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16 High-tech maps: Education or eye candy?

Finally, let’s take a look at technology. It’s made a lot of maps available, but does it help teach map skills?
We’ve all heard the core arguments for expanding our use of technology in the classroom: that technology engages students, that they’re surrounded by it and expect to use it, that they’ll be using it in the real world. But does it actually help them learn what you’re supposed to be teaching them? Take maps, for example. Are “interactive” maps and tools like Google Earth moreeffective than print?
The research on this is spotty. One 1997 study looked at whether hand-drawn or interactive maps helped students learn more effectively. During a two-week unit, students either did research in a library and drew a map, or did research on the Internet and created an interactive map. The result was a wash: both groups learned the material about as well. The second group enjoyed the experience more, though, and so there were benefits to using technology not measured by the test.1 The question is whether those benefits are justified by the cost of buying, setting up, and teaching the technology.

Google Earth

Let’s take Google Earth as an example. Google Earth is a fascinating thing to play with. But is it a powerful tool for learning? That all depends on what you do with it.


To get started with Google Earth, download and install the current version. It’s fairly easy to use, and I won’t duplicate Google’s instructions here. Do note the built-in features, which include user-submitted photographs, Wikipedia articles, and business information. You’ll probably want to turn most or all of that off for use in the classroom, where it may mainly be a distraction.


Once you’ve invested the time in setting up Google Earth and learning to use it, you’ll want to get as much use out of it as you can. Here are some quick ideas presented by the blog. Most are bellringer or enrichment activities rather than ideas for full lessons — the sort of thing to engage and inspire students, but not necessarily to communicate testable information. Which is, again, perfectly fine — just realize that mapping events in Shakespeare’s plays may or may not aid comprehension of Elizabethan drama.
I would expect that simply playing with Google Earth tremendously increases students’ understanding of geography and, probably, their 3-D visualization skills. To get anywhere, you have to start from a view of the entire planet; connections and relative locations become obvious. That alone would make it worth using in a classroom. But whether it helps students learn other facts and concepts — the curriculum into which the maps are integrated — is an open question.


There are plenty of full-blown lesson plans out there for using Google Earth, too. I struggled to find many that use Google Earth in really innovative ways to teach curriculum content, though. Here are a few.
Who has seen the wind? Harnessing alternative energy
In this lesson plan for AP Earth & Environmental Science, students conduct a series of investigations in order to understand issues surrounding the production of energy from wind, informed by the video “Roping the Wind in Texas” on the Powering a Nation website. Activities include discussing a video about the siting of a wind farm in Texas; conducting calculations based on local wind data; and using Google Earth, windNavigator software, and hands-on investigations to assess the potential for producing wind energy in the students’ local area.By Linda SchmalbeckSan Francisco: visualizing a safer city
Students use Google Earth to carry out a planning exercise to make San Francisco safer during major earthquakes. This is, obviously, going to be of greatest interest if you’re living along a fault line, but because it models the real-world process of public planning and decision-making, it’s a great model of instructional technology.Teaching about depressions with Google Earth
Uses the weather layer in Google Earth to illustrate the relationship between air masses and the weather. A very British lesson plan, but it could easily be adapted.Teaching sphere of influence with Google Earth
The author uses drawing tools in Google Earth to show how far she’s willing to travel for particular goods and services and spark discussion about convenience and comparison shopping and economic concepts.Around the world in multimedia
LEARN NC has a number of lesson plans that incorporate photographs and audio from Asia and South America. In several of these, listed here, students use Google Earth to gain familiarity with the regions they’re studying.

Google maps and mashups

Because Google makes it easy to build your own applications on their platform, there are thousands of “mashups” using Google Maps and Google Earth to convey information geographically. The sheer number of maps they’ve made available is probably those tools’ greatest benefit to classroom teachers.
LEARN NC has used custom-made Google Maps mainly because they’re easy to make. To map the Great Wagon Road, we could have just drawn the route on a highway map, but doing it in Google Maps was quicker. It’s also cheap: Google Maps is free for noncommercial use, whereas stock maps and the software to edit them cost money.
In a few cases, we’ve used custom Google Maps to tap into the application’s features. In mapping the route of the antebellum Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, we used Google Maps to mark the location of each station. Students can then use Google’s tools to estimate the time it takes to travel that route today and compare their findings with the accompanying 1859 railroad timetable. Here, then, is a case where hands-on exploration leads directly to understanding the core curriculum concepts. (I hope.)


A few hardy souls have taken it upon themselves to chronicle and catalog the best of the approximately eleven trillion Google Maps mashups now on the Web. Ain’t bloggers grand?
Google Maps Mania“An unofficial Google Maps blog tracking the websites, mashups and tools being influenced by Google Maps.” As I write this, the newest addition is a global view of earthquakes in the last 24 hours.List from the Duke Center for Instructional Technology“Cool Google map mashups with educational potential”

Cost-benefit analysis

As in planning any lesson or activity, start with what you’re trying to teach. What exactly do you want students to learn? Then ask whether the technology you’re considering will help you achieve that learning outcome. If not, does it have other benefits? And either way, do the benefits justify the cost of setting it up and explaining it? How else could you be using that time?
It’s easier said than done, of course. We all get distracted by shiny new toys. But a good rule of thumb is to use the simplest available technology that will do the job. There will still be plenty of opportunity to use the latest and greatest tools.