A couple of years ago, I took over teaching World Regional Geography from another history instructor who was burned out with the class. After my first semester, I could see why: grading stacks of map exercises that included coloring in and labeling maps and answering questions about both the maps themselves and regional issues was tedious. I also began wondering whether or not the skills learned using the map workbook were applicable to the digital age in which we’re more likely to use GPS than the Thomas Bros. map to find our way around town. I consulted with the adjunct faculty who teaches both world regional and physical geography and he told me that GoogleEarth, along with the online geography lab, were what he used in class and for homework assignments. He sent me over a few resources and I was immediately hooked on GoogleEarth.
GoogleEarth can be downloaded for free, which is a tremendous advantage. Uses can create a GoogleEarth account or link it to an existing Google account, giving them the ability to save their work and access it from multiple locations. In addition to mapping functions and the ability to add and subtract layers, such as political boundaries and cities, GoogleEarth includes additional features, including global awareness topics and photos of locations. These additional features allow for more creative uses of the technology for class assignments and projects than merely labeling maps.
While students can easily download and install GoogleEarth on their own devices, most institutions do not allow software to be downloaded onto faculty or computer lab devices by individual users. At Arizona Western College, a software request is required each semester for the classrooms where it is needed. Even if I am teaching in the same class, the computers are wiped clean at the end of each semester (other than the basic office suite and browser), so I need to ensure that IT has enough notice to install GoogleEarth on the instructor console and on either the laptops or desktops students will be using for the class. This semester I ran into a glitch when an older version was installed, prohibiting students from logging in so that they could retrieve or save their work. I took an additional 10 days until everything was updated. GoogleEarth is a large program, so limited bandwidth or slow internet speeds can slow it down. Other than those technical glitches, once it is up and running, students experience few problems.
I have at least one GoogleEarth assignment per region that is completed during class. Since we begin with North America, I usually have students practice by creating a GoogleEarth Tour (recording) of their life: they pin 5-10 sites, from cities they have lived in, schools they have attended, and places they have visited; they record the “tour”; then they share their tour with a partner. Another sample assignment is a “Caribbean Cruise,” visiting at least four ports of call and including at least one “Ocean Awareness” and one “Global Awareness” issue. Wilkening and Fabrinkant (2013) found that regardless of how much time users had to work with 3D Geo-browsers, including GoogleEarth, most tend to simply pan in and out, relying more on the 2D features than the 3D features. One way to introduce students to the 3D features is with the 360 Cities feature, which allows users to stand on the ground and experience a 360-degree view of the surrounding area. Students who have never even been to Phoenix can stand on the malecón in Havana, Cuba and enjoy a panoramic of El Morro y la Cabaña. Even if the 360Cities feature is not available, students can view photos of El Yunque National Park, Puerto Rico; or using the Gigapan Camera feature, explore the SS Antilla Shipwreck in Aruba. More than images and maps, world regional geography is the study of globalization and diversity and how these impact the people and environment of twelve regions. GoogleEarth allows students to explore issues that impact different parts of the world, from civil wars and natural disasters, to deforestation of rain forests and dead zones in coastal waters. In the Caribbean, students can monitor the Millennium Development Goal progress in Haiti, understand the causes and effects of pollution in Kingston Harbor, Jamaica, and see what is being done to protect the leatherback sea turtles in St. Croix, all from GoogleEarth.
Designing meaningful learning experiences using GoogleEarth takes time, however it is more interactive than the traditional mapping exercises and helps students develop a deeper understanding of the world in which we live.
Wilkening, J. and Fabrikant, S.I. (2013) How users interact with a 3D geo-browser under time pressure, Cartography and Geographic Information Science, 40(1), 40-52, DOI: 10.1080/15230406.2013.762140