Virginia Society for Technology in Education

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The Best Earth, Ever

Posted by [email protected] on 03/01 at 10:52 AM

    Nothing should be more open to skepticism than the claims of producers of educational software who promise incredible student outcomes with only the click of a mouse.  I like to think I come by this skepticism honestly, having now witnessed implementation of oodles of supporting software titles that have promised much, and delivered little in the way of positive student outcomes.  I’ll be the first to admit that my perceived shortcomings have nothing to do with the efficacy of the software, and often resides with a particular organization’s ability to implement the product in the intended manner.  After all, anyone can purchase groceries, but it’s a different matter to turn them into a delicious meal. It’s often in the metaphorical cooking that educational software falls short of it’s delicious promise.

    I start this way just to say that I’ve been around the block with educational software.  It takes a lot for me to get excited about new products because the legacy of the old ones tend to be such a graveyard of good intentions.  I have however, never, ever,  felt that way about Google Earth.  From the first time the blue globe of earth popped into the darkness of space and I zoomed in with the mouse wheel, I was totally hooked.  The wheels of possibility immediately started catching rubber in my head.  Well, almost immediately, because anyone who suddenly finds they have bird’s eye perspective on the world is going too spend some time experimenting with this new found ability by flying from place to place.  Ironically, to my knowledge, Google Earth was never touted by it’s inventors as a miracle cure for the apparent shortcomings in our collective knowledge of geographic awareness.  Rather, it just kind of popped into existence during a time when “gee whiz” applications were quickly populating a Web that was growing faster than seemed possible, but if you’ve ever been responsible for teaching geographic awareness, the possibilities are both immediate and profound.

    Perhaps the most important aspect of this application as a teaching tool is that it represents the most advanced “model” of the earth yet.  I recall a certain definition of the word map as a “geographic representation of the earth drawn to scale.”  Unfortunately,  the media we frequently choose to show children the geometric constraints of our world are among the most inaccurate models provided. I’m thinking of you, ancient, xeroxed copied, flat,  coloring book page of the world.  You can bet the somewhere, right now, a student is putting a box of Crayola 64’s to use by coloring such a map and arbitrarily labeling selected regions of it.  This is the “model”  to which children are introduced as a representation of the world in which we live.  For a long time, it was the most common model we presented to students.  If they were lucky, they might also have a globe, which is a better in representing the sphere, but not something we typically allowed students to customize or manipulate.  Consider how Google Earth as a model differs:

It is a virtual three dimensional model. It provides a more accurate model of the earth compared to two dimensional representations.

It is dynamic.  When events change the earth, Google Earth changes in real time with them.  New borders, new countries, no problem.

It’s interactive. Students can color, annotate, measure and embed a variety of engaging and meaningful resources on it.

It is free.

It shows features of the earth in different perspectives.

If we start with the assumption that accurate models of processes or concepts naturally lead to better understanding of them, then it makes sense that Google Earth has the potential to provide a more complete concept of the globe. ( Duh!)


  Of course the bread and butter or Google is always about advertising, and that is the default purpose of the globe.  If you want to find a McDonald’s in Shanghai, it, and every other McDonald’s , all it’s fast food burger competitors, and nearly every obscure restaurant in the world is on it as well.  Which brings us to the most important factor in the effective use of the resource: training.  Face it,  xeroxing a page on a coloring book is way easier than spending a couple days learning how to customize a sophisticated interactive map.  It’s not rocket science, but it does require a real and significant effort on the part of the teacher to first understand how to customize the interface and to design thoughtful and engaging activities that make constructive use of it.  It follows then, that any school that wants to make serious use of this tool needs to also take seriously the professional development of their staff to use it well.

  But what if you did have the training, the infrastructure and leadership to effectively integrate Google Earth into instruction?  What would that look like?  In my Utopian world, even very young elementary school children would have the opportunity to explore virtual globes.  I see an engaging, and thoughtfully scaffolded use of Google Earth that integrates seemingly separate components of curriculum and that provides learners opportunities to become familiar with it’s features, tools and capabilities.  As their general abilities increase, so should the sophistication of the tasks we ask them to complete.  Ultimately,  I would love to see elaborate projects that allow students to embed all manner of content on the map, perhaps as convenient and useful focal point for digital stories.  In my mind, the Holy Grail of the experience would be a World Geography class in which the students are well prepared to use Google Earth as portfolio based course in which students submit a series of projects in which they added content to the globe and shared it with their teacher or the world through the use of KML files.


  Somewhere, I hope this is happening right now, but I have yet to see much of it in my neighborhood.  As an instructional technologist, I do what I can to share these ideas and to provide students the opportunity to use tools like Google Earth.  Such efforts represent but a modest start, and even my colleagues who see me direct engaging and well constructed lessons with their classes are reluctant to undertake instruction with Google Earth, despite giving uniformly positive feedback and witnessing how engaged their students are when they are using it.  Alas, it still remains easier to open a box of crayons and send a job to a printer, and that seems to be the primary consideration in the pedagogy of elementary geography instruction.  While the current state of affairs in this regard has been slow to progress,  I am optimistic that it will change.  It just makes too much sense, and I have to believe that even stubbornly entrenched practices will yield ground as Google Earth easily accessible through countless devices that fit easily into a shirt pocket. 





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