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Abstract—This paper looks at how mobile and social technologies are influencing informal learning in the context of online community membership. The development of mobile technologies that use Global Positioning System (GPS) data to pinpoint geographical location together with the rapidly evolving Web 2.0 technologies supporting the creation and consumption of content suggest a potential for collaborative informal learning linked to location. The research described in this paper asks whether these technologies can provide an effective focus for community activities and, if so, whether this combination of location-awareness, mobile, and Web 2.0 technology results in the creation of novel informal learning opportunities. The community selected for study was the Geocaching community, a geographically dispersed group who use mobile and Web 2.0 technologies to link the virtual social spaces of the Internet with the physical spaces that surround them.
• Web survey—an online questionnaire providing self-reported data on the target research areas of mobile and Web 2.0 technology use and informal learning.
• Geocaching community resources and outputs from the Geocaching Web site and forums.
• Case study interviews of five participants selected from the Web survey respondents.
• Seeking advice via a message in a Groundspeak forum, thereby engaging in a dialogue with other community members.
• Seeking, finding, and logging a Geocache.
6.1.1 Intentional Learning Opportunities In using the Getting Started forum to ask a question or describe a problem, Geocachers have set some form of learning goal. They regulate their progress toward their goals through postings in the forum thread and discuss their processes and strategies with other forum members, monitoring their progress toward a solution. Technology is key, both in supporting the discussions on the forums, and in providing the means by which members can go out and try out what they have learned on the forum.
6.1.2 Active Learning Opportunities The problems encountered by novice Geocachers relate to the real world context of Geocaching. They include how to interpret the information on a GPS unit, how to upload pictures to the Web site or techniques and skills needed to find a Geocache. The conversational structure of the forum threads encourages observation and reflection. Novice Geocachers try out suggestions, observe the results, and reflect upon the success or failure through posts in the forum, thus obtaining further help from more experienced Geocachers if necessary. The activity of Geocaching involves going out into the environment. making effective use of cognitive tools such as GPS devices and maps.
6.1.3 Constructive Learning Opportunities Novice Geocachers are deliberately seeking to learn in order to resolve some sort of Geocaching-related problem. In doing so they engage in a meaning-making process whereby they map the mental models they develop through the forum conversations onto their observations and experiences when Geocaching, constructing new mental models as they do so.
6.1.4 Authentic Learning Opportunities The challenges faced are situated in the real world context of Geocaching. Although the activity of Geocaching is artificially constructed by Geocachers for other Geocachers, the practice of using GPS technology to hunt for a location, aided by the description and narratives on the cache Webpage involves the exercise of practical skills and higher order thinking in order to be successful. Each Geocache is different; therefore each challenge presents different problems, some of which will be new to the learners and all of which require complex solutions.
6.1.5 Cooperative Learning Opportunities The forum acts as a source of socially negotiated understandings through which all participants can build on and learn from their own and each others' knowledge to construct new knowledge. This conversational learning is inbuilt into the activity of participating in a Getting Started forum. Cooperative learning opportunities occur both for the novice forum members who post questions as well as experienced Geocachers who can learn from the responses of other Geocachers or from the reported experiences of the novices. Social negotiations take place via the Web forums in which the ideas of all participants are discussed and valued. Roles and responsibilities shift with ease—a novice Geocacher may be able to act in an expert role by sharing their experiences of a similar problem in response to a request from another member. Equally, experienced Geocachers also post to the Getting Started forum if they need help with some aspect. This deliberate cooperation through asynchronous interactions, together with the explicit negotiation and renegotiation of roles and responsibilities maps readily onto Jonassen et al.'s rubric for assessing cooperative learning with technology. However, the physical activity of Geocaching offers additional learning opportunities, described below.
6.2.1 Intentional Learning Opportunities The most obvious intentional learning opportunity arising out of joining the Geocaching community is that of learning more about Geocaching, or how to go about it. Becoming a member can act as a trigger for informal learning, for example: I have read two books specific to GPS technology and Geocaching since I have started (Survey response 538).
Certain types of Geocache involve a deliberate learning goal, created by the person who set the cache. For example, the aim of Earthcaches is to teach people something about how the forces that shape the landscape. The success of this aim is reflected in the Web survey responses in which 74 percent ( ) felt they had learned as a result of seeking an Earthcache. ( reflects the fact that only 336 of the Web survey respondents, about half, had searched for an Earthcache).
We went to an Earthcache that involved dinosaur tracks and we have several small children and they learned from that experience. (Survey response 374)
Earthcaches are quite often very interesting, and its definitely a way to improve knowledge and also it makes learning fun. You definitely remember things that you have learned about, i.e., rocks and glacial formations when you have visited a site and seen an example . (Survey response 382)
These learning opportunities may extend beyond the experience of seeking the Earthcache, thus resulting in intentional informal learning opportunities that take the form of research both before and after the event:
In Colorado Springs, caches led us to Garden of the Gods, which we then explored more fully, including the museum. (Survey response 52)
Garden of the Gods Earthcache is a good example. I did a little bit more reading both before and after about the area and the geology . (Survey Response 109)
Solving the challenges devised by the creators of puzzle caches may also result in learning opportunities:
We think that puzzle caches which require you to search the Internet are often excellent for expanding your knowledge. We have often gone beyond the answer required to find out more just for our own interest . (Survey response 211)
Some hightech caches have an inbuilt requirement to learn something new in mathematics and information technology. However, even the traditional cache consisting of a box or container hidden somewhere in the landscape also presents learning opportunities linked to the location. Geocache creators can put considerable efforts into creating caches that give an interesting and educational experience to the Geocachers who seek them. The first part of this experience involves reading the Geocache description. This may present a learning opportunity in itself. Geocaching can also trigger deliberate informal learning activities that complement the Geocaching activity:
Not only have we picked up interesting bits of history, but we have actually gone out of our way to develop skills for Geocaching. My wife and I have taken classes to learn to rappel for Geocaching, we have also learned how to kayak, studied plants and animals and trailcraft, we have taken classes on field first-aid in order to help out other people we hike with. Geocaching has really been a great inspiration to learn for us . (Survey response 71)
Finding the Geocache and experiencing the location also inspire follow-on research. 73 percent ( ) responded " yes" when asked if they'd been inspired to follow up in some way as a result of Geocaching for example a cache placed in a historical site or an area of great natural beauty.
We have also bought a book about wild flowers and reptiles so that we can identify plants reptiles that we see on the trail. (Survey response 108)
Many times we have come back and 1) looked up initials on a gravestone, 2) researched a specific park area for more information regarding its background, or 3) researched a specific event referenced in a cache site. Mostly, it is Internet research; however, several books have been purchased in the efforts . (Survey response 612)
A virtual named We Three Kings inspired me to read the War of the Copper Kings and learn more history about Montana. We also enjoyed a Gandhi inspired cache in a peace garden which inspired my husband to pick up Gandhi's autobiography. Another cache, a virtual in New Orleans whose name I cannot remember, inspired me to read the book A Confederacy of Dunces by Toole . (Survey Response 49)
The informal learning efforts described above are intentional. However, many learning opportunities that occur when Geocaching are unintentional learning opportunities. That is to say, the Geocacher did not set out with the intention to learn but was presented with an unexpected learning opportunity as part of the experience.
One cache my family and I found on vacation had a magnificent birds nest within sight of the cache. After snapping several photos, we researched bird-watching sites to identify the type of bird it was. We thought it might have been an eagle but after about an hour we decided it was an Osprey...we would have NEVER done anything like that without caching . (Survey response 455)
Some Geocaches have taken me to beautiful places I didn't know existed. Such as neat nature preserves, historical sites, etc... Return visits allowed me to further explore the area . (Survey response 473)
Classifying meaningful learning as intentional works when applied to informal learning opportunities that require intent on the part of the learner. For example, engaging in research about a location before seeking a Geocache, or looking up more information after having found the Geocache. However, many informal learning opportunities described by participants are unintentional yet perceived as meaningful by the learners.
6.2.2 Active Learning Opportunities Geocaching is an activity that involves using information provided by others to get outdoors and hunt for Geocaches in the landscape. This requires a variety of tools. Technological tools include the Geocaching Web site through which the cache is selected and from which the information is downloaded, and mobile devices including some form of GPS device with which to navigate across the landscape to locate the cache and maps, either electronic or paper. Combining these artefacts in the real-world context of a Geocache hunt offers many active learning opportunities. Primarily among them being how to effectively use the tools. This was reflected in the free text survey responses to the request for details about what people learned when Geocaching.
Learning how to use a GPSr and map and compass skills. (Survey response 121)
Better familiarity with land navigation techniques without the use of a gps (Survey response 325)
How to navigate better and use of maps (Survey response 202)
By logging the find and posting up photos, a Geocacher reflects and reports on the experience. However, Geocaching as part of a family or friendship group offers additional opportunities for discussion and reflection during the activity.
I know my children have learned a great deal. While out in nature, I have a great venue in which to teach my children about animal and plant life, history, geology, history, technology, and even mathematics and cryptology . (Survey response 106)
I think that most caches teach our children something about the world about us, whether geology, history, nature, etc. There is also the aspect of learning about conservation and caring for the things about us; and about how to be safe when out and about; and of course navigation, distance, bearings and reading maps correctly. Probably the best thing is that we interact with our kids whilst out caching and share the experience as a family . (Survey response 229)
6.2.3 Constructive Learning Opportunities Geocaching is a leisure activity with no external force driving individuals to join in. Any informal learning opportunities that they take up result from intrinsic interest, rather than extrinsic compulsion. This constructive approach was reported both for adult Geocachers and their younger family members:
I have a 7-year-old who is getting very good with a GPS and starting to understand compass and map work. (Survey response 555)
My family has learned to use GPS. (Survey response 361)
My daughter says she learned not to give up. My kids learned that the GPS equipment is only so accurate and reliable and that you cannot rely on this measuring device to pinpoint a cache. You must eventually open your eyes and search for logical places . (Survey response 243)
Geocaching is fundamentally an activity built around sharing experiences of location and real-world problem solving. Both through learning how to use GPS to successfully find a cache, and by solving the challenges explicitly built into certain cache-types, Geocachers engage in meaning-making activities to create their own understandings. These activities are informed by the cooperatively constructed information provided by other Geocachers as well as by the characteristics of the locations they visit.
6.2.4 Authentic Learning Opportunities Geocaching presents real-world challenges. These vary according to the cache, but they often involve learning opportunities in a range of subjects. For example:
Puzzle caches in particular have given me the opportunity to learn about different languages, encryption methods, and historical information. For example, a cache in my area is related to the methods of encryption used in WWII and the method that British soldiers were able to break the Lorenz cipher. I have not solved this puzzle yet, but I have learned a lot about history which I had either never learned, or forgotten. I also solved a puzzle which required learning the Babylonian number system . (Survey response 53)
Yes—a magnet-based cache in particular stands out. I only did science to GCSE level, but I don't ever remember being taught that magnetic power was accumulative. I did a cache where there was a +3 magnetic power holding a cache in place, and you could only swap the polarity on two of the magnets. Where could you find something else to remove the magnetic power out here in a wheat field? We did it! (Survey response 136)
Because Geocaching is set in the real-world context of seeking out hidden locations in the landscape, the problems and challenges encountered are authentic. In addition, when setting the Geocache, community members use the features of the landscape in order to increase the challenge and adventure, thereby, ensuring that the experience is enjoyable.
6.2.5 Cooperative Learning Opportunities Once Geocachers join the online community and engage with other members via the Web forums, they encounter cooperative learning opportunities. These opportunities intensify as they seek the Geocache and return to log it on the Web site. However Jonassen et al.'s [ 2 ] definition of cooperative learning relies on a learning situation in which learners have access to others who are engaged in similar learning opportunities at the same time, along with interactions with experts. Informal learning opportunities do not always occur when people are in the same physical or virtual space at the same time. Therefore, opportunities to work together on a shared understanding of tasks, or to shift roles and responsibilities may be limited. If a Geocacher is seeking a Geocache in the company of others, then it is easy to see how this would offer cooperative learning opportunities. For example:
When hunting caches with groups it requires lots of teamwork. Whether we find it together or don't find it all, the team enjoys the success and not one individual . (Survey response 567)
At times caching partners are very knowledgeable in geology, biology, botany, and other things, even just the history of the area. As we hike each person imparts his/her knowledge of the area or surroundings . (Survey response 266)
These quotes demonstrate how groups of Geocachers interact with others in activities " in which collaboration results in success" [ 2 ] and engage in negotiation in which all members ideas are valued and roles and responsibilities are distributed throughout the team. However, even in these examples of cooperative Geocaching, it is difficult to pinpoint any explicit interaction with experts which was one of the criteria used by Jonassen et al. to identify cooperative learning. This interaction with experts takes place in virtual space, rather than in physical space, through use and assimilation of the cache description (written by the " expert" who set the cache) and by viewing the logs and images of Geocachers who have gone before. There may also be direct e-mail communication with the cache owner, for example, solving some form of challenge related to the cache location, and e-mailing the response to the cache-owner in order to log the find. These virtual forms of expert interactions are a feature of the Web 2.0 technologies that are embedded in the activity of Geocaching.
Cooperative learning opportunities are also encountered by Geocachers who cache solo. They are not obviously interacting with others in the same way as groups of Geocachers. However, the information they are using to inform their experience of location was created cooperatively by other members of the Geocaching community. When they log their find and upload photos, they are contributing to that persistent digial narrative of location, creating a richer picture of that location for others. This contribution may even evolve into changes to the cache description and learning opportunities for the person who hid the cache:
Visiting a cache early in the morning in winter I was joined by an elderly gent who was at the same spot to do Tai Chi. We chatted I told him what I was up to and he explained some of the historical significance of the site. The cache setter had not known of the significance of the place. It was both and ancient route out of the city and had featured in a book by R L Stevenson. I posted this in my log and the setter subsequently amended the cache page . (Survey response 217)
Thus, as a result of the contributions of somebody who found the cache, the role of the person who hid the cache moved from that of contributor of information about the location to consumer of information about the location. This is not so much an acceptance and distribution of roles and responsibilities as an inherent distribution of roles and responsibilities enabled by the way in which the Geocaching community is built on use of Web 2.0 technologies.
Informal learning opportunities when finding a Geocache begin with the consumption of information from within the Geocaching community, reading the cache description and downloading the coordinates. Further learning opportunities emerge as the Geocacher moves through the landscape, using the GPS to navigate, using maps, referring to the cache description and logs. Connected mobile and Web 2.0 technologies provide Geocachers with a medium through which to access and contribute relevant information and the GPS-mobile devices act as tools to guide them through the landscape. These technologies are not used in isolation but are deployed in combinations according to the preferences of the individual Geocachers.
The role of technology. To help clarify the role played by technology in the activity of Geocaching, participants were asked what type of GPS device they used. Table 1 shows that the majority of Geocachers surveyed in 2007 relied on a dedicated GPS device for Geocaching. However, since that date GPS technology has been incorporated into a wider range PDAs and mobile phones, so it is possible that this usage pattern will have changed.
When asked about how they combined mobile technologies when out Geocaching, 93 percent ( ) responded that they took one or more other mobile devices out with them. Devices included another GPS unit to help locate the cache and in case the first failed, a PDA to have the cache pages available for " paperless caching" (caching without a printed description) and laptop for road navigation in the car. Table 2 shows these responses.
The responses demonstrated a range of ways of using mobile technology to support Geocaching. It is interesting to note that although only 5 percent ( ) of Geocachers relied on a PDA as their primary device for locating a Geocache, 83 percent ( ) of those who took additional devices with them chose to take a PDA. The difference in the n-value reflects the fact that only 613 of respondents took extra devices with them when Geocaching. The low number of Geocachers who were prepared to rely on GPS-enabled PDAs as their main caching device could be because GPS-enabled PDAs were not very common when the survey was conducted in 2007, it could be because the GPS technology embedded in PDAs was not as accurate as that in dedicated GPS devices, or it may be because of usability issues.
Seeking, finding, and logging Geocaches represents a regular contribution to the community. When a Geocacher finds a Geocache their experience of the cache location is guided by the description given by the Geocacher who hid the cache and informed by the accumulated narratives of other Geocachers who have previously found it. This connection is instantiated when the find is logged on the Web site. Thus, by simply going Geocaching, a Geocacher is contributing to the community by adding to the cache description and logs created by other Geocachers, building up the persistent digital narrative of location. However, a stronger commitment is required to reach Stage 3 membership, and this is when a Geocacher makes the effort to hide one or more Geocaches for others to find, thereby, making a significant contribution to the Geocaching community.
7.1.1 Intentional Learning Opportunities Any research undertaken in order to create a cache depends on the location and type of Geocache. For example, Earthcaches need geological or geographical knowledge:
I researched Sites of natural National importance, SAMs, and SSSIs and selected two major locations: Severn Bore (natural large wave on Severn Estuary under specific conditions) and Glaciers in Southern England . (Survey response 207)
I had to do research to find out why these areas existed, so I could craft my pages to educate the visitors. I knew nothing going in, so everything I learned about karst geology and piedmonts is a direct result of these caches . (Survey response 71)
Setting traditional Geocaches or multicaches may require some research into the history of an area: I have begun researching ghost towns in Texas after visiting a cache located at one and as a result have placed caches in 20 ghost towns in my area to bring others to visit them. Am working on more currently . (Survey response 460)
When creating a Geocache, external resources such as links to related Web sites or additional information obtained through research are brought into the community by the Geocacher hiding the cache. This results not only in the creation of new learning opportunities for other community members as they seek the cache, but in an altruistically motivated form of learning opportunity for the Geocache creator with the aim of creating learning opportunities for others.
7.1.2 Active Learning Opportunities Creating a Geocache involves collecting together information about a particular location and creating a Geocache description Webpage. Earthcaches involve creating Webpages which describe some form of learning challenge for Geocachers to complete once at the Earthcache location in order to log the find. Creating a Geocache or an Earthcache incorporating a learning challenge for others often requires research into the area and several visits with a GPS unit to select the cache site and take accurate coordinate readings.
I'm putting an Earthcache together, covering a group of copper mines, I've read a couple of books on the topic and been out several times to identify remaining structures on the ground. Finding suitable learning activities is proving the hard bit to do. But I'm getting close . (Survey response 281)
This is something that I am in the process of. I am trying to create one for Hunters Creek, which is a glacial-formed ravine. Do a water-hike down far enough, and you are looking up at steep shale cliffs on both sides. I am in hopes of getting this published this summer. In the meantime, it's a lot of research . (Survey response 307)
7.1.3 Constructive Learning Opportunities According to Jonassen et al.'s definition, constructive learning involves routinely wrestling with new experiences, becoming experts at identifying and solving problems and striving to resolve any dissonance between what is observed and what is known, operating on a sincere desire to know [ 2 ]. Researching in order to set a Geocache, collecting accurate location coordinates, uploading them, an accurate description, images and guidelines represents a variety of constructive learning opportunities.
7.1.4 Authentic Learning Opportunities Creating a Geocache involves similar real-world problem solving skills to seeking and finding a cache. Both require skills in using a GPS to identify location. However, hiding a cache involves creativity and an element of cunning. Traditional caches need to be hidden in sensible places that will not be discovered by casual passers by. Multicaches need the cache creator to use information from one location and translate it into the coordinates for the next location. Creating challenges and puzzles involve learning opportunities for both the cache creator and the cache hider, and selecting and describing interesting locations is an activity that involves interacting with real-world objects and places.
I always try to hide caches that have some meaning, something to learn or something to see. My best cache is hidden in a local cemetery where a B-25 bomber crashed during WWII on a training run to Florida. Its truly amazing how many locals are totally unaware that this event ever occurred in our little town. I get lots of positive feedback from the finders of this cache . (Survey response 260)
7.1.5 Cooperative Learning Opportunities Researching in order to place a Geocache seems at first glance like an individual learning activity. Participants mentioned using the Internet as a research tool:
Did research on creating the geological history of the area. Lots of research from government Web sites. (Survey response 169)
Internet research, Edinburgh has a volcano in it very simple selection for an Earthcache, whilst researching that I found a mimetolith called the Gray Man of Merrick. I was so inspired about this face on a rock that I trekked out and found it and made that into an Earthcache . (Survey response 151)
However, this research is triggered by a wish to place a quality Geocache that will give pleasure and interest to those who seek it. Sharing information about a location is one of the ways of enhancing a Geocache. Creating a Geocache makes a significant contribution to the Geocaching community; the community wouldn't exist unless people were prepared to put the effort in to create and maintain Geocaches.
More explicit cooperative learning opportunities may occur when the Geocache creator is engaged in research that involves visiting the intended location for the Geocache, as illustrated by this quote from Case study 3 interview.
I went to the museum to do some research and met with the curator who was also a member of the local historical society. I explained to him all about Geocaching, and he liked the idea and was happy to have the cache hidden in the garden at the front of the museum. He spoke about the town and described the places of interest that could be found. I then visited each of these sites and devised a safe walk around the town that took in some of the most interesting places. The historical society had erected information plaques around the town, and I decided to make each waypoint rely on the collection of data from these plaques .
Sometimes, the cache creator already possessed the subject-specific knowledge yet worked as part of a group in order to create the Earthcaches for others:
I did a degree in geology, so I was very switched on to Earthcaches. I was part of the team who established the first Earthcache in the UK. This was at a place that I knew about from my geology studies and thought it would be good for other people to discover it too. I put together some questions which would hopefully make the cachers do a bit of Web research and learn a bit more than they could from just a visit to the site . (Survey response 582)
This quote does not mention any learning opportunities for the cache-creator, but the involvement of a team who " established the first Earthcache in the UK" suggests that there were cooperative learning opportunities available to others who might learn more about geology from survey respondent 582.
This example illustrates how the learning opportunities encountered when hiding a Geocache as part of a group, as described by survey respondent 582, conform readily to Jonassen et al.'s definition of cooperative learning with technology. However, a more typical Geocache created by an individual appears to present fewer cooperative learning opportunities.
The desire to give something back to the community, leading to deliberate informal learning efforts in a range of subjects reveals a new angle on the relationship between community membership and informal learning opportunities.
Caches have inspired me in two ways. First, in the clever methods of hiding and thereby to emulate the hide. More importantly, caches I have found in neat parks or locations I otherwise would not have visited inspired me to hide my cache in a place that was scenic and historic . (Survey response 248)
I've done research on the background of ghost towns I discovered while caching, and often research areas in order to hide a cache there, so I can educate others as well . (Survey response 246)
Creating a Geocache involves the individual (or team) choosing a location that has not been used in another cache and bringing together a range of external information resources to create a location-specific Geocache or Earthcache description. This description is then placed on the Geocaching Web site and made available to other Geocachers.
This seemly altruistic goal of learning in order to create stimulating and engaging learning opportunities for others is a facet of informal learning that is closely connected to community membership and cooperative learning.
• The author is with The Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, Jennie Lee Building, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, UK. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manuscript received 31 May 2009; revised 11 Aug. 2009; accepted 2 Sept. 2009; published online 11 Sept. 2009.
For information on obtaining reprints of this article, please send e-mail to: email@example.com, and reference IEEECS Log Number TLTSI-2009-05-0096.
Digital Object Identifier no. 10.1109/TLT.2009.39.
Gill Clough received the PhD degree from the Institute of Educational Technology at The Open University (OU), in which she focused on the activities of Geocachers to explore the ways in which mobile and Web 2.0 technologies are used, informally, to create, store, and share knowledge. She has worked with students in Second Life, looking at alternative approaches to education, and is currently a researcher on the EU-funded xDelia project, which uses serious games to address issues of emotional bias in financial decision-making.