Serendipity and Geocaching

Gill and Gareth

Last Wednesday I went to the Cellar Bar. This is a lovely old bar in, you guessed it, the cellars below the oldest part of the Open University campus. Quite small but very friendly and cosy. A few others were already there, and Tony Hirst joined us.

He remembered my research interest in Geocaching and mentioned that Digital Planet are doing a sequence of 6 programmes with the OU in which they focus on the Geographic Web. Anyway, a fast few emails later and I was set to meet with Gareth Mitchell today to talk about Geocaching.

Backtracking for a bit, I am using Geocaching as the focus for my PhD research into informal learning with mobile and social technologies. It is amazing what people find to do with technology that the designers may not have originally anticipated, and I think Geocaching is one such activity. One of the things that particularly caught my attention has been travel bugs. A Geocache is a container hidden somewhere in the landscape. It contains, at a minimum, a logbook. It can also contain trinkets and other things to swap – if you take something out, you must put something of equal or greater value back. One type of token is the travel bug. These items are designed to be moved from Geocache to Geocache. They have their own webpage and can be tracked by their owner or indeed by anyone else.

Through a serendipitous connection, originally via Second Life, with Anna Peachey, I had suggested the idea of Travel Bugs as an education aid for schools. She had discussed this with her local Primary school, Landscove Primary school in Devon, who enthusiastically grasped the idea and planned to release some travel bugs with a goal of getting to Mahan Siddhartha School in Kathmandu. Likewise, Mahan Siddhartha School got some travel bugs which they planned to release with the goal of getting to the school in Devon. The aim is to give the students of both schools a meaningful shared context through which to structure learning and reinforce their links to each other; tracking the routes of their travel bugs across the country, building in learning activities around the locations it passes through and the narratives of the Geocachers to help it on its way. Fortunately neither school had yet released their bugs into a cache.

So – We wanted to co-ordinate a meeting in Milton Keynes between me and Gareth Mitchell in which we would chat about Geocaching, and both the school in Nepal and the school in Devon releasing their travel bugs. Not content with that, we also aimed to get a reporter to go out with the school in Devon as they hunted for their Geocache and released their travel bugs.

It worked!

Gareth arrived in MK along with his producer Pam Rutherford. I took them to our wonderful Digilab in the Open University library. Mostly because I think it’s a really great place to be and I love to show it off, but also because it has internet access, mobile technologies, seating and, most importantly, coffee.

Gareth created a Geocaching ID for BBCDigitalPlanet and we headed off to find a cache that is local to the OU. I had warned them to wear sensible clothing and fortunately they’d remembered. Geocaches are seldom in easily accessible locations and more often than not involve scrambling about in the undergrowth. Gareth was well equipped but I was worried that Pam may have been a bit chilly. Fortunately it had stopped raining but there was still a biting wind.

We squelched our way to find the Geocaching, recording the excitement to be edited down for the broadcast on 27th January. Amusement was caused when Gareth mistook a plastic doggie disposal bag for the cache. We discovered a shared interest in Twitter and competed to see who could twitter about the Geocaching activity first (a twitoff?). I think Gareth got the first tweet out while we were in the Digilab, but I sent the first twitpic (tweeting with a photo and the geographic location)  of us finding the cache 🙂

Meanwhile, I’ve got in contact with Anna and it seems that both the Nepalese and the Devon TB releases went at the same time.

The Devon travel bugs have been left in The Battle of Bovey Heath Geocache (which has an interesting historical connection to inspire the children. Bethany Rose, the Digital Planet reporter in Devon was there at their release.  I plan to follow their progress to Nepal.

Gareth used a dedicated GPS device to hunt for the cache, and I used my new iPhone with GPS capability to see if one or other would come out on top. I’ll save that for another post 🙂

by Gill Clough

About Gill

Having worked as a Research Fellow with the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University, I have now semi-retired but retained my association with the OU as an Honorary Associate.
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