Using Google Maps & Google Earth In The Classroom

Longitude and latitude coordinates are like the words we use to tell a story and only gain substance when we use them in context. With a list of resources to help teachers, Google Maps and Google Earth are helping us tell stories better and bringing geographic data to life in ways that make traditional maps look more like decorations on the wall. This blog post shows how teachers around the world are using Google Maps/Earth in ways that support new competencies like visualization, simulation and play.

Original Paper (PDF): Google Maps & Google Earth In The Classroom

1. Literature

Google Lit Trips

Google Lit TripsGoogle Lit Trips is a site developed by English teacher Jerome Burg that experiments with teaching literature through maps. The site offers tips and tutorials for how teachers can integrate Google Earth into the curriculum of an English literature class.  In addition there is a small library of existing KML files that other teachers have uploaded to share with the community. One example is a KML of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath that overlays placemarkers on the map of the United States, each representing a moment in time on the epic journey that the Joad family takes from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression.  Additionally, the labels “Day 1, Day 2, etc.” provide a time based narrative of the trip and can be used to elicit discussion in the classroom. For example, “What events occurred between Day 2 and Day 3 and why did the family travel such a short distance?”

As the KML file is capable of storing questions and images, Google Lit Trips also sprinkles these types of questions and brief summaries from the book along the trail. Ultimately, Google Lit Trips engages the student through the use of simulation and critical thinking. Google Lit Trips, in line with a statement by communication professor Ian Bogost, provides students with a variety of different ways to observe and reconfigure the basic building blocks of the story.


Inspired by Google Lit Trips, sixth grade English teacher Tom Woodward used Google Maps to plot the novel Whirligig by Paul Fleischman. In the story the main character travels to the four corners of the U.S. The image below shows Woodward’s use of photography and narrative to capture the protagonist’s journey around the country. Students engage with the visualization by zooming in on certain placemarkers and revealing additional text and images that work to supplement the novel.Whirligig

The Golden Compass Project

Juicy Geography is a site where educators can share ideas and resources that typically pertain to issues of geography, earth science or technology. One teacher featured on the site shared his 8th grade lesson plan using Google Earth and the Phillip Pullman novel Northern Lights. Before the 2007 release of the film adaptation (aka. The Golden Compass) this teacher had his students imagine they were scouting locations for the movie. The students were asked to plot placemarkers in Google Earth – each representing the most suitable location for key scenes in the book. This cross-curricular project challenged the students to use literature, geography and technical skills in their visual narration of the novel. It provided a problem for which there was a multiple amount of solutions, thereby sparking creativity. In addition, this type of open-ended speculation allowed the students to be expressive without fear of being wrong.

2. Biology

In a case study on the Google Earth Outreach site, Adelia Barber (a Ph. D at the University of California, Santa Cruz) has used Google Earth in her introductory biology class. She instructs the class how to interact and play with Google Earth from the perspective of an ecologist and engages the class with questions like:

Judging by the characteristics of the trees, what time of year do you think the picture was taken over Central Park in Manhattan?

The Tigris River flows through central Baghdad. Is there any vegetation growing on the islands and sand berms in the middle and on the edges of this river?

3. Physics

High school freshman teacher Dale Basler has found a way to teach physics with Google Maps.

Using local bus schedules, he had students race to map out the bus route and calculate the average speed of the bus. This project provided a game-like element in support of learning. The use of games to motivate learning is at the core of ‘play’. Games create simulated worlds that allow the student a space for trial and error, as well as the motivation to move forward with the game and solve problems.

Reflecting on his idea Basler commented, “The class was full of discussions about things like: which bus goes by which landmark or which bus is always late. The project made my lesson plan for the following week much simpler since I now established an example that everyone had an understanding of.”

google maps physics

4. History / Urban Development

The history icon allows anyone to browse satellite imagery from the past and make geographical comparisons. There is great potential to use these maps for teaching lesson about urban growth. The two images directly below show examples of urban development over a period of three years. The two images that follow show the World Trade Center in New York City on September 12th 2001 juxtaposed with a shot from the site on October 31, 2006. In this project students are encouraged to make observations based on the historical imagery and then deduce reasons to support their claims.

Urban Development Lessons w/ Google Earth

Google Maps and History Class

World Trade Center in New York City w/ Google Earth

Google Maps and History Class

Additional Reading:
Essential Skills for The New Media Landscape

Every location on the earth can be identified using a set of two numbers: the geographic coordinates longitude and latitude. By themselves, these coordinates aren’t very interesting – they are just data. In 2009 the international non-profit New Media Consortium predicted the use of geographic data (commonly referred to as geodata) as one of the six technologies that are likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning and research. The organization cites affordability and accessibility as two of the main reasons for why geodata is a “technology to watch”. In addition, they provide a handful of educational examples that incorporate the use of geolocation, geotagging and location aware devices. In this blog post I focus specifically on the pedagogical relevance of using Google Maps and Google Earth in the classroom. My claim is that Google Maps/Earth are important educational tools because they have the potential to reinforce essential technological and social competencies.

With a similar philosophy as the New Media Consortium, a separate organization called the Project New Media Literacies also strives to improve the future of education. Since 2005 the Project New Media Literacies has been researching the effects of the Internet, as a global network, on how we learn and interact with each other. If technology and media are an extension of humanity, as Marshall McLuhan once claimed, then the Project New Media Literacies has recognized that as technology evolves we must also “upgrade” our minds. The project was founded by media scholar Henry Jenkins and is a part of the MIT’s Comparative Media Studies department in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Project New Media Literacies is funded in part by a $50 million digital learning initiative launched by The MacArthur Foundation. Its goal has been to develop cultural competencies and social skills that are necessary for becoming fully involved in the ‘participatory culture’ of the 21st century.

A few of the new skills include:

Visualization – the ability to interpret and create data representations for the purposes of expressing ideas, finding patterns, and identifying trends

Simulation – the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes

Play – the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving

Networking – the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information

Distributed Cognition – the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand our mental capacities.

Transmedia Navigation – the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities

Theoretical Framework:
New Media Literacies with Interactive Maps

According to the definition supported by Project New Media Literacies, every map is an example of a visualization and the better visualizations are capable of making us smarter. Professor of cognitive science and author Donald Norman would agree with this hypothesis. In his book Things That Make Us Smart he argues that the essence of intelligence comes from our ability to work with representations of the world. He explains,

“The ability to represent the representations of thoughts and concepts is the essence of reflection and of higher-order though. It is through metarepresentations that we generate new knowledge, finding consistencies and patterns in the representations that could not readily be noticed in the world.”

Representations in general, according to Norman, are at the heart of reasoning and help us discover higher-order relationships.

Information visualization researcher Stuart Card’s definition of visualization differs slightly from the Project New Media Literacies’ in that he affirms that a visualization is “computer-supported” and “interactive”. Combining geographic representations with interactivity thus offers a way to use and play with static information. According to Jean Piaget, interactivity helps students generate knowledge and meaning from their own experiences. Based on his constructivist model of learning Piaget has argued that knowledge is constructed by the learner.

The significance of Google Maps/Earth is that they allow students to interact with, and use the data: they combine Norman’s model of intelligence with Piaget’s, meanwhile fostering the Project New Media Literacies set of ‘new skills’. Consider as an example Martin Gilbert’s The Atlas of the Holocaust, a geographic visualization of genocide re-purposed with an educational agenda (see image below). In his book, Gilbert overlays symbols and graphics depicting the deaths and movements of families during the Holocaust in Europe between 1933 and 1945. These maps are wonderful in that they allow a narrative to emerge atop what may have originally been a static dataset. As Dorling and Fairbairn explain, The Atlas of the Holocaust “shows us a story of the tragedy” and “presents the evidence of an event, and puts the event in our faces – on the map”. While this type of mapping reinforces visualization, how might teachers add the skills of visualization and simulation so that they can effectively communicate this story in the classroom?

Martin Gilbert’s The Atlas of the Holocaust

Google Maps/Earth can be a promising solution because it encourages students to learn through a simulated experience. A more recent example of genocide mapping can be seen in Google Earth’s Crisis in Darfur. Not only can students immerse themselves in a constantly updated simulation of the atrocities taking place in Darfur, but they can layer multimedia content over the satellite imagery. As the Project New Media Literacies’ has expressed in their latest paper, “students learn more through direct observation and experimentation than from reading about something in a textbook or listening to a lecture”. In this comparison of genocide maps, Google Maps provides a more dynamic presentation than The Atlas of the Holocaust thereby motivating students to make discoveries and generate opinions of their own.

2 thoughts on “Using Google Maps & Google Earth In The Classroom

  1. I rescued from cassette this talk that Marshall McLuhan gave at Johns Hopkins University in the mid 1970s. I have not found an audio file of this talk anywhere online. So far as I know it’s an original contribution to the archive of McLuhan audio. Enjoy. Rare McLuhan Audio

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