Flat maps are an abstraction. We have to teach students how to navigate them precisely because they don’t look much like the real world. They’re stylized, they don’t curve, and they hold only a certain unchanging set of information. Google Earth, on the other hand, allows students to appreciate the importance and relevance of geography without the imperfect, flattening and simplifying translation of reality into maps. Google Earth isn’t reality, but it’s a much closer approximation (and one that our computer-savvy students can “read” as a near-native language), and its flexibility and interactivity allows students to explore their world and make connections in ways that flat maps never could.
Because of its interactivity, Google Earth is great for not just stimulating student engagement, which it certainly does, but also for reaching those students with learning styles that don’t mesh well with the visual and abstract challenges of traditional approaches to geography. Kinetic students with short attention spans are likely to find a hands-on Google Earth lesson much more appealing; students with auditory and visual learning strengths can add audio and video to their Google Earth presentations; and gifted students can take the learning experience as far and as deep as they want within the same class structure without a struggle to modify and extend the lesson by the teacher. The deep engagement you get when using an exciting tool like Google Earth fosters not just greater geographic literacy but can enhance problem-solving skills through immediate application of geographical concepts.
Google Earth also integrates two important skill sets across the curriculum effortlessly—technology education and global education. In both of these cases, there is a great need to advance students’ grasp of concepts and skills, and great difficulty in finding time and space in the general curriculum to concentrate on enhancing the next generations’ understandings of our connected global environment and the technological skills they need to survive and thrive within it.
At the Middle East Policy Council we have built a new website, TeachMideast.org, precisely to take advantage of all of these possibilities Google Earth provides. This technology is particularly critical for teaching about the Middle East, because we need powerful and engaging tools to unseat the ignorance and deeply-held stereotypes Americans often have about the region and to make it possible for us to replace glib and facile negative generalities with a more complex and nuanced understanding. At a time when 85% of Americans still can’t find Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran on a flat map, letting students explore the region in interactive fashion is much more likely to allow them to make intellectually “sticky” connections between peoples, places and events than traditional methods. In a democracy where the full citizenry bears the ultimate responsibility for making wise decisions about policy and global problem solving, we must teach our students to understand other societies literally from the ground up, and this is nowhere more critical than in the Middle East.
Using Google Earth
So what can Google Earth do for you? This is wonderful and engaging technology, but beyond using it as an interactive 3D map, its usefulness is based on the depth, accuracy and interest of the content connected to it.
As an educator, you can use Google Earth in four different modes or levels. First of all, students can merely explore Google Earth by navigating to different places and exploring them—going on a virtual field trip, if you will. Beyond sightseeing famous landmarks or exploring different ecosystems on a macro level, this mode also allows students to understand the relationship between places. For students to learn how to navigate and find information in Google Earth, it’s great fun to set up a timed “geo-scavenger hunt” to see how quickly they can find a set of landmarks, places, or items (a commercial jet, a container ship, or an oil well, for example).
Students can then progress to exploring the content that has been created by various organizations and individuals. Google Earth Outreach (http://earth.google.com/outreach/showcase.html) has brought together some of the exemplary uses of Google Earth, so that students can do everything from follow chimpanzees in near-real time through Jane Goodall’s blog to take a geographical tour of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Within the Google Earth application itself, students can explore a wealth of collected data in the Layers area in the bottom left-hand frame, from photos from Panoramio users, enormous Megapixel photos, articles from Wikipedia, an engaging overlay of ancient Rome, and much more. Check out particularly the layers called Geographic Web, 3D Buildings, Gallery and Global Awareness.
Third, you can create waypoints and tours specifically relating to your own curriculum to provide a new and engaging means of introducing particular content to students. At TeachMideast.org, we’ve created, for example, a tour on Stereotypes of the Middle East that contrasts typical views and assumptions people have about the Middle East with some more surprising content—one travels, for example, from the pyramids at Giza, Egypt, to a pyramid-shaped skyscraper in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul to the largest mall in Europe, just a few miles away.
Another tour we’ve created explores the role of water in the Middle East. Students can, for example, follow the course of the Euphrates from its source in the mountains of eastern Turkey, past the dams of the Southeast Anatolia project, following the curve of the ancient Fertile Crescent (and tracking the results of the reduced water flow), to the marshes of lower Iraq (drained by Saddam Hussain’s so-called Prosperity Canal), through the contested Shatt al-Arab waterway and finally to Basra, where the great river empties into the Persian Gulf.
It’s really pretty easy to put these tours together, and Google gives you a lot of help through their tutorials on the Google Earth Outreach website. First you need to gather your information—the latitude and longitude of the points you want to mark, pictures (or even video or audio) that you want to associate with those places, explanatory text, and perhaps web sites for further exploration. Then you can follow the Google Earth tutorials (at http://earth.google.com/outreach/tutorial_balloon.html) for marking your waypoints with balloons, like the one below, and adding in all your content.
Once you’re familiar with the process, you can do a larger batch of these balloons quickly and easily with Google’s Spreadsheet Mapper (http://earth.google.com/outreach/tutorial_spreadsheet.html). This tool allows you to input all your information into an online spreadsheet on Google Documents (so you will have to have or create a Google account), and the program will then publish all your balloons in Google Earth. Once you’ve created your set of waypoints, or tour, you can send that information as a .kmz file to anyone via email, share it on the web, or even save the tour as a movie.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you can make students the masters of their own learning, and get them to create Google Earth content (waypoints, tours and movies) that showcase their own research on various issues. As I often point out to teachers, within about ten minutes they will be much better at it than we are, which is as it should be! They will not only decide which locations best illustrate their argument, but also write the text, find photos (or video or music) to accompany the text, provide websites for further exploration, and combine all this information into a tour or movie to share with their peers or even the broader community. My 11-year-old daughter is going on a fieldtrip to the Antietam Battlefield, and wants to create a Google Earth scrapbook to show what her class learned! Google Earth is not just compelling technology, it’s actually also a better, smarter way for students to organize and present all kinds of information.
Add in the convergence of new technologies like Google Earth with social media like Facebook, Panoramio, and YouTube, and you find an enormous opportunity for the creation of understanding and empathy between people of different cultures, particularly youth. Google Earth provides us with the most concrete possible evidence that we all live on one planet, connected by a complex and interdependent web of environment, trade, and culture. Yet from this global vision we can zoom down to the street level of an internet café in Alexandria or an apartment in Tehran, and then watch an underground hip hop music video. The web that connects us all has always existed, but Google Earth gives us a great way to navigate it with our senses as well our intellects and imaginations.
By Barbara Petzen
Outreach Director, Middle East Policy Council
Blogs on Google Earth for Teachers
These blogs, published by devotees of Google Earth, will give you many new ideas and tips for using Google Earth in the classroom. The first ones listed are specifically geared to teachers; later entries are more general in scope.
Google Earth Vocabulary
Waypoint: A waypoint marks a location or place of interest, like a map tack on a paper map. A waypoint marker may contain more information when you click on it.
Balloon: A waypoint marker that includes information such as a header, image, video or audio file, text, website addresses, etc.
Tour: A tour is a flight or progression from one waypoint to several others in a particular order.
Snapshot view: A Google Earth tool that lets you easily capture a particular perspective or view of a waypoint, so that you are looking at it from a particular direction, altitude and tilt.
KML: KML stands for Keyhole Markup Language and it is the file type Google Earth uses to display geographic data that can be overlaid on 2-D, or 3-D maps (it’s like .doc for documents or .jpg for images).
KMZ: KMZ files are simply zipped (compressed) KML files that make it easier to share geographic information. They can include images, videos or other content associated with those files.