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Case Study of an e-Learning Ecology

Project Overview

Project Description

Explore and document a case study of an e-learning innovation—something in which you have been involved, or which you have observed in a place where you have studied or worked, or an interesting intervention somewhere else that you would like to study in more detail. A practice may be a piece of software or hardware; a teaching and learning activity that uses technology; or a case study of a class, a school or person using technologies in learning in an innovative way. Use the 'seven affordances' framework to analyze the dynamics of the e-learning ecology that you are investigating.

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Search and Create Missions

Using Mobile Scavenger Hunts to Transform Learning

More and more schools are opening up to the possibilities of engaged learning created by mobile devices. Whether through BYOD, 1:1 table or iPad programs or simply opportuniistic use of student cell phones, teaching students to use mobile devices to expand and synthesize knowledge is a growing trend. Educators face significant challenges, however, as few have the technical expertise to design learning activities that take advantage of the capabilities of these devices as more than quiz boards or research tools; they are searching for new ways to use mobile phones and tablets to promote active, relevant and student-centered learning activities that are not beyond the technical skills of the majority of teachers. A major challenge is to use mobile applications in schools in ways that aren't merely of-the-moment trendy, but exciting activities that engage students deeply in knowledge production while inculcating important skills in cooperative learning.

Cell phone scavenger hunt, Cleveland's Medina Library (

This work examines place-based games based on mobile scavenger hunts, which can be configured by educators and students in a variety of ways and across the curriculum to provide high-value learning activities without an enormous investment of time in dealing with the technology itself. These scavenger hunts, or treks, are about mobile, challenge-based discovery, and can be both designed and played by students to explore a wide spectrum of knowledge across the curriculum. These activities, if designed carefully, can exemplify the seven affordances of the New Learning ecology laid out by Cope and Kalantzis. (2012)

1. Ubiquitous Learning: Both the creation of these activities and the game play itself are accomplished through mobile devices. Creation and exploration can be done at any time or in any place, and the activities can be re-used and shared either publicly or with a defined group. The scavenger hunt games are typically designed to work across a variety of platforms.

2. Active Knowledge Making: In the best case, these place-connected game-based learning activities should be designed by students, rather than only student-played, although it is certainly possible for an educator to use this technology to create a game for students. This latter practice is in fact how this technology has largely been used in educational contexts. However, by shifting the focus to student-created scavenger hunts, a more genuinely constructivist learning ecology is created. As Yasmin Kafai (2006) points out, by turning the tables from an instructionist focus on designing games for the purpose of instruction to a constructionist focus on having students make games for learning rather than play games for learning, students can construct their own knowledge. Or, as Paul Wallace (2011) puts it, " The best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else." As the National Training Laboratory's learning pyramid diagram below shows, students who merely get information passively from a lecture retain less than 10% of it, while students who actively engage by doing retain about 75% of informatoni. Meanwhile, students who teach others (or, in this case, create activities to teach others) retain 90% or more of the information. Moving the focus to student-created knowledge hunts allows students to flex their creativity in creating their own uses for the app and innovative clues, which helps them to synthesize information that they've learned in new, creative ways. This benefits both the student-creators and the student-players.

3. Multimodal Meaning: Digital scavenger hunts have the capability of both using student-produced or found audio, video and images as part of the clues in a hunt, and integrate, of course, geospatial technologies. Students who are participating in a scavenger hunt also may be required to find and research places and information and to create images or video that integrate information about places and external knowledge. The use and creation of a variety of new media texts and representation of knowledge throughout both the creative process and the execution of a scavenger hunt exemplify the multimodal meaning dimension of New Learning.

4. Recursive Feedback: Students will design scavenger hunts to explore particular subject areas or places with the expectation that they will give and receive peer feedback during the creative process on the relevance of the hunt's clues and goals; the difficulty, appropriateness and enjoyability of the activities required at each step; and the accuracy of the information given and required; and the overall usability of the hunt. They should also design a feedback step for participants in their hunts to get feedback on the final activity so that they can build that into future redesigns, as well as a reflective feedback activity that allows them to think through how they contributed to the project.

5. Collaborative Intelligence: While the scavenger hunt games can be designed and completed by individuals, the best learning outcomes would be realized by having groups of students work together through both the process of creating the scavenger hunt stops, clues and activities and while solving other student groups' hunts. Working through the process of synthesizing knowledge and geographical place into creating and solving intriguing and enjoyable clues and activities will allow students to engage in effective peer-to-peer learning, in which different sorts of expertise can be valued.

6. Metacognition: One of the aspects of technology-enabled, geospatially-linked activities like digital scavenger hunts that is most pedagogically exciting is that it fairly demands that students and educators think through different kinds of knowledge and knowledge acquisition in order to put together a complex game relevant to a particular body of information. In order to create a multimodal game that moves through space, game creators will have to think about how people will learn and how they will link different kinds of information together, and synthesize it in some kind of capturable creation. In order to accomplish this kind of synthesis, students will need to consider how them themselves put knowledge together, and how they learn.

7. Differentiated Learning: The variety of tasks and creative thinking required to put together a scavenger hunt, as well as the skills that will help groups complete these activity treks, will call on the different skills of all members of a group. This not only allows different kinds of learners and levels of expertise to participate fully, but requires group members to learn to value the contributions that each member of the team makes. Hunt clues and activities can be designed at various levels, as well, for further differentiation, and clues can be given in a variety of forms (written, video, recorded voice or image) so that those with different abilities can play through the same activities.

Location-based scavenger hunts also have a service or moral dimension that should be seen as a critical part of the New Learning paradigm. They can be integrated into project-based learning as final presentation projects with an authentic audience, built into service learning and community-connected education initiatives, and exemplify experiential education. Students will need to apply their knowledge and skills in a real-world, meaningful context, which can also help to develop a sense of social/civic responsibility (whether the society is conceived of as the school community, the local community, or the global community). Both the group-based creation of the games and the group gameplay help to create a learning-positive and inclusive classroom culture, and can provide an opportunity to inculcate best practices in peer review as well as collaborative learning. The different aspects of the project, from research to creation of clues, from finding the best outdoor locations to set clues to estimating the time it would take players to finish, empower students with a variety of learning strengths (that is, Gardner's multiple intelligences), using the skills of technological, kinetic, visual, logical, creative, environmental and textual learners.

Mobile Scavenger Hunt Options

If one wants to experiment with mobile device-based scavenger hunts in the classroom, what options are available for educators? There are a variety of phone and mobile device-based apps, and some web-based possibilities. What are the best options, and what criteria should one apply when deciding among them?

One of the most important issues is to be sure that the application under consideration is amenable to having new scavenger hunts created by students, and usable by other groups of students. The technology should be easy to use without a steep learning curve, and should be available for a variety of popular platforms (for example, both IOS and Android operating systems for cell phones and tablets).

Since one of the main goals of the scavenger hunt creation experience is cooperative learning, the technology should be amenable to having a group construct the clues, and should be sharable to a wider audience. At the same time, given privacy concerns, one should consider whether it allows outsiders to track the location of groups who are completing a scavenger hunt, and in the best-case scenario should allow the creator to choose with whom the hunt is shared--specific friends or groups, or the wider public.

Scavenger Hunt Apps: Three Choices

There are three major social scavenger hunt apps available that seem to lend themselves well to educational applications. Originally designed as an outgrowth of "check-in" apps like Foursquare, BrightKite, or Google Latitudes, these apps use the internal GPS in smart phones as the basis for some form of location-based gaming. These apps are often used by retailers or restaurants as a game-based equivalent of a loyalty card, so that, for example, one might check in at a sandwich shop on a scavenger hunt app, answer a question about the daily special, and get a free bag of chips, or earn points by completing some in-store activity (a review, for example, or Tweeting a picture of oneself trying on clothing in a shop) to be redeemed for later rewards. In educational applications, the concept is tweaked so that the treasure hunt or scavenger hunt games challenge users to find a variety of places or objects connected to a particular topic. The hunts may or may not involve clues to get to the next waypoint, or require that questions be answered or actions done (and recorded) in order to successfully complete a stage in the game.


One of the most full-featured apps is SCVNGR, which is available free for both the Apple IOS platform for iPhone, iPads and iPod Touch, and on the Andoid system for Android phones. It also has social media connections to track play via Facebook and Twitter, if desired. In this app, the creator(s) make a hunt online via the SCVNGR website, using the Builder application. Once you create a free account and log in on SCVNGR, under the Builder tab you have the ability to create 5 treks with a free account. For each challenge in a trek, the player is guided to the site via a map, and then given a challenge to do. The challenge can one of several things:

  • take a photo (not necessarily just of the site--it might be a photo of the hunter or someone else doing something, ie. a docent explaining an artifact, an animal or evidence of erosion at a nature preserve, a math problem solved on a board, an origami creation made with a cafeteria napkin)
  • give a specific text response (the creator can give multiple acceptable answers)
  • give an open text response (for example, describing or giving information about the place)
  • scan a QR (quick response) code (which can both verify that participant is at the right place and give further information on the site)

SCVNGR can be used offline once a scavenger hunt is loaded, then participants can go online again to upload completed hunt and get their scores. This offline gameplay allows students to use iPads and iPods and other devices with wifi online access to complete hunts without needing to have a digital connection at each stop, although, of course, offline participatns won't be able to see how other teams are doing.

Paul Wallace, a professor at Appalachian State University, has used SCVNGR to have students create educational mini-games for elementary-aged students. The student projects were connected to community building and environmental education by exploring local wetlands (the Boone Greenway). One game created by a student group, Bug Off, contained challenges with information and activities related to the importance of insects in the wetlands. For example, at two different physical locations at the wetlands, a young visitor playing the Bug Off game would have to complete the following:

  • "A Dragonfly flaps its wings over 2,000 times per minute! How many times can you flap your arms in a minute? Take a photo of your partner flapping her 'wings.' (challenge type: text input and photo input)
  • In a single day, the dragonfly eats more than its own weight in mosquitoes. How many chicken nuggets would you have to eat in one day to equal your weight? (challenge type: text input)

A student-created video accompanies the challenge, helping students solve the weight question." (Wallace 2011)

Scavenger Hunt with Friends

Scavenger Hunt with Friends is an app available for Apple and Android platforms with an easy-to-use animated interface. In one advantage over SCVNGR, hunt creators must confirm all new players on a hunt, so that hunts can be private, with no possibility of outsiders joining in. The app assumes that multiple teams/players are competing at one time, so it shows the creator(s) and participants how much time remains in the hunt and a continuously-updated leader board. Participants get a certain number of points per item or task they 'collect' by taking a photo or using an image from their photo library. Participants can also post comments on tasks they or others complete. If they disagree with the validity of another's completion of a task, they can flag it with a comment and that team won't be assigned points until the hunt creator adjudicates it. Hunt creators create their own items/challenges for the scavenger hunt and assign point values, and then add players (who must either have a Scavenger Hunt with Friends user name or they can be invited).

Scavenger Hunts with Friends has recently upgraded to a builder app called Scavify, which has some enhanced capabilities that make the app much more useful for educational applications (along with a higher price tag):

  • Additional task options: In addition to photo challenges, creators can make Question & Answer, GPS check-in and QR Code tasks.
  • Desktop Management Tools: Creators can edit a hunt even after it has started.
  • Social Media Integration: Players can share completed tasks on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and email.
  • Player Score Cards: Players can view their uploaded photos and points earned.
  • Photostream: All players can see the photos of other participants in an easy, scrollable photostream with the ability to "like" and comment.
  • Custom Rewards: Creators can design a custom reward for any player that finishes all tasks. (Scavify)

One major disadvantage is that, while Scavify has a limited free trial available, it is essentially a paid service. The lowest band of service costs $29 to create a hunt with up to 10 players (which can, of course, be a small group sharing a single device). The ability for the teacher to monitor all the groups via the desktop application may make it worth the cost, however (and it might be possible to negotiate a lower price for educational uses).


Klikaklu is another mobile scavenger hunt app. It adds photo-matching technology, which allows clue seekers to take a photo that matches a pre-existing photo of a clue to prove that they found it, although there are also open clue and QR clue types that don't require a photo match. Like the other apps explored here, it allows the creator(s) or teacher to track player progress. Hunts can be shared by making them public (and students can then simply search within the app for hunts nearby), by emailing a link to the hunt, or by creating a poster with a QR code and having students scan the code. The app is free, but basic ($1.99) and premium upgrades ($4.99) give enhanced functionality.

A significant advantage of Klikaklu is that it can be used offline, needing internet access only at the beginning and end of the hunt to upload photos. Of course, players can't then be tracked in real time, but this is a significant advantage in the case of students using iPads or iPod Touch devices who won't have wireless access as they move through the hunt.

Klikaklu is being marketed specifically for educational uses, unlike the other apps. Several educators discuss how they've used it on the Klikaklu forums, including this third-grade teacher:

A teacher describes a successful use of Klikaklu

While this teacher, of course, created the hunt for her younger students rather than allowing them to create clues for a hunt themselves, her post clearly shows how engaging students found working with the mobile technology. Klikaklu restricts game-making to participants over 13, but for students in middle and high school, creating the hunts as well as completing them will open up greater potential for knowledge making. It is surprising that so few educators seem to have realized this expanded potential for the app: most reviews seem to discuss it as an app that teachers would use to create a learning activity for students, rather than entertaining the possibility that students should design a learning activity themselves for their peers or for younger students (or museum or park visitors, or as a guide to local history, etc.).

Choosing the Best Option

Each of the three mobile apps discussed here, SCVNGR, Scavenger Hunt with Friends/Scavify and Klikaklu, have a different complex of features that might work better for a particular school or situation. The chart below may help to identify which features pertain to which app to make it easier to decide which to try out.

Comparison of features of SCVNGR, Scavenger Hunt with Friends, and Klikaklu

In addition to the three mobile apps discussed here, there are several other options for educators considering having students create a location-based learning game. One is to have students design an app themselves, which is becoming a popular project in many computing/technology classes. Another is to use a pre-existing geo-spatial technology game like geocaching, and build in clues by leaving physical objects or instructions in the geocaches themselves. Geocaching also has a mobile app

While there are a variety of options for educators to consider when designing a digital scavenger hunt or planning a student activity focusing on student-designed hunts, the most important thing is to make sure that the kind of hunts or clues you would like to include work with the app you choose. Will you be outside in the built environment? In a natural setting? Inside the school building? What kind of clues would you like to design? The purpose of the hunt will determine which tool you'll find most useful. The most practical advice is to create an account on each of the major apps and "kick the tires" a bit to see which you find easiest to work with.

Using Mobile Scavenger Hunts across the Curriculum

The choice of application depends on the use an educator wants to make of this technology, which is only beginning to filter into classrooms as more and more teachers start thinking about the possibiilties. Most, like our third-grade teacher above, use it as a way to enhance learning with a concrete and engaging set of tasks with a mobile app interface in the outside environment. However, this kind of use merely adds a technological dimension (however engaging) to an old way of doing scavenger hunts--itself an iteration of the top-down pedagogy of the didactic classroom. The teacher decides what it's important or interesting to find and "collect" and sends students out to interact wiht their environment according to those rules.

However, these mobile device-brokered digital scavenger hunts can be much more effective when the students themselves are the designers, and when students work with one another to design games and to play other groups' hunts. This gives students ownership over the content and the decision-making process, as well as collaborative skills and technical, geographical and research skills in creating the hunts. This creates a far more robust kind of knowledge artifact than simply completing a teacher's ore-organized scavenger hunt.

In what ways might this kind of activity enrich the learning experience? First, there are ways in which these hunts can be used to improve the school community, rather than thinking of them as a method to enhance knowledge acquisition. Many colleges are beginning to use mobile scavenger hunts at orientation as a way to introduce freshmen to campus. As a translation of that idea with more student agency, members of the student council, drama club, athletic teams, and other groups could create scavenger hunts for incoming students, with the kind of interesting clues that will really make them feel a part of a school family. They might have to find teachers with interesting hobbies or expertise, or perhaps with unexpected professional pasts or backgrounds. They might have to uncover particular student artwork, the favorite desserts of front office staff, the lyrics to the music teacher's favorite Broadway showtune, the winning answer to last year's Academic Bowl challenge, the name of the snake in the science lab, how to say "where's the restroom" in Latin, etc. etc. Because students themselves come up with the clues and the kinds of answers that are accepted, they are in a position to share the kind of insider knowledge that can help new students feel that they belong in a fun format. This is also a great way to introduce students to the technology in a school with a 1:1 program with devices that can use one or another of the scavenger hunt apps, or acclimate them to a BYOD climate.

However, the most exciting uses of place-based scavenger hunts may be in the classroom itself--or, rather, in taking the lessons of the classroom out into the real world. For example, take the cliched complaint in math class--"When will I ever use this in real life?" Perhaps if that question is turned around, and students have to find situations in which particular mathematical techniques are in fact critical to finding information or real-world solutions, the more abstract lessons will be both more understandable and more engaging. Students might set one another tasks like finding a natural iteration of the Fibonacci sequence, or finding a parabola in the real world, or a problem involving the relative motion of two objects, etc. etc. The evidence might be a photo or a video of the phenomenon in question. Or students might have to take a picture of a kind of word problem that they would then need to define and solve.

Similarly students in a science class might go out in groups to discover instances of simple machines (either around the school or outside). They could challenge one another to find other examples of physics in action; or of common chemical reactions. Again, the goups who design the clues will need to research these topics or have a good prior understanding in order to come up with good clues, just as those doing the hunts will need to understand the concept to find a particular example of it.

It is easy to see how place-based games might deepen student understanding of history, particularly local history. Lecture students on local history and they may not be enthralled, but encourage them to see the land and history around them as a game-world in which they can set adventures for their peers and perhaps even public audiences as well, and they will likely be far more interested in not only learning, but doing even deeper research. Students might start with historical markers as their beginning points, and then widen their research to include a variety of different kinds of place-linked information on local history: the story of local native Americans, African American communities, notables from the area, important or historic buildings, important events, legends and ghost stories, the stories of local immigrants (perhaps using symbols and reminders of identity like language, signs, decoration, food, etc. as local waypoints). Younger students will need a bounded and defined place in which to explore (a local museum, a historically preserved site like Sully Plantation, or a nature preserve like Banshee Reeks, for example). Older students might be able to conduct hunts on their own in wider areas or in cities over a weekend with parental permission. 

The images below give a brief example of how a local history scavenger hunt might be easily built. A local little-known historical site, the Stoutsenberger Farmstead, is here being added to a local history scavenger hunt on Taylorstown, VA, built in SCVNGR, which already includes at least one other challenge (Mann's Store). Note that the clue requires a picture to be taken as proof that the hunter actually found the homestead; one could also ask a question that required specific answers about the site, or research at the website devoted to the history and preservation of the site.

Taylorstown, Virginia's historic Stoutsenberger Farmstead, built in the 18th century, would make a fascinating waypoint in a local history scavenger hunt.
A challenge set at the Stoutsenberger Farmstead in SCVNGR.

A civics class could equally build scavenger hunts in which the tasks are to meet local leaders of the municipality, school board, or political parties or those who provide local civic services and/or ask them questions. It is key to remember that the function of these challenges should not merely be to go to a particular location, but to fulfill some task that can only be done there and to document it. It might be asking a question that can only be answered there, examining some primary source document (might be a plaque or a statue), asking an official or a resident a question, etc. Students could take local issues and visit the places involved (planned site of a school, a business that has asked for a zoning exemption, etc.) and illuminate various aspects of the controversy on site by constructing a trek. Civics too often focuses only on the national or perhaps state level; having students construct games that would allow their peers and others in the community to engage more easily with local institutions would be a valuable contribution.

Place-based digital scavenger hunts have a natural affinity for sites and questions related to geography and geology. Rather than merely read about various landforms, have students find examples in the local environment and lead their peers to them. One of the most compelling uses for this technology is in creating games with an environmental angle--students might set treks that point out the detrimental effects of human activity on the local environment, on the one hand, or that ask scavenger hunters to find native plants and animals as well as invasive species. Since these games are generally played on smart phones, the questions or tasks can also involve doing research online in order to be able to find and document the completion of these tasks. The format of the scavenger hunt might also allow a group to set up stations where, for example, peers completing the trek might collect water samples for later testing or even do some simple testing on site.

Even areas of the curriculum that aren't normally associated with particular places (at least local ones) can be connected to a scavenger hunt. Have students set their peers treks in which the challenge is to document instances of similes or metaphors, or perhaps to collect photographs to illustrate particular vocabulary words, or visual puns. Younger learners might find objects in the build environment or nature that resemble letters of the alphabet. Meanwhile, the Money Smart Hunt is an annual financial literacy scavenger hunt run by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Using the Scavenger Hunt with Friends app, participants are "asked to photograph themselves accomplishing a provided list of tasks such as 'check out a money-related book at your local library,' 'high-five your banker,' or 'attend a Money Smart Week event.'"

In urban areas, students might guide peers to examples of different artistic styles in buildings, artwork and decoration (for example, influences from art deco, Islamic, federal, neoclassical, or modernist styles).

This only scratches the surface of the possibilities for mobile device scavenger hunts across the curriculum. The great value of this activity is that students will have to conduct research, prioritize and synthesize information, work effectively in groups, exercise creativity in creating clues, and give and receive constructive peer feedback--before they even participate in a scavenger hunt themselves!

Challenges and Opportunities

There are a number of challenges to consider when planning to organize a mobile device scavenger hunt activity in the classroom. The most obvious is that not all students have smart phones, and many of these apps work only on certain operating systems. It is important to match the apps used to the best technology and devices available. Of course, students will be working in groups, so you only need one appropriate device per group, but it is still advisable to survey students before constructing the lesson to be sure you know what devices are available. It is also important to communicate with parents to be sure that they understand the use of the devices for this activity, and that any potential data or text charges are understood and acceptable.

Of course, if the school or class has a set of iPads or other devices capable of running the apps, or if the school has a 1:1 tablet program, an app appropriate for the available technology should be chosen, and preloaded for students. It may be helpful if multiple teachers in the school work together to become comfortable with the same app and use it in different classes; that way learning the technology becomes less of a barrier as students encounter it in different academic situations.

Faculty professional development and readiness to embark on adventures with new technology are another potential barrier. Especially in situations where faculty may have multiple technological demands to cope with coming from outside their classroom, there may be some resistance to using the mobile device scavenger hunt technology. This, however, may open up a significant positive opportunity: the use of scavenger hunts for faculty by faculty. Especially in larger schools, it's all too common for faculty in one department not to know faculty in other departments very well. A beginning-of-the-year faculty scavenger hunt where each department sets clues about its own "territory" for teams from other departments (or perhaps a competitive scavenger hunt with mixed teams) would serve the dual functions of familiarizing teaches with the technology while they participate in an engaging team-building activity.

Another potential difficulty is the time and logistical energy it may take to get students out of the classroom environment to explore places in the wider community. For some groups, the scavenger hunts can be conducted on weekends on their own as long as they don't involve a great deal of travel, but of course they can also be built into more typical field trips. However, with some apps, building the field trip requires one to actually go to the site (as, for example, with Klikaklu clues that require photo matching).

Each of the applications considered in this work has certain drawbacks, whether the incurring of costs as hunts get more complex or have more participants, limitations on the functionality of the kinds of questions and responses that can be built in, the way that locations may be connected with waystations in the scavenger hunts, privacy issues associated with the integration of social media, or logistical constraints on field trips. Additionally, the technology is developing quickly and new applications will certainly appear in the marketplace in the coming months and years, so educators will have to continue to upgrade their skills in order to adapt lessons to the changing technology (although this may also allow greater functionality). This necessary commitment of time and energy can be off-putting for some teachers, but it is a necessary part of the integration of new technologies into the classroom.

One recommendation for educators interested in trying out these applications is to participate in a conference session exploring their use. Many educational technology conferences and social studies conferences now include sessions on one or another of the apps discussed here. Another option is to creat a joint project between a technology teacher and a teacher of another subject so the design and content of student-created scavenger hunts can be supervised by experts in each element.

The payoff for these efforts may lie in increased engagement of students and a higher level of skill in use of technology, effective cooperation and teamwork, higher-order analytic skills and the appropriate application of knowledge in a particular situation.


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