery Trip handheld augmented reality game.

The Mystery Trip

The Mystery Trip was originally a wilderness camping experience that campers’ grandfathers or great-grandfathers may have had in the 1920s and 1930s at a camp in Maine that I have been involved with since 1992. It was a Hardy Boys type adventure, with location-based codes, pictures and video clues. In one game, campers follow trails of “forgers, kidnappers, and thieves” finding clues, solving puzzles, and breaking codes, to discover “the loot.” New technologies let me to add a design experience, so that participants (groups of 3-5 youth and a counselor) can test a game then offer feedback and suggestions — simultaneously taking on the roles of player and designer to work together and independently in tasks related to camping, playing the game, and critiquing/redesigning the game.

To design such a game requires an understanding of the lore of the place — jokes, clues, and insider knowledge that older campers will understand and younger campers are on the verge of comprehending — Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development for the Discourse of the community. It requires knowledge of physical and cultural geography of the landscape, an awareness of places that the current campers’ older relatives may have stories about. It involves a loose narrative in the stylistic vein of the dry wit associated with the camp since its inception. In short, it requires the situated experience of the camp culture.

In 2005, returning campers were approached with the idea and they spent a four-day trip mapping out potential game space, creating potential characters, and building a loose narrative line for the AR game. For this research, campers will play and redesign ideas in the game.

In addition to the Mystery Trip place-based research project, I will bring into this work experiences at the Local Games Lab assisting with a STAR Schools grant project on Augmented Reality games, and experiences leading middle school and teenage kids in the development of an Augmented Reality game for a neighborhood.

Define locative technologies

I define locative technologies simply, as tools we utilize to help us determine spatial position, which by itself does not offer a rich or meaningful understanding of where we are. A magnetic compass is an example of a locative technology, as is a Global Positioning System (GPS), but latitude and longitude numbers need to be couched in more culturally relevant terms in order to be meaningful. Maps offer additional layers of culturally relevant information, and those that we find useful layer information in meaningful terms. Consider the rich and varied differences in meaning between these cultural terms of location:

  • lat: 43° lon: 89°
  • Madison, Wisconsin
  • home

Define place-based pedagogies

Space itself is not culturally important to us, but the activities and stories associated with that space are (Gee 2005). Drawing on the research on place-based education and Gruenewald’s Critical Pedagogy of Place, I define place-based pedagogies as educational practices — uniquely shaped to geographical and cultural affordances and constraints of a specific place — that facilitate experiential project-based learning (Basso 1996; Casey 1993, 1997; Gruenewald 2003; PEEC 2003; RSCT 2003; Sobel 2003).

Define Augmented Reality Games on Handhelds (ARGH)

Although space is relatively fixed, place (culturally-relevant space) can be redesigned by changing cultural information. Over the past few years, researchers at MIT, Harvard, and UW-Madison have been developing place-based video games played on handheld computers that are directly linked to the locative technology of GPS (Klopfer & Squire in press; Klopfer, Squire & Jenkins 2002, Matthews 2005). In these games, instead of manipulating a playing piece (e.g. the Monopoly ‘shoe’) across the space of a game board, players are their own pieces, and they move through real-world geographical environments. In addition to the player’s existing cultural knowledge of the place, supplementary information is triggered as the player approaches, and is augmented (added) to the player’s empirical knowledge via the handheld computer.

Whether fact or fiction, the augmented information can serve as a just-in-time guide to the game allowing the player to make decisions and come up with strategies to get through the game narrative within its time and space constraints. This augmentation can be used to design what Ellsworth calls processual paths through pedagogically charged learning environments (Ellsworth 2005). Place-based handheld games brings together the affordances of virtual space and those of real space in learning environments that are impractical in a primarily physical or primarily virtual world (Klopfer, Squire & Jenkins 2002; Roy 1999; Schwartz, Bransford & Sears 2005).

Theoretical Framework

The theoretical stance of Design in Place Learning that I use acknowledges that we are socially-minded and spatially-embodied navigators, learning from others, and from our own practice designing solutions to our daily problems in the physical and social environments we experience. As a result of this “inescapable embeddedness of human beings in natural systems,” all learning is ecological (Smith & Williams 1999). Our incentives to learn are sociocultural — based, to a large extent, on our interest and need to belong to a community.

Additionally, our best learning is experiential — based largely on individual and social experiences as embodied beings (Dewey 1910, 1925, 1938). In sharing our own stories and experiences, we iteratively redesign and reinterpret larger cultural stories in order to better fit our situational knowledge (Bruner 1996). The transmission of community-derived situational knowledge to individuals is done through cultural models and stories of identity, often tied to shared understandings in the geographical spaces of experience, thus changing it from space into culturally-relevant place (Coles 1989; Gee 1999; Holland 1998; Holland & Quinn 1987; Tuan 1977, 1991). For example, a simple flag of sovereignty can turn ‘unknown lands’ into the Queen’s latest territory.


All our activities, including learning, are constrained by the interconnected and overlapping factors of: our biological abilities, time, space, and social narratives. My research focuses on how the interplay between two of these factors, space and narratives, can be mediated with the cultural tools of locative technologies, such as AR games and GPS units, to affect learning.

Figure 1

Existing Social Narratives

It is our embodied physical experiences and engagement with our environment that most directly affects and makes meaningful our knowledge of it (Dewey 1925; Dourish 2001; Gibson 1979). The meaningfulness of our places, Yi-Fu Tuan notes, is not immediately and fully realized, but “is the result of historical and social processes, built up over time by large and small happenings” (Tuan 1991: 692). Through the work of Lev Vygotsky and other sociocultural learning theorists, we understand that these large and small happenings are not ours alone, but are adopted, formally and informally, in part from the worldviews of the communities we are socialized in — both those communities that we physically reside in, and what Lave & Wenger call communities of practice (Lave & Wanger 1991; Oldenburg 1999; Vygotsky 1978; Wertsch 1991). All flavors of sociocultural activity-based learning theories such as Activity Theory (Vygotsky 1978; Leon’tev 1978; Engeström 1990; Wertsch 1998), Situated Action (Suchman 1987; Lave 1988), and Distributed Cognition (Flor & Hutchins 1991; Pea 1993) demonstrate that our cultural ancestors were embodied in a very physical world of which they had to make sense, and part of our current understanding comes from their lived experiences (Nardi 1995). Communities of practice who do not share the same physical spaces may have different understandings, but many disparities are mediated by a common spatially-based language (Lakoff & Johnson 1980). Even in the age of computers, we continue to be spatial beings (Hayles 1999; Latour 1997; Norman 1993).

Redesigning Social Narratives

It is not only our engagement in the world, but also our ability to affect our community at a tangible level that is a significant requirement of good learning (Brown & Duguid 2000; Ellsworth 2005; Greene 1978; Gruenewald 2003; Lave & Wenger 1991; Scribner 1985; Streibel 1998). There is an adage in education that purports that to really understand a thing, one must teach it. In other words, sociocultural learning, at its best, is not a one-way process; it is in the struggle to express our activity through means that others can comprehend that force us to reflect deeply on our experiences.

Of the many mediums of expression, a recent and potentially powerful one is through the design of video games. Game designers organize learning spaces (Jenkins & Squire 2002: 65) through the expression of their own cultural experiences in the structures of games. A successful cultural expression — a ‘good’ game, that is, one that others understand, appreciate, and enjoy playing — usually takes multiple, recursive attempts, or design experiments, to get ‘right’ (Barab & Kirshner 2001; Barab & Squire 2004; Brown 1992).



Over the course of 20 weeks, spanning two summers, I will create and modify Augmented Reality games that are specific to the culture and geography surrounding a deep woods camp for boys. Small (3-5) groups of 11-15 year old campers will play and critique the game and experience. They will report their experiences and ideas in a group journal and in individual video interviews, and offer feedback in the design of concurrent games, which will be played by the next group. This iterative development of the game by the campers should provide ample evidence, in their game experience, of the influence of the culture of: individual boys (family), trip group, camp, and larger cultural groups.

Figure 2.


The research site is a deep woods summer camp for boys. I have worked there for thirteen years, and have earned the trust and deep access of the owners, parents, and campers. Multiple members of each group have invited and encouraged me to conduct my research there. Additionally, my masters’ thesis dealt with the rich cultural history of the camp — some campers are fourth generation. Together, this offers me insider access and insight for my research. The natural bounding of the summer camp warrants a case study approach (Stake 1995), predetermining for the study:

  • gender and age of the participants (11-15 year old boys)
  • time frames and locations of the design experiences (Tuesdays – Fridays, in the land and Wildlife Preserves surrounding the camp)
  • general socioeconomic status of the campers (upper-middle class)

It also determines some limits to the study. For example, in collecting parental permission, I ran across concerns from parents in academia through questions like “How will this research take away from [my son’s] camp experience?” and I needed to assure them that it would not hinder, but rather supplement, their child’s camp experience. This set limits to the intrusiveness of my evaluation methods — ‘school-type’ surveys and tests are not part of the regular camp experience, but trip articles (journals) and video interviews are a part of their regular camp experience.

Analysis Method

The recursive cycles of Augmented Reality games as it has thus far occurred, and as it is designed to continue — where playing the game leads to major and minor redesign of the game — matches nicely to experiential Deweyian tenets of Design-Based Research (Barab & Squire 2004; Brown 1992) and Design Theory (Burnette 1999). I will use Discourse Analysis (Gee 1999) in examining what participants are learning through their engagement in the experience.

Methods to study engagement

To avoid the shortcomings of any single method of study, I strive for at least three different forms of representation or modalities, as well as multiple perspectives, and ‘legs’ of support, in making arguments (Brown 1992; Kress & van Leeuwen 2001). In this study I consider video interviews, their trip journals, reports and skits, the game code itself, and my own observations and notes.
Video interviews would be one source of data, because campers have become comfortable with me wielding a video camera, and interviewing, for camp videos. They often request, and look forward to having me as their trip leader, and my documentation of the trip with video, interviews, and photographs. Because I encourage them to speak with ‘attitude’ in these sessions, they have generally been not only honest, but also challenging in their comments.

Trip reports and game journals provide sources of written data. The reports of their trip activity are written by the campers for the camp newspaper, and have been part of the camp experience since 1921, offering the trip group an opportunity to reflect on their experience, as well as offering the camp staff (and parents) the participants’ perspective of the trip experience. By asking them to also keep a trip “game journal” of their critiques and suggestions for the game experience, I invite them to share their expertise on their own likes and dislikes, and offer them a chance to have direct input on ideas for the next trip’s game experience.

Direct observation is another source of data, because I live with and interact with the players and their peers in the camp environment for three to seven weeks in the summer, and know many over the course of several summers. According to Barab and Squire, “design-based research suggests a pragmatic philosophical underpinning, one in which the value of a theory lies in its ability to produce changes in the world” (Barab & Squire 2004: 6). By listening to the ‘talk’ around camp, I can pick up undercurrents of interest, disinterest, and affect on identity through such things as: how campers talk about the experience to others; who and how many want to be on the trip; whether they are giving up popular trips to do so; and the performative representation of their experience (Butler 1990). All of these sources feed into a fuller understanding of their experience and engagement.

Questions to evaluate effectiveness

Ultimately, my overarching measure of effective learning is based on the theoretical constructs of John Dewey, Maxine Greene, and Lev Vygotsky. However, there are several gauges for determining effectiveness of design experiments in learning (Brown 1992). I pull on a few, and tailor them into specific questions for my research that can have broader implications beyond this study (Barab & Squire 2004).

Readiness to learn. Are the participants stretching their limits? Are they coming up with new ideas, or rehashing old ones — or tweaking and refining old ones? Are they working together, playing off each others’ ideas, or is it a process that only one or two are really involved with? The use of a single handheld computer for a group of 3-5 players forces a certain level of collaboration; are they pulling each other along, or are some simply lost and abandoned?Discovery learning. Are the participants motivated in their engagement? Do they follow the most minimal of paths, or does their curiosity pull them ‘off course’ — and does the trip leader allow it? Do they wait for guidance or bound forward and explore both the game and the possibilities for revision. Do they want to design things that the game engine doesn’t support, and are they letting that stop them or are they looking for other ways to manifest their ideas?

The curriculum and society. Does their experience build on and add to the culture of the camp? Is there, and what is the nature of, chatter about the experience in camp, and between participants and non-participants? Do subsequent designs pull from and speak to experiences on other trips? Does the trip seem to ‘fit in’ with the rest of the camp philosophy, values, and consciousness?

The reality principle. Does the experience have a lasting effect? Do the players write about it in their trip articles? Are there skits based on it? Do their parents mention it — favorably or not? Will there be designs planned and perfected over the course of the off-season for implementation the next summer? Will they come back sixty-five years later and gush about the time they had with it, as a 1939 camper did in 2005 regarding his original Mystery Trip experience?

Moreover, by constructing the experience to include elements of critique and redesign of it, the critical eye of the player is turned on the process itself (Barab & Squire 2004: 8). This lets me observe and trace ideas that work well in the experience, and those that do not, by examining iterations of the game. This analysis may suggest more effective paths in place-based learning environments.


Educational research in games is, for the most part, presently focused on examining the learning principles in games, and considering how to shoehorn existing placeless curriculum into video games for “anytime, anywhere learning” (Microsoft 2006). Relatively little research looks at the use of games for learning that is situated in the cultures of place, and none that I have found investigates the potential of game design for socially-situated places.

My specific research project considers a game-based technology that contains the elements of Design in Place Learning. Although the primary focus of my project examines the context of a deep woods camping environment, its principles apply to education and learning in both formal and informal environments. In many respects, it borders and bridges diverse areas of research, pulling from bodies that often have had little to say to each other. Because it is a tech-heavy video game, it falls under the auspices of video game research. Because it is place-based and specific, it has significant applications in environmental education research. Because it is a group-centered design activity, it reaches into sociocultural learning research, Design Thinking and Problem Based Learning research, and experiential education.


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