Stories of Innovation: Geolocation Storytelling and Interactive Case Studies: new approaches to engaging students

Bob Bilyk, Director of the Center for Online Learning, Metropolitan State University

Geolocation Storytelling and Interactive Case Studies: new approaches to engaging students

Geolocation Storytelling

Students and faculty have a strong connection to place.  As designers of instruction, we can hook students’ interest with stories about place. Examples at Metropolitan State University are everywhere.  Recently, a colleague in the Center for Online Learning at Metro State went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.  He wanted to bring that experience of place back to his students. A history instructor wanted to uncover the colorful history of Saint Paul’s east side and designed a guided walking tour that revealed the city’s immigration story.  An environmental science instructor routinely guides her students through Swede Hollow, a deep ravine near Metro State’s main campus – rich with connections to botany, ecology, history and social science.

It was this last example that really sparked our interest in a new form of storytelling and interactive engagement with content. Swede Hollow was once crowded with homes that lacked electricity, city or sewer service and housed one wave of immigrants after another including Swedes and Italians. Dr. Julie Maxson, an environmental science professor at Metro State routinely took her students on a tour of the ravine.  They were investigating water quality and science-related problems. On her walks, she would promise to show students slides of the Swede Hollow neighborhood as it existed in the late 19th century until the 1950s.  She also showed slides of what students couldn’t easily see while on location.

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Figure 1 Photograph of Swede Hollow circa 1930. Image courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

What if students could view those slides while on location? Smartphones can detect location.  Authoring tools can produce content.  These technologies just needed to be combined.

In fact, this new form of storytelling and interactive engagement is presently unfolding. Location-aware storytelling enables educators to untether students from the computer and let them roam about the world freely….to hear stories and learn in new ways.  Conversely, it allows my colleague to take students on the Haj and see images of Mecca and the holy sites and experience the pilgrimage by location.

Today’s technology affords educators this opportunity.

Today’s smartphone can connect to the internet and get its location from a GPS satellite. Educational apps (both native and browser-based) can read the location and display interactive content matched to the location.

The obvious applications are history and the natural sciences – but with a little ingenuity, geolocation storytelling can serve students from a broad range of disciplines.

To test these ideas and generate a proof of concept to show instructors I connected with a group of history enthusiasts in Stillwater, Minnesota. The group has taken on the name of Lens Flare Stillwater with the tagline ‘The future of Stillwater viewed through the lens of the past.’

Stillwater is a river town located on the Saint Croix River, which borders the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin.1 To view this town through the lens of the past, the group has combined the arts of storytelling and photography with the new technology of mobile phones and geo-location-aware applications. They use an authoring tool, which includes a geolocation-aware template, to organize content around geo-location. There are at least a couple of tools available that make it easy for instructors and history buffs alike to create location-based stories.  A quick Google search will reveal them. (Search on Geolocation storytelling.)

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Figure 2 LensFlare Stillwater App

To tell Stillwater’s story, the Lensflare group selected historical sites of interest and related photographs from the John Runk collection of historical photographs and combined them with their own photography and narrative. They used Google maps to identify the latitude and longitude of a location, and then input that location into the software. They matched the location with both audio and text narrative, selected the photographs and worked out the details.

Now, when one downloads the app and approaches a historic building in Stillwater, the app comes alive with the building’s history, images from the past, audio narration, timelines and more.

The app is freely available from the AppStore at

To see the app in action:

Other applications are under development.  Dr. Maxson and our team at the Center for Online Learning are working on the Swede Hollow tour.

In the Swede Hollow tour, students will be asked to solve one of many problems.  Phalen Creek is now being diverted underground. In certain places, the creek is daylighted or, in other words, visible to passersby.  The problem is where is the water coming from?  Is it a part of Phalen Creek that is not being diverted underground, or is it run-off from somewhere else?  Students will be equipped with a Water Quality Data table and a testing kit.  They’ll measure temperature, acidity, dissolved oxygen, nitrites, phosphates and more to solve the puzzle.  The app will provide just-in-time information.  Perhaps they will answer why the Hamm’s family built their brewery on the edge of Swede Hollow.

Conversely, our colleague in the Center for Online Learning who also teaches Islamic Studies can take his students on a tour of the sites he visited on his Haj – without them leaving their home.  Students can interact with a map and link to the sights and sounds of the holy pilgrimage.

Case Studies

Interactive case studies are another powerful way to engage students.

Metropolitan State University has successfully been using interactive case studies in the areas of nursing, credit for prior learning workshop (for faculty), and IT skills development.  There are several new projects underway.  One is in Entrepreneurship.

The research on interactive case studies2 supports their use in higher education.  The use of interactive case studies contributes to student motivation, sense of relevancy, higher course grades, and overall satisfaction.

But developing an interactive case study may seem daunting.  Instructors might feel the need to master all of the nuances of this genre before attempting to make one of their own.  The interactive case study (as distinguished from the face-to-face experience) adds the complexity of the technology.  There are however small steps one can take and templates that make interactive case studies easier to generate.

An example

Dr. Debra Eardley, a nursing professor at Metropolitan State University, recently completed an interactive case study in support of nursing informatics and a standardized classification system.  She storyboarded the case study in PowerPoint and received help from the university’s Center for Online Learning to make it interactive.

She started with the basics.  The objective of the case was to help students ‘experience’ the role of a standardized classification system in documenting the problem, intervention and outcomes of a patient diagnosed with an infection.   The case followed a public health nurse as she interviewed a patient and followed the procedures of Directly Observed Therapy (DOT) and the administration of medication.  The student participant in the case study observes the interview, makes notes and then charts the problems, intervention and outcomes, as would a public health nurse using a standard classification system and an electronic health record system.

The case study was a simple one…with one set of right answers and not many gray areas.  The case study was a stepping stone to more sophisticated cases that will follow.  But despite its simplicity, the case study introduced knowledge that public health nurses need to know.  It introduced the concepts of Latent Tuberculosis Bacterial Infection (LTBI), Directly Observed Therapy, the role of the public health nurse, and the role of a standardized system with its relationship to evidence-based practice.  Rather than simply being told about these things, the student observes a public health nurse in action and practices charting using the Omaha Classification System, which is evaluated with immediate feedback.

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Figure 3 Interactive Case Study on Latent Tuberculosis Bacterial Infection

Interactive case studies, of course, can be more complicated – but that should not deter any instructor from getting started with simpler cases.    The key is recognizing some of the basic benefits of the case study approach.  For example, Harvard Business School (HBS) case studies involve students in reading the case, discussing the findings with classmates, reflecting on alternative approaches, answering the professor’s questions and deciding on a course of action based on the case.  The basic case study attributes make them far more compelling than text-laden pages all too common in typical learning management systems.


Geo-location story-telling and Interactive Case Studies are two strategies to engage students in the content.  They compel students to move about in the world either physically or virtually and compel students to think.  With both strategies, instructors can start with simple examples and build on their repertoire of skills.  Geo-location storytelling in its current form is new.  It holds promise.  With the support of easy-to-use tools, and with a dedicated block of time, both strategies are within reach of instructors.


1.Bilyk, R. (2017, May 14) Geolocation Story Telling. Retrieved from

2. Bilyk, R. (2017, August 4) Interactive Case Studies. Retrieved from

Do you have a story about a campus innovation you’ve been working on?  Consider submitting it for publication to “Stories of Innovation”!   Contact Stephen Kelly, Open Education and Innovation Program Coordinator, at for more information.

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