• Gustav Notander

Location-Based Learning - An alternative to boring conference rooms and even more boring power point


Program locations that inspire… Location-Based Learning

Here's the thing with the vast majority of professional training courses. You sit in a more or less bland conference room all day. You listen to lectures or do workshops. And afterwards you get the deck of power point slides that were shown (including the ones they didn't have time to show).

That's it.

Sure, you can have the most charismatic presenter or a rock star workshop facilitator... and of course you can in some cases have good learning outcomes and feel inspired and energised by this. But you're still sitting on your ass in a bland classroom...

It is cost and resource efficient, though... For the organiser.

I'm not saying that this is wrong or evil, I just want to argue that there is a better way of doing it.

Over the last few years I have become a strong proponent of “location-based learning” - the idea of taking the learning situation out of the traditional classroom and instead using the environment as the classroom – and I have specifically been working with “the city as the classroom”.

If you search for “Location-based learning” you mostly find stuff about getting context related information through mobile platforms (phones/tablets) and/or augmented reality while you move around in the environment, but that's not primarily what I'm talking about. I'm talking about good old-fashioned, real life, physical interaction where you have a coach and small group of people that move around the city and use everything the city has to offer to create great learning experiences and to have a good time.

What does this mean in practice? Well, it could be that you get an assignment to do on the bus when you go from one place to another, that you walk around in a particular area and learn stuff through stories about specific places and buildings, that you're in a department store and get different shopping tasks that illustrate key points, that you have a group discussion on a specific topic over a great cup of coffee in a cosy café, etc.

The basic idea is simple. It matters just as much where you learn as how you learn.

For me there are two main objectives with Location-Based Learning:

  1. Take the learning out of the conference room and into the real world where learning becomes a memorable experience.

  2. Get your ass off the chair and get the blood pumping through your body and brain to ensure that you can stay focussed and alert to absorb the knowledge much better.

That's when learning becomes both effective and fun!

Apart from the fact that it's just a lot more fun to go walkabout in a city than to sit in a conference room, there are also some pretty well established cognitive reasons for why this is a more effective method.

The first is that there is a significant body of research showing that people perform much better at cognitive tasks (problem solving, creativity, learning, planning, etc.) when they are physically active.

The second is that your capacity to learn and memorize something is much higher when you get more senses, impressions, and experiences involved in the process, such as sounds, smells, objects, places, feelings, people, etc.


It's also easier to recall what you have learnt since memories are easily triggered by cues from the environment, and since the learning experiences were designed to integrate the learning into the environment, there are automatically many more potential trigger cues.


As a side note it's interesting to draw a parallel with a technique that most people who compete in memory competitions use, The Method of Loci or Memory Palaces. This essentially means that you make a mental visualisation of a place, for example a palace, and then you “place” the things you want to remember in different locations within this Memory Palace. This way the information is stored in a more visual way which is much easier for the brain to remember and recall.


With the type of location-based learning that I'm talking about here you essentially have the whole learning experience in a very real memory palace – the real city that you are exploring – and you automatically get so many more impressions and mental images to which you can associate the content, making the learning much more effective.

Now, remembering things is of course not the same as actually acquiring or developing a competence, but it's the first step. If you don't remember it, you can't use it...

So, how proven is this?

Well, the underlying factors - that you learn better when you are physically active in the learning process, that you learn and remember better when you stimulate more of your senses, and that it's easier to recall memories when you can connect them to real or mental visualisations, are all supported by solid research and experience. There are no studies made on the exact approach that I'm talking about here (at least that I know of), but I think it's fair to believe that the proven positive effects of the underlying factors are valid. At least that's what I've seen when I've run courses like this.

In addition to these scientific arguments for the pros of location-based learning, I have seen some other very positive effects on the learning experience.

My personal experience from running courses using location-based learning is that it stimulates very good discussions and peer learning within the group. The participants are just much more likely to talk and share ideas and knowledge when they are part of this experience than when they sit in a conference room setting. It has sort of a team building element to it (in a positive sense) and people are just a lot less stiff when they are out and about in the city.

Another very practical benefit is that you keep up the energy levels much longer with this approach. If you run a traditional course during a full day, most participants will be very tired at the end and the attention will vary greatly during the day depending on the energy levels. With the location-based learning approach, everybody that I've tried it with have said that although it was a long and intense day, the time flew by and they felt engaged and energised the whole time.


And, last but not least, the participants think that it's a lot of fun and really enjoy the day!

So the take-home message is:

  • When you organise a course or training, think about how you can integrate the learning experiences in the environment.

  • When you plan to attend a course or training, don't just accept the boring conference room and death by power point. There are much better ways of doing it!


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