Geography, smartphones, and more point students in new directions

Posted on: May 4, 2015 | By: Megan Porter | Filed under: Instructional Technologies

world globe

In elementary school, we learned geography by studying print maps and globes. Here at Elon, Dr. Ryan Kirk of the geography department is teaching students how GPS and smartphones are revolutionizing the way we view the world. Thanks to a grant from the Academic Technology and Computing Committee (ATACC) and a collaboration with Elon computing sciences professor Joel Hollingsworth’s Mobile Computing Course, Dr. Kirk is using the app called MayMyWeek to change the way students view their own campus.

Geographic theory

The MapMyWeek app, which is only available on Android, is loaded onto Nexus smartphones purchases with the ATACC grant money. The battery-saving app can then track the user’s locations over specific time periods. The user receives emails at regular intervals that shows his locations. This helps Dr. Kirk and his students study geographic theory, which says that people go to the places they identify with.

“All of us identify with the places we are comfortable with,” Dr. Kirk said. “Apartment, classes, wherever you go. With the app we can track and analyze that information. We can track how students use campus spaces in different ways.”

Geography theory also applies outside of Elon’s campus in terms of students’ consumer behavior. Dr. Kirk has students anonymous track their consumer activity on and off campus to identify the consumer patterns of college students and study concepts of urban design.

“To date, students have tended to stay near the campus community down to Huffman Mill Road and Alamance Crossing,” Dr. Kirk said. “Beyond service-learning projects, students haven’t been going to downtown Burlington much. We laugh about the ‘Elon bubble,’ but now we can put boundaries around that.”


In addition to the app, Dr. Kirk uses iBeacons, which are oval-shaped object that can fit in the palm of your hand and can be clipped one’s phone, backpack, belt clip, etc. The iBeacon uses Bluetooth technologies to interact with smartphones at specific locations. Some businesses purchasing iBeacons to learn what their consumers are doing and buying while on their property. Concert venues, sports stadiums, stores, and Disney are especially experimenting with the iBeacon.

For instance, if you order a hot dog on your phone at a baseball game, someone could deliver that food to your seat. Or, Forever 21 can see which displays its customers are most attracted to. At Elon, Dr. Kirk believes the iBeacon can be used in a different, but still valuable, approach.

“One example we are considering is having students put them on backpacks and mimic how a disease spreads based on proximity,” Dr. Kirk said. “You can see where and how students interact, and see how a disease might be spread throughout campus. I want to do this with a new class I want to start called GIS [geographic information systems] for environmental health.”

A smartphone and iBeacon device. Photo credit to

A smartphone and iBeacon device.

Since Dr. Kirk can continue to use this technology for the next three to five years, this new class for public health, geography, environmental studies, anthropology, and other disciplines could appear on OnTrack soon. Besides spreading the knowledge here at Elon, Dr. Kirk will present his project at the annual conference of the National Council of Geographic Education in August, and will begin writing a research article for a publication in the fall.

New horizons

Dr. Kirk believes that location technologies have been a positive part of his academic activities this semester. Following the style of Elon’s engaged learning, especially with smartphones, has been an innovative and enjoyable way for both faculty and students to learn.

“This has new opportunities for my research and my teaching,” Dr. Kirk said. “It’s opened up so many ideas that we can do. Student response has been almost universally positive. ”

According to Dr. Kirk, location technologies are becoming more widespread every day. Dr. Kirk has encouraged students to become explorers and use these types of technology for any possibility.

To learn more about applying for an ATACC grant, visit ATACC’s website.

Images via Flickr users Jason Bachman and Jonathan Nalder/CC BY-SA 2.0

Megan Porter

Megan Porter is a senior strategic communications major at Elon University from Westwood, MA. She is a blogger for Elon's Technology blog for the spring of 2015.

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