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PokemonGo: 21st century geocaching, lesson plans, & all around game changer

Maybe you missed this. Maybe you’ve been following the presidential election or the Brexit thing or bemoaning the fact that the 2015 World Series champions have lost seven of their last ten games and are now seven games back of Cleveland. You know, something trivial.

So let me catch you up.

A free mobile phone app just changed the world.

Okay. That may be just a bit of an exaggeration. But it’s not far off. Since last week, more people are using this app than Twitter. During that same period, the market value of the app’s manufacturer bumped up nine billion – that’s billion with a B – dollars. And all over the world, millions have jumped off their couches and are, wait for it . . . exercising.

Yup. Walking. Running. Riding bikes. Using actual muscles.

pokemon 1

Erik’s playing a video game called Pokemon Go. But is not just a video game. PokemonGo is an augmented reality video game. Yes, there have been other augmented reality games. But none have the instant built-in attraction of the huge Pokemon fan base, the ease of use, or the social interaction of this game.

Here’s Pokemon Go in a nutshell:

The game allows players to capture, battle, train, and trade virtual Pokémon who appear throughout the real world. You create an avatar which is then displayed on a map using your phone’s GPS. You’ll see your current location along with a map of your immediate surroundings. The map features a variety of game elements “virtually” located at popular meeting places, such as memorials, buildings, parks, and tourist attractions.

The goal of the game is to collect Pokemon characters – you do this by moving around in the real world. This real world movement causes your avatar to move on the game’s map. When you encounter different Pokémon on the game’s map, the app will switch to augmented reality mode – using your phone’s camera and gyroscope to display an image of a Pokémon as though it were in the real world. You can then capture that particular character, feed it, grow it, and train it for competition against other players.

pokemon 2

You also have the ability to find all sorts of power ups and to interact with others while playing the game. (Get the iOS or Android version. If you want to get more details on actual game play, head here or here for some handy tutorials.)

My first thought when playing the first time was:

This is just like geocaching.

And then

How can we use this to teach geography?

Dave McIntire, 2015 Kansas Council for the Social Studies Judy Cromwell Excellence in Teaching Award winner and teacher extraordinaire at Wichita’s Independent School, sent me a heads up last week with the same thought.

With a built-in map and goals that revolve around moving through a variety of geographic spaces, using Pokemon Go to connect to standards and instruction seems like a no-brainer.

Both the NCSS College, Career, and Civic Life standards document

  • D2.Geo.2.6-8. Use maps, satellite images, photographs, and other representations to explain relationships between the locations of places and regions, and changes in their environmental characteristics.
  • D2.Geo.3.3-5. Use maps of different scales to describe the locations of cultural and environmental characteristics.
  • D2.Geo.5.6-8. Analyze the combinations of cultural and environmental characteristics that make places both similar to and different from other places.

and National Geographic’s Geography for Life standards focus on skills, mental maps, and ways of thinking:

  • Geographic skills provide the necessary tools and techniques for us to think geographically. They are central to geography’s distinctive approach to understanding Earth’s physical and human patterns and processes. Geographic skills are used in making decisions important to everyday life.
  • It is essential that students develop skills that will enable them to observe patterns, associations, and spatial order. Many of the skills that students are expected to learn involve using tools and geospatial technologies that are part of the process of geographic inquiry. Geographic representations, such as maps and globes, as well as their digital versions, are essential tools of geography because they assist in visualizing spatial arrangements and patterns.

So off the top of my head, you could use the game to identify, describe, review:

  • cardinal directions
  • parts of a map such as scale and map legend
  • relative and absolute location
  • identifying landmarks
  • similarities and differences between map types
  • mental maps
  • spatial concepts such distance and direction
  • human, geographic, and environmental patterns
  • people’s perceptions of place

So you might ask kids to recreate their Pokemon GO experiences using paper and pencil, Google My Maps, or MinecraftEDU. You might adapt this NatGeo lesson. Or this one. Or this one. Or perhaps this one. Maybe this New York Times list.

I’ve heard from some that this sort of thing is too much like “entertaining” students. That we shouldn’t have to use pop culture or video games to teach social studies. I disagree. I will use pretty much whatever it takes to engage kids in content. And if the relationship between some Pokemon character and its relative or absolute location hooks students into a better understanding of geographic concepts, we ought to be all over it.

Here’s the game changer part. Whenever anything gains nine billion dollars in value within a week, people start to pay attention. We will begin to see more and more virtual / augmented reality apps, games, and tools that education can and should use. We will begin to see more and more apps, games, and tools designed specifically for the classroom.

And that’s a good thing.

But until that happens, how might instruction in your room look like if you included Pokemon Go as part of what you do?

Quick update:

As with most apps that require GPS and Location Services for game play, there have been some questions about privacy issues with PokemonGo. Find out more over at Buzzfeed. Quick overview?

According to the Pokémon Go privacy policy, Niantic may collect — among other things — your email address, IP address, the web page you were using before logging into Pokémon Go, your username, and your location. And if you use your Google account for sign-in and use an iOS device, unless you specifically revoke it, Niantic has access to your entire Google account. That means Niantic has read and write access to your email, Google Drive docs, and more. (It also means that if the Niantic servers are hacked, whoever hacked the servers would potentially have access to your entire Google account.) You can check what kind of access Niantic has to your Google account here.

And like many mobile apps, it also may share this information with other parties, including the Pokémon Company that co-developed the game, “third-party service providers,” and “third parties” to conduct “research and analysis, demographic profiling, and other similar purposes.”

None of these privacy provisions are really that unique. Other location-based apps such as Foursquare do similar things. But the massive number of Pokemon Go users and the incredibly detailed, granular map info makes for a huge database that has some concerned. And the full Google access is a problem. (As of Monday night, app creator Niantic is claiming a coding error and is promising to fix the full Google access request.)

PrivacyGrade hasn’t given Pokemon Go a grade yet. But for what it’s worth, PrivacyGrade gave Niantic, Pokemon Go’s parent company, an A for Ingress, its earlier AR app. (Buzzfeed says that Pokemon Go uses the Ingress map for placing many of its locations.)

So . . . you decide. I still like the idea of using the game as a way to engage kids in learning more about geography. But only after the Google credentials coding issue has been addressed.

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