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When Technology Use Gets Confused: It Could Lead to a Real Find

Diane Demee-Benoit

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia
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You're going to think this is outrageous thinking from someone affiliated with The George Lucas Educational Foundation: I believe too many people are thinking about technology first and learning second. Let's not put the cart before the horse. I'll give you an example.

About two years ago, I was scouting for a story about use of global-positioning-system (GPS) units in schools. We thought it would be a great video piece, and people were asking us about innovative uses of GPS and GIS (geographic information system) technologies in schools. Using my professional network to scout for story leads, I finally landed on a story I initially thought would be great. Unfortunately, the story started to unravel.

This school was highly recommended by the school district's technology director as applying GPS technology in an exemplary way. Students were using the GPS units to help a local historical society research the lives of past inhabitants of a special property. Wow, I was impressed! How authentic! How exciting! Place-based learning, service learning, and more!

I asked whether the information the students had uncovered was going to be helpful to the historical society. There was a pause... The teacher seemed confused by my question. No, the area had already been mapped out, and the kids were just going to validate the archeological site's latitude and longitude. They were going to learn how to use a GPS device.

When I asked how the technology, in this case GPS, was facilitating the learning, I was told the kids need to learn about the history and geography of the area but that GPS isn't really needed for that. Uh-oh. Well, then why spend the money on the GPS units?

It finally came down to the fact that at the last technology conference, everyone was talking about GPS and people were scrambling to figure out how to use this technology in a school setting. These teachers were using this cool tech tool to get their students' attention, but the technology wasn't really necessary in implementing the project.

In the end, these GPS units were used for a high-tech scavenger hunt: find the right latitude and longitude, and you'll locate the buried treasure! Okay, now I get it! They were geocaching. The kids had fun. Running around trying to find a geocache is more interesting than running circles around the school track any day! However, in my opinion, the GPS link to social studies and history needed a little more tweaking so there would be a stronger curricular link. What did longitude and latitude tell about this site? Why would anthropologists, archeologists, and other scientists care about latitude and longitude in this case? Something just didn't feel right.

Did I eventually find a story where GPS technology is used authentically in the service of education? Yes, I did -- and it also included GIS technology! I called the U.S. Geological Survey, which led me to a research biologist at the University of Washington, which led me to a teacher in rural eastern Washington state living in a town of 1,100 people. There, I found a wonderful school story about technology, community and parent involvement, connection with real scientists, integrated curriculum, and authentic assessment. So, go read Leapin' Lizards!: Students as Data Collectors and see the video and judge for yourself. I think this is a great case of hitching the cart to the right side of the horse.

(As a side note: Last summer, the kids presented at a very large conference of GIS professionals and stole chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall's thunder when they later appeared on the same stage with her. The students got the standing ovation; tears were pouring out of the eyes of the geospatial engineers, technicians, and geographers. The kids also presented at a professional conference of wildlife biologists because they've uncovered new scientific information about the natural history and geography of a small species of lizard.)

Oh, and check out the East Initiative. Look at examples of GPS and GIS among the 230 schools and six states participating.

Share your other good examples of using GPS and GIS. We want to know what works!

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Diane Demee-Benoit

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Stephen Rahn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great post. I have been trying to get this same point across to some of our teachers in Georgia.

Christine Nicolosi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Agreed; this is a fantastic post, and something all teachers need to keep in mind. As with any educational tool, its true value lays in how we implement and integrate it to facilitate authentic learning--not in simple, mindless playtime engaged in only b/c a new technology has caught the popular fleeting flavor of the moment.

Jim Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Brava, Diane! Let us never forget to put the "why" before the "how."

DebbieF's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is an interesting article to me GPS and GIS are cutting edge pieces of technology. However unless the students are tracking things such as bird flu, trucks and cars or doing surveying and creating detailed maps then, academically it may not have use other than as a piece of technology that enhances learning. The technology behind the GPS and GIS could be more academically sound as far as science and math education are concerned. Then the hands on aspect may be a bit more relevant and the exercises that allow them to try the technology out. WWW. has educational programs.

Barrie Jo Price's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this comment really thought-provoking and insightful. I think it is just this kind of thing that provides fuel for the fire for those who wish to derail the infusion of technology. All purchases should start with these questions: What is the instructional purpose? Whose interests are being served?

Just as an aside, who would agree with me that GPS might be a great way to begin to include computer-mediated collaboration as an instructional theme in our schools?

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