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Friday, October 23, 2009

Educaching Review

This is by far probably the MOST difficult review I've had to do as a member of the TOS Crew. And as I explain what Educaching is, those of you who know me well will understand how this was a marriage of polar opposites from the get-go. But it is for those of you who are NOT technologically challenged as I am that I am writing this review because YOU will probably LOVE this product every bit as much as I hated it :-). (And it KILLS me to hate it, because this company has such a strong Christian base, so please, PLEASE keep reading so you can judge for yourself.)

Educaching was born after the author went geocaching with some family members. Here's what he has to say:
Teachers and students can use the amazing technology of GPS to participate in hunts that center around learning! I began to think of ways to do this with my own students, and after speaking with my principal and receiving funds to purchase GPS receivers, I began to write this manual of how I and other teachers could use this technology in the classroom.

Now, if you've never been geocaching, you might need a bit of an explanation. And the Educaching book does a great job of explaining what geocaching is, how it works, and how it perfectly segues into educational activities that bridge across many different subjects to provide a truly integrated form of learning. But if you have to idea what geocaching is, here's my really simplistic explanation. Geocaching is a high tech scavenger hunt. People hide little treasures (caches) and others try to find them. It's very similar to letterboxing, except that geocaching makes use of a handheld GPS system instead of a series of clues to guide you to your destination.

Taking that a step further, in Educaching the teacher is the one hiding the "caches" and the students are the ones using the GPS devices to find these caches and do whatever it is that the caches instruct them to do (or the teacher instructs them to do) to take what they find in the caches and apply it to their lesson. And to help you get started, the Educaching book has 20 sample lessons, starting with beginner ones and working up to advanced, to help stimulate your creative juices for applying this technology in your classroom or homeschool. And since this book is written for traditional school teachers as well, there are some sections that a homeschooler might not find helpful, like how to apply for grants to fund your GPS purchase.

The good: The idea behind Educaching is simple and brilliant. Kids like technology. Kids love treasure hunts. Why not combine the two? And Educaching allows teachers to take topics that are sometimes sedentary in their presentation and gets kids up and moving and makes them an active part of the learning process. The manual devotes plenty of space to teacher training so you know how to set up caches and takes you and your students through some beginning exercises to get familiar with the GPS and how it works. And the 20 lesson plans included show you how wide the implications for GPS in education are. The manual is a wonderful springboard to start you thinking about how to apply modern technology in the classroom or homeschool. At $32, the book is reasonably priced IF this type of activity is something that would appeal to you and your students.

The bad: This is incredibly teacher-time intensive. Really. You have to first learn the ins and outs of using a handheld GPS (if this is not something you already know how to do). And you have to take your lesson and figure out how you would take it from its traditional format and make it into a treasure hunt...what goes in the caches? What do the students do with them after they find them? Yes, the manual gives you basic ideas, but it still is a learning curve. You have to find hiding places for all your caches. You have to map out where you put them. You have to make a map for the students. You have to take the GPS device and mark the coordinates either on paper for the students to input or on the GPS itself. You have to do a trial run to be sure everything works the way you think it will. And, you have to go back and clean up all your caches afterward. It takes tons of planning and a good amount of time, all for a relatively short activity.

The ugly: Anyone who knows me knows technology and I are not compatible. But the kids and I have gone letterboxing, and this seemed like the next step. Only reviewers with a GPS (or access to a GPS) got this product, but I knew my friend's family went geocaching regularly and they said I could borrow theirs, so I figured I would give it a try. But then I got an iPhone, and they have GPS, so I figured I would just use the phone. (I'm telling you all this, because I am sure someone else out there will think the same thing.) That's where the problems started. The iPhone 3G do not have an internal compass, so you have to download a compass app. And it has to be one that you can input GPS coordinates into. My crazy-smart computer engineer husband spent the better part of a DAY trying to find me a free or low cost app that would do what I needed, but in the end none did. See, GPS is really cool, but it is not profoundly accurate. At least not on my phone or, based on the experience of others that I read about, on less expensive GPS devices. They are accurate to about 7-15 METERS. That's like having a 21 foot radius of error. For finding a tiny Tupperware container. Yeah. NOT easy. The activity my kids and I were trying to do was "Which Tree is Which" and it went along perfectly with Mimi's lapbooking assignment to collect leaves from different trees. Except that the GPS on my phone could not get us anywhere close to a specific tree despite the fact that I stood right in front of it and marked the coordinates. In fact, anywhere within sight of the tree generally showed as being "at the target"-not very discriminating. Luckily "the hubs" and I checked this all out first, but we wasted literal hours trying to find a way to get it more precise. If you were looking for a tiny item you'd never find it, and if you were looking for a large thing (like a tree) it was hard to know which one was the actual target. Oh, and GPS units have to have an unobstructed view of the sky, so they don't really work anywhere near trees, which makes it really hard to target one. Nor do they work if you are under cover. Nor do they work if it's really cloudy. Nor can you see the screen on the GOS if it's NOT really cloudy.
Basically, you have to have a big, wide-open field for this to work best, but big, wide-open fields don't generally have good hiding spots, and if they are good hiding spots, the GPS probably can't find them. ARGH! It was an exercise in futility. And it's hard to identify trees in tree-less fields, LOL.

So fast forward to today, when all the forces of the universe finally aligned and God took pity on me. We borrowed a "real" (read"expensive") GPS from a friend who hunts. This is the mac-daddy of GPS's. This thing costs $300ish. And if I owned one, and knew how to do all the things it can do, I might enjoy Educaching more. But even with this improved technology, my kids HATED it. Really. I dragged them out there kicking and screaming. It may be that here in FL it is 87 degrees with a heat index over 90 right now, and trudging along through the great outdoors just is no-one's idea of fun.Or it may be that the kids recognized that the whole thing would be much easier if I just said to them, "go find a bunch of different trees and take their picture and collect some leaves". In any event, my oldest (who embraces technology full on) hated it. His sister hated it. My youngest abandoned me.
Only TJ was intrigued with the cool GPS enough to give it a try, but not even he was interested for long.
They are only smiling in this picture because I used some creative persuasion to encourage their good behavior.

Here's what I was having to try to navigate with on my phone. It was impossible.

Here's the "real" GPS. It makes all the difference in the world.

So what is the bottom line? If you are technology inclined, and you are familiar with a GPS, own a really good one, and would LOVE the chance to include it in your learning, than this is perfect for you. If you just want to get your kids up and mobile more in their studies, this might be a good way to do it. But if you are NOT technology inclined, be prepared for a HUGE learning curve. I felt over and over that it would be much easier just to revert to "absolutely relative" directions (go to the mailbox and walk 20 paces). We would have been done in a quarter of the time, and the kids would have enjoyed it more. Personally, I don't think the average person's GPS is capable of making Educaching all that it can be, but maybe someday soon that will be different. If you happen to have a mac-daddy hunting GPS, you should give it a try, as you will have much greater success with it than those with a cheaper counterpart (see NOTE below).

Several other TOS Crew members reviewed this product, so please go HERE to read what they thought. And I encourage you to go HERE to download a free sample lesson to see if Educaching is for you. If so, the book is available at that same site for $32 in a downloadable e-book, or $32 plus shipping and handling if you want it in a hard copy.

A NOTE FROM THE FOLKS AT EDUCACHING: In the last couple of years the manufacturers of GPS receivers have made great advances in equipment features and capabilities across the whole product platform that greatly reduce user frustration. Some of the reviewers make comments about poor signal reception (which may affect decision to purchase the GPS curriculum product) that can be easily resolved with using equipment that has high sensitivity features. The high sensitivity feature is basic on most, if not all, manufacturers newer units. It provides users excellent reception under heavy tree canopy, or on a cloudy day. In fact, Garmin now only produces hand held receivers with this feature. It's like radios in cars. You can't buy a car off the lot without it. These units can be purchased direct from Garmin for $135, or from dealers like Amazon, which lists the Gamin eTrex H (h stands for high sensitivity) for $75.

Legal disclaimer:
As a member of the TOS crew,I received the Educaching book free of charge in exchange for my honest review. That free product is the only "payment" I received for my opinion.
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TripCyclone said...

4.I'm not sure which people you talked to when you mentioned other people talking about low accuracy, especially with low cost units. There are a variety of natural things, like tree cover and buildings (which you mentioned) that can cause lower accuracy. Clouds may affect accuracy, but in my experience, usually only a few feet at worst, even on cheap units. Even with those potential accuracy killers, you can still do rather well. I've been able to get 15 feet accuracy in the woods with an $80 product. The statement that GPS is not profoundly accurate would be incorrect. GPS is amazingly accurate. You are using the same system that professional surveyors use. It's the receiver, and sometimes the user (see comment #2), that is inaccurate. The receiver, the unit that consumers use, can easily vary in accuracy due to settings as well. Most GPS receivers manufactures within the last 4-5 years come with features that help improve the accuracy when turned on. My first GPS was rather accurate and it's easily been on the market for six years (and it's not the High Accuracy series either). Statements that they won't work near trees or under cloud cover (even heavy) is also inaccurate. Do you have an automotive GPS? Does it shut off when you're driving under cloud cover or near trees? Nope. Yes, their accuracy is lower, but unless you are under heavy tree cover, not to the degree that they don't work.
5.Overall, it sounds like your negative experience was greatly compounded by frustrating with a GPS. That is understandable, especially as you mentioned being less tech savvy. That frustration probably was picked up by your kids in some form, causing them to be frustrated quickly too. I wish you could have had a better first experience. Much of the problems you described can be easily overcome...if you know about them. My classroom has six $80 units. It takes a couple of lessons before I take students out to try and find things. Yet my students were able to nail the spot almost every time. They had to look around to find some of the containers, but nobody walked away unable to find them. And this was done on wooded trails. Now granted, you are right that their is a learning curve. The curve can vary in intensity depending on what equipment you are using. An iPhone...steep. A yellow Garmin eTrex...less steep. With someone who has experience with a GPS...even less steep. It also depends on how you approach the learning. If you jump right into hiding and finding, you will run into some frustration. If you have some lessons that teach you how to use a GPS, and working with it's shortcomings, you'll slide into hiding and finding with less frustration. All experienced geocachers struggled at first. Many of the things we may have spent 20 minutes looking for at first we can now walk right up and find within a few minutes.

Now, for a few other thoughts. You are right that this has a large amount of initial prep work involved. Every new lesson has that. The hiding and collecting is time intensive, but speeds up after you've done it a few times. With a good database program, saving and loading coordinates into the receiver can be sped up. Free programs like EasyGPS are great for that. How willing people are to devote time really depends on how enthusiastic they are about it. Some could care less, try it and never use it again. Others will try it, enjoy it, and with that enthusiasm turn out a fun less that the kids get into.

I would hope that this bad experience didn't turn you off completely from trying again. It really has a number of educational benefits. But, it also isn't for everyone.

TripCyclone said...

Thank you for your review. As both a teacher (traditional) and geocacher, I had come across the product and wondered what other people thought. I did have a few things I thought I would add, based on some things you mentioned as potential problems, and a few benefits I’d point out.
1. The iPhone is notorious for lower accuracy GPS signal. While it can get you rather close, it usually takes some experience to get used to using it. If you own one, it's a great beginning to understanding what GPS does. Not as great for geocaching. In fact, a common problem for geocachers is people who hide geocaches with iPhones, because the coordinates they provide are often between 20-50 feet off. On the flip side of which unit to use, you do not need high value units to make this work. There are several units out there under $100 that work great. A friend who has a $70 Geomate Jr. and a $400 Garmin Oregon was out in Alaska doing some work. In his time off he went after some geocaches. Standing at the geocache, his Garmin Oregon said he was 150 feet away. The Geomate Jr. said 30 feet. Why the difference? What GPS chip was used in the product. The Geomate is a very basic unit, without all the bells and whistles...except one. A high quality GPS chip. In Alaska, the GPS satellite system is further South, affecting signal on most units. The Geomate's higher quality chip was able to compensate for not having as many satellites overhead like we do down in the lower 48. So price is not necessarily an indicator of accuracy.
2.You mentioned accuracy of 7-15 meters. I thought I would ask if, when you hid a container, how many measurements did you take? It's often recommended to take multiple measurements, averaging the last few numbers of the coordinates to help compensate for lower accuracy. One of the most common reasons for people claiming low accuracy is because the original measurements were taken only once. Imagine you have 15 feet accuracy when you take a measurement, and due to the changing positions of the GPS satellite system, your measurement is 15 feet off to the North of the spot you are actually measuring. You come back the next day and your accuracy is registering as 15 feet, but in the 24 hours since, your accuracy is now 15 the South. That means your receiver is now registering a spot 30 feet away from where it thought you were yesterday. Averaging multiple measurements either all at once, or by waiting 90 minutes and taking some more measurements, increases the accuracy in the end. By averaging, you reduce that 30 feet back down to 15 feet. Here, another positive of geocaching comes into play (see comment #3).
3. I have found that geocaching has one amazing quality for learning that can be harder for many to grasp...critical thinking skills. By learning about how accuracy can affect the results, then taking into account hints such as how big the container is, people can then start to narrow down hiding spots based on those pieces of information. Questions like "Well, where in my immediate area could you hide a sandwich box so that it couldn't be seen?" Narrowing down options, using what information you have available to you, is critical thinking in action.