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GPS - What is the learning value of knowing where you are?
by Adam Blackwood


Today’s Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) Systems can provide highly accurate information on a person’s location (down to a centimetre with the right equipment).  The developing benefits of GPS to education are derived from the growing uptake and ubiquity of mobile devices, coupled with the expanding proliferation of Web 2.0 services into a range of social, educational and commercial contexts.

In its purest incarnation, GPS provides location datum.  So how can GPS enhance the value of learning experiences? This value comes from the type of useful information which can be provided to an individual based upon their location. The value of this information is enhanced by providing it in a way that can be assimilated easily and quickly according to the desired purpose: an arrow pointing the way on a hiking GPS device, a moving street view for navigating in the streets in a city, or an augmented reality view through the camera for identifying landforms in a geography field trip. GPS provides opportunities for the student to find out more information about their location and what they are viewing. For the tutor, GPS applications can provide more efficient and engaging ways of teaching.  GPS is available to over 25% of phone users in the UK. It is currently under utilised, but will become embedded into many of the information sources we will be using in the future.

GPS standards

GPS is based on an American Military System which comprises of 24 satellites orbiting the earth. Most GPS navigation systems provide a display which shows the user the number of satellites which their system has managed to ‘lock on’ to (for successful navigation you need signals from at least four satellites). This data provides the GPS instrument with information that indicates where, on the ‘perfect ellipsoid’ model of the earth, the user is presently located. Most devices then convert that world standard data into information relevant to the local region. So, for hiking in the UK, this would commonly be the OSGB36 standard which relates to the ordnance survey map grid system used in the UK. On a car navigation system it translates to a road system with signs and voice guidance.  There are various other international systems such as the European Gallieo project which provide further alternatives and enhancements for receiving satellite information.
On many mobile devices Assisted GPS (AGPS) can also be used to supplement the information provided by satellite if reception is poor.  AGPS calls on information from a variety of sources, such as wi-fi positioning system and information from mobile tower sites (themselves equipped with a GPS transmitter) and uses information through wireless networks and cell tower information to relay information about the device’s location. Modern applications will call for information from all of these sources, depending upon their availability, first scanning for information from:

  • GPS satellite based services,
  • then WLAN and Wi-Fi services, and finally
  • from the phones own voice transmission services from the mobile phone transmission towers (3G, GPRS or GSM mobile phone networks).

 Augmented Reality (AR) views of locations

Another way of providing a location signal to an area which has poor signal reception (such as inside a building) is to use a GPS repeater. These devices receive the signal externally and communicate it via a wired connection to a repeater inside the building space. Combine ‘inside building navigation’ solutions with enhanced information pushed to the student’s device and you have a new level of potential for providing services and support to learners around the campus. It is likely that this, as well other types of very specific local information services will become ubiquitous and expected as the norm by visitors to new buildings and campuses. For example, Tilburg University in The Netherlands already provide students the opportunity to download (via a QR code on the website) a link to an Augmented Reality app for their Android or iPhone. Using this application, a student walking through the campus can access extra information on the location and nature of the buildings they are looking at through the camera view on their mobile device.

Tilburg University – augmented reality view for campus guide


Figure 1: Tilburg University – augmented reality view for campus guide

AR is also rapidly becoming a common place tool for searching for location specific information.  Applications such as Google’s LAYAR and WikiTude allow individuals to search via a real world view through their camera for web based information tagged to the objects they are looking at. This augmented view provides a much richer way to examine the information in the real world which is both more engaging and informative.

Creating content for AR mapping tools has recently become much easier. For example, WikiTude has a drag and drop style editor which allows the user to place pins on a map, add content and links to them and make them available for anyone running the WikiTude app to see from their own GPS enabled mobile device. This has significant potential to facilitate the creation of AR educationally useful environments, for example,  an information guide to your campus, a field study area,  a historical site, an archaeological dig or any other geomorphology.  The information points for Google’s LAYAR application can be easily edited using the Hoppala web application. An example of this type of user created content is shown in Figure 2.


User generated GPS tag and geo fencing overlaid on a Google map projection created in Mobeedo

Figure 2: User generated GPS tag and geo fencing overlaid on a Google map projection created in Mobeedo  

Managing student groups - tracking and GeoFencing

In addition to providing enhanced and more relevant information to the individual in the field, GPS solutions can also provide the potential for greatly improving resource management issues and enhancing the student learning experience.

Various GPS tools allow devices to be monitored remotely by selected people. For example some elderly people use the Buddi GPS device to provide peace of mind, allowing a dedicated central service to monitor their GPS data and react accordingly should their patterns of activity warrant cause for concern. Similar features exist on other personal GPS tracking units. Some, for example, can be set to periodically send their location to another phone via SMS or to a dedicated website where the information is displayed graphically. For example, GPS Tracker by 2-Tech can be set to send SMS location updates as well as storing location and time stamps. By correlating the stored location and time stamp data with the time stamps on other data recording equipment, it is possible to marry up location information for devices which do themselves have GPS recording capability. For example, the Mini Global GPS Tracker with GPRS connection by SackStark can be requested to give its location via SMS or can be preconfigured to send its location using ‘geo-fencing’ boundaries established by the administrator.

GeoFencing is the ability to draw a boundary area on a digital map which can then be interpreted by the GPS unit. The unit will then provide alerts when it is taken in to or out of the boundary area (depending on the intended purpose). For example. most personal tracking solutions are designed to provide ‘warning’ alerts when they are taken in to or out of a pre-determined area. Additionally, and perhaps more usefully for education, there will be an increasing range of solutions which send alerts to a server notifyng it that the device has entered a predetermined area and then sends information back to the device to which is pertinent to that location and that user.  This could be a very powerful tool for providing up-to-date and relevant information. By way of example, consider, a small study group are asked to investigate a historical site,  As they walk around the different parts of a ruin, hyperlinks, names, information are displayed on their mobile devices. The students can study and roam the field location at their own pace with exploring their own specific interests and receiving information relevant to them which has been prepared by the tutor before the lesson.

The Mobeedo application allows very easy geo-fencing and works with various mobile phone platforms.

Information enhancement

Most mainstream GPS applications are designed to help provide information pertinent to an individual’s needs based upon their location.  For example, Google Places and the QYPE tool are examples of applications which provide categories of information which a user can choose to interrogate based upon their locational needs (eg: Cafés, ATMs, Cinemas). The real value of these types of applications for an educator comes with being able to upload data sets that are relevant to specific course and subject needs. For example, social studies students walking around an urban location can receive information about buildings, places and features on their mobile devices at the locations which the tutor wants them to examine. The Mobeedo tool provides a very simple and easy way to use to create information points and information areas which become available to a mobile device once the individual moves into the real space which has been defined on the Mobeedo map. Similarly, the latest developments with the WikiTude Editor allow a drag and drop functionality for creating geo-tagged points of interest and geo-fencing boundaries which can be read by any new modern smart phone.

One of the ways by which GPS solutions may usefully impact on more flexible teaching practices could be through some of the tracking solutions available. Tools such as Instamapper and TrakMe allow an administrator to track the location and movements of an individual live through any web browser.  Small groups of students working in in remote locations could be viewed and better managed by a single tutor back in the classroom. Equipped with a suitable mobile device, the same tutor could manage remote groups while in the field. The tutor could see the movements of the groups and also communicate with them.

Figure 3: Screenshot of captured route data provided by a GPS app from a Smart Phone. The Instamapper site is updated in real time.

Figure 3: Screenshot of captured route data provided by a GPS app from a Smart Phone. The Instamapper site is updated in real time.

Evidence gathering and GeoTagging media recordings

GeoTagging is the process of adding mapping coordinates for the location at which a particular data file was created. Any data file type can be geotagged with the right application: there are a range of GEO tagging apps available for text and pictures. Possibly most sustainable of all the text and picture geotagging applications is the use of Twitter. As a Web 2.0 solution the potential for creating course groups, peer support networks and tutor-led groups is very interesting and its ability to tag and time stamp short text notes and uploaded pictures is incredibly useful. To understand its potential for evidence recording using GPS, you need to understand the workings and semantics of Twitter communications. If you need an quick overview on how to use it, visit the JISC RSC South East Twitter course.
Audio files can be tagged with applications such as iPadio and video files with applications such as QIK.  In situations where more specialist equipment might be used for recording certain types of information, then geotagging is still possible. Small GPS recording devices such as the i-gotU simply record the GPS data and time stamp. The associated software tools allow you to reconcile the time stamped GPS tracks with any other time stamped data file, such as the picture files. These software tools create a GPS tracking file which can be exported in popular formats for inclusion on maps such as Google Earth. 

Student engagement

While understanding, purchasing, and installing the various GPS technologies can be relatively simple, the main obstacle to their use is human engagement with the solutions available. Conducting user surveys and quick focus groups with students is an exercise that I would recommend for any project where you are asking students to use their own devices. Will you enhance your GPS course by providing specialist equipment and software or are you expecting the students to use their own devices? And, importantly, while you may spend some considerable time investing in a new project and fine tuning the solutions to the students’ feedback and needs, you should be aware, that in one year, the mobile technology landscape will shift again. If you are relying solely on one device, what is the sustainability path likely to be for your chosen solution?  How easy and important is it, for your chosen solution to accommodate change?

The future for GPS applications

The real value for GPS is in its transparency to the user.  We can use devices to search for information, find out about objects and track a remote user’s devices without not worring about the fact that we may be using a multitude of GPS related technologies to help bring pertinent information to our view.  As the range of applications increases, as their interfaces become cleaner and faster and as the mashing of technology solutions continues, the range and potential for GPS applications for education will significantly change the nature, delivery and management of some courses. The new opportunities and transparent ways by which the technology can be incorporated into learning will enhance the learning experience. What makes the technology fun and exciting, is that, despite its complexity, it is easily accessible and useable, providing a rich source of information in a manner that is incredibly powerful, timely and  relevant to your personal needs. As an educator, the opportunity to provide such information to students has enormous potential.

If you would like to find out more about GPS and how to get started, then this reference link will take you to an online spreadsheet document containing links to all the hardware and software applications mentioned in this article.

Adam Blackwood



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