Gamification and an interactive textbook give Oregon students the experience of learning by accomplishing something tangible

The University of Oregon, a national public research university, is about two hours south of Portland and surrounded by the lush Willamette Valley. UO is home to more than 30 research centers and institutes, including the Center for the Study of Women in Society and the Northwest Indian Language Institute. In the robust Geography department, faculty train students to tackle contemporary challenges like climate change, rural-urban relations, and political, cultural and environmental conflicts. Assistant professor Christopher Bone, who completed his masters and Ph.D at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, researches and teaches at the crossroads of spatial analysis, complex systems modeling and artificial intelligence—in other words, how human decision-making and technology interacts with natural processes to shape landscapes over time.

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Chris Bone sitting in a comfortable chair in his home

Chris Bone equips his Geography students with the fundamentals and then pushes them to be nimble with the interactive content he’s created Photography by Todd Cooper

Bone is all about place-based learning, and uses gaming as a tool to engage students in Our Digital Earth, a 100-level class. The introductory course includes a section on a new and popular field of study: digital humanitarianism, or making sense of vast volumes of social media, SMS and imagery captured from satellites and UAVs to support humanitarian relief efforts in disaster or conflict zones. Bone collaborated with the university’s Centre for Applied Second Language Studies (CASLS) to create an app that simulates what would happen if an earthquake took place on campus. Students get an alert on their phones and the game simulates tweets and Instagram messages from all over campus. The students need to determine which ones provide useful information to identify hot spots where help is needed. “They’re integrating their geospatial analysis with mapping skills in this new world of social media and unstructured data,” says Bone. “We give students the opportunity to learn about a natural disaster that may happen in our lifetime. There’s so much emphasis out west about earthquake preparedness, so this resonates with the students. They learn to distinguish what data is useful and what’s not. Similar to what all of us do on a daily basis, really.”

Person riding a bike on campus on a sunny day

Technology is so accessible to students and yet Bone has observed that young people aren’t always great at using it to solve problems. “It’s because we make it too easy for them,” he says. “I work in this world of maps, of geographic information systems. And we can tell students, ‘click here, click there, do this, do that’ so they become good at following instructions. And I think that’s an analogy of how we approach education. We are producing students who are good at doing what they’re told to do, but they’re not good at solving problems on the fly, which is what they’ll be expected to do as soon as they enter the job market.”

Two students sitting at a cafe on their devicesBone’s answer to this challenge was to design, with his colleague, professor Amy Lobben, an interactive textbook for the Digital Earth course using Top Hat’s textbook platform. Students love the textbook’s conversational tone, the embedded questions, the videos and the games like the earthquake preparedness exercise. They also love that the cost of the digital course material is about half of an average print textbook. Bone recently presented this textbook at the Esri Education User Conference, and other campuses, like the University of Tennessee and the University of Miami, have adopted the course material.

The Our Digital Earth textbook emphasizes Bone’s key teaching philosophy: equip students with the fundamentals and then push them to be adaptive, flexible and nimble with the content. “Unfortunately many of us still teach in this very conventional way: here is a set of materials, and we’re going to test you on that—essentially absorbing and repeating information,” says Bone. “But if we give students a real problem and give them the means to collect real data, and not expect every student to produce the same thing, then we’ve set them up for success beyond the classroom walls.”

 Chris Bone

“Students today are focused on world problems and what they can do to address them or solve them. So they expect us to inform them about problems and teach them how they can get involved in solving them”


Assistant Professor, Geographic Information Science, University of Oregon

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