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A Pokemon Go craze has swept across North America during the summer of 2016.  Go to any historic monument, urban park or major public building and you will spot some strange scenes. Teens and adults gazing into their smartphones and wandering around in public spaces.  Cars parked in odd places and people combing the roadsides. Pairs of young adults rushing along sidewalks and hopping fences. While the gatherings look like an outdoor convention of nerds, they are actually “Pokemon happenings” and the first real sign of Augmented Reality (AR) reaching the masses.

PokemonGoTeenThe unexpected summer surge of Pokemon Go has educators and parents buzzing about its educational potential.  One day after the game was released, on July 7, 2016, IDEAFM issued its forecast: “14 Reasons Why Pokemon GO is the Future of Learning.”  America’s best known teacher-blogger Larry Ferlazzo, generated a head spinning July 13 collection of blog posts and tweets covering every possible educational application of the game. The education technology website, Edudemic, further fueled the craze with a July 22, 2016 news story proclaiming “Pokemon Go is the Future.”

Social media savvy teachers were quick to jump on the opportunity to capitalize on students’ love for the game by dreaming-up ways of incorporating it into social studies, mathematics, mapping, and literacy. More seasoned educational analysts such as Audrey Watters of Hack Education  either reserved judgement or cast a critical eye on the craze.  Over at EduGeek Journal, a true skeptic offered this withering assessment. “Every single tech trend turns into a gimmick to sell education mumbo jumbo kitsch tied to every cool, hip trend that pops up on the social media radar.”

Technological innovations do tend to get over-hyped in North American K-12 education.  Educational TV was supposed to revolutionize teaching and learning, MySpace was hailed as the University of the Future, and DVDs proposed to “save public schools.”  More recently, educators wonder whatever happened to Second Life and Google Wave — and tend to take a wait-and-see attitude now that Block-chain has become educational.

Pokemon Go may beat the odds and be the harbinger of AR applications in K-12 classrooms. Developed by California software company Niantic, it is an alluring location-based augmented reality mobile game that does break new ground it terms of user experience. Using a smartphone’s GPS and camera, players seek to “catch” Pokemon outside in the real world around them.  They interact with Pokemon, which has been geospatially overlaid onto the real world.  Going about their daily lives, players use their phones to track, locate and capture Pokemon, which can be trained and sent into battle.

PokemonGoScreenThe original Pokemon rose to iconic pop culture status in the  late 1990s as a trading card game, as a TV show, and then as a GameBoy-supported video game. Stitching together the real world and the virtual game has made the latest iteration of the Pokemon franchise a smash hit with users of all ages. Within two weeks of its release, the social gaming invention shot past Twitter to record an average user peak of 21 million.

Breathless educators tout Pokemon Go as a “revolutionizing” educational force. Searching the neighbourhood to find Pokemon gets so-called “nerdy kids” out of the house and active, promoting physical fitness through fun activity.  It does teach kids and adults more about their local history and enhances map-reading skills.  Unmotivated students tend to love gaming, so it can be a “hook” for harder to reach teens. Much of its mass appeal comes from the game’s emphasis on ‘collecting’ ghost-like Pokemon figures, then giving birth to new ones, and entering into competitions.

A few aspects of the Pokemon Go craze have caused disquiet among teachers as well as parents. The safety concerns have been flagged, especially after a few well-publicized accidents involving Pokemon searchers.  Young players transfixed by the game can wander into busy traffic, venture into dangerous surroundings, and trespass on private property in search of Pokemon. Personal digital privacy concerns have been raised about data collected by the Pokemon app, particularly for those under age 13.   The cost of Smartphones with sufficient capacity for Pokemon Go and its AR function will also present a problem for cash-strapped school districts.

Pokemon Go is, for the most part, an AR game geared more to urban users than to rural dwellers. Since its a spin-off from an earlier AR game known as Ingress, the geo-location data base is keyed to mostly urban monuments, prominent buildings and historic sites. In Pokemon Go, that’s why the user-created portals termed Pokestops and Gyms also tend to be in urban locales. Students in rural schools would be at a real disadvantage given the limited choices provided by the commercial game.

Early adopters tend to latch onto the latest innovation and then find a classroom application.  One Assistant Principal in a Waco, Texas elementary school, Jessica Torres, saw Pokemon Go as a possible game changer for kids.   “Pokemon Go is interdisciplinary in a way that’s hard to obtain with other programs,” she told Education Week. “I’m tired of seeing science in one area, reading in another area, math somewhere else.”  Having said that, Torres admitted that “a lot of kinks have to be ironed out” before it could be integrated into the teaching-learning day. “Our kids are going to want to talk about it when they get back to school, “she added, so teachers will have to be familiar with the game because its “an easy way to build a relationship” with students.

The so-called “hype-cycle” of Ed-Tech tends to create stampedes and short-lived fads, almost burying the real conversations about how best to challenge, motivate and engage our students. What does Pokemon Go offer that other teaching strategies and resources do not?  If Pokemon Go becomes a core component of the program, what other engaging activities and projects will fall by the wayside?  If the game proves to be a passing fad, what are the consequences for teachers and students? 

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