The Meaning of Pokémon GO! for Higher Learning


“The times we live in do not call for young couch potatoes, but for young people with shoes or, better, boots laced. It only takes players on the first string, and it has no room for bench warmers.” — Pope Francis, World Youth Day; Krakow, Poland; July 31, 2016

More than ever, we need learners who are engaging real-world problems outside of the classroom, guided by expert teacher-facilitators who can provide context. Our learners are more diverse than ever before, and often these new learners seek a stronger connection to their community, family, and a social context of learning — including the need for a holistic approach that engages the mind, body, and spirit. Yet our universities and higher learning institutions are failing to break the boundaries of the classroom and campus despite the digital tools available to do just that.

Today’s typical higher education institution focuses on two main uses for digital technologies: improving institutional efficiency across functions, and enforcing data security. Much less emphasis is focused on improving the student learning experience and redefining the boundaries of time and space in which learning happens. Instead, a typical higher education institution and its IT departments use digital technologies to improve efficiency in the admissions, financial aid, payroll, and other key administrative functions while they enforce the course metaphor and model through the ubiquitous learning management system (LMS) such as Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, Desire2Learn, or other enterprise-level LMS platform.

The LMS is the online equivalent of the physical classroom and is securely cordoned off from the wider internet through login restrictions based upon student enrollment. This makes perfect sense for today’s higher education model that is based upon the course model, which is part of the overarching campus-institutional model and higher ed’s tuition revenue model. This “bread and butter” model, in turn, depends upon verifying student course data and how well the student does in the course on exams, assignments, participation, and other academic performance criteria. This model also highlights why we increasingly see MOOCs (massive online open courses) that are either entirely free, or that cost a fraction of what a comparable online course offered by a nearby state university or county or city college; but that are of a much higher quality than those online university courses that contribute to the actual degree.

This same classroom-course model myopia explains the expression “flipped classroom” research and focus. How else can higher education discuss changes to instruction through technology? It must still be about the classroom, and so it can be ‘flipped.’ Beyond shifting existing classroom activities, changing the actual place appears unfathomable for universities.

Until now, we have seen little in the digital gaming realm that connects gamers to their physical environment — to their actual location and place that they occupy. Much like today’s educational model that keeps students safely nested and sedentary within the confines of the classroom and campus, until Pokémon GO!, digital gamers have remained safely ensconced and physically inactive on their couch or Lazy-Boy usually placed in front of a large screen.

Suddenly Pokémon GO! though involves moving the body through time and space to engage, collect, discover, and interact with virtual artifacts that are layered over Google Maps and an exact representation of our physical reality. While I do not much play Pokémon GO! myself, I can see that for my teens and students, the true entertainment value comes from the social interactions the game provides. Certainly this was the case among those whom I interviewed about the game: “It’s the social part that makes it such a fun game!” exclaim my kids. This new gaming model is also a profound departure from our sedentary gaming model, and a harbinger for how we can completely rethink learning based upon actual surroundings and places. An experiential, place-based rather than classroom-based model of learning can open so many new doors for learners and for the institution.

For learners, having a social and digital connection to place offers a real-world and familiar context that allows learners to build upon prior knowledge. Educators speak of “scaffolding” and the “Zone of Proximal Development” whereby peers, instructors, and facilitators fill in the knowledge gaps of what was already known about the concept, context, and place, with new concepts and knowledge that bring the learner to a whole new plane of understanding — a new plane of knowledge that is self constructed and based upon the learner’s previous foundations of knowledge. Often educators refer to these existing learner foundations of knowledge as the “funds of knowledge,” and these funds of knowledge, research tells us, are especially important for many of our marginalized learners. Applying the same user experiences and interface principles as with Pokémon GO!, it is now possible for learning designers and instructors to create a learning experience that connects to the learner’s surroundings and real world.

Now it is possible to frame meaningful community and global challenges such as climate change, transportation problems (safety, congestion, local emissions, health, etc.), public policy and planning, public art, civic engagement and local government, community health, food security and access, and much more. These common and pervasive problems can be leveraged in ways such that students can collaboratively engage these issues in a place-based, social context that map directly back to the learner’s curriculum and degree program. We can now focus on both problems and solutions toward empowering students with new confidence, agency, and 21st learning skills associated with communication, collaboration, and problem solving.

The main obstacles keeping this from happening are not technological nor relating to human resources (learning designers, instructors, experts). Rather, the obstacles are mostly around institutional recalcitrance to rethink the tuition revenue model and offering an “experience” rather than granting a degree. To change this will require aggressive risk taking by key higher education providers — key universities and colleges that are willing to forge meaningful articulation agreements and verifiable assessment models together with MOOCs and other non-traditional online education providers, and to pilot new revenue models.

Combined with learner identity management across these risk-taking institutions, a socially connected place-based model of learning would be transformative and might also prompt higher learning instructional technology support groups such as EDUCAUSE, the New Media Consortium (NMC), the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and others to be more critical of technology and more effective in improving its use in higher education rather than mostly endorsing vendors and products that encourage obesity, poor health, and a sedentary lifestyle.

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