Exploring The World From Home

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With many schools closed due to the pandemic, many K12 educators are working hard to understand the basics of running an online classroom. Everyone is trying to help each other, with social media and discussion threads filled with stories, advice, and lists of resources. Lots and lots of lists.

A good chunk of the advice is, of course, centered around using Google tools, like Classroom,1 with the primary focus seemingly on how to continue teacher-directed instruction in an online environment. I wish there was more effort to turn that around and find ways for students to create projects based, at least in part, on their interests and concerns, rather than continuing the fixed curriculum.

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These Are Not the Borders You’re Looking For

The European Union is making a great effort to control what their citizens view on the web by, among other legalities, ordering search engines to “forget” selected pieces of data. But that is not at all the most absurd recent attempt at censorship.

The government of India wants to control geography.

Specifically, a proposed law in that country would “ban maps or satellite images of the country unless they are approved by government”.

The bill bans all types of geospatial information, maps, raw data or photographs, acquired by any means, including satellite photography.

Offenders could be fined up to 1bn rupees (£10.4m). [around $15m USD]

It also requires anyone who has already gathered such information to apply for a licence to keep it.

It was designed to regulate both the creation and distribution of geospatial information in India “which is likely to affect the security, sovereignty and integrity” of the country, the Ministry of Home Affairs said.

Google Maps already provides very different information for certain regions of the world, including the long disputed border between India and Pakistan. But the government judging the “truth” of photographs and raw data takes this particular overreach to a whole new level.

And it probably won’t be long before India follows France’s lead and directs Google and other providers of geospatial information to only show their view of the world to everyone on the planet.

The World Beyond Just Facts

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says that most American eighth graders are “not proficient” in geography.

Specifically, these students had not demonstrated solid competence in the subject, and the proficiency levels of eighth grade students have shown no improvement since 1994 (see figure). Geography is generally taught as part of social studies, but data show that more than half of eighth grade teachers reported spending a small portion (10 percent or less) of their social studies instruction time on geography. Further, according to a study by an academic organization, a majority of states do not require geography courses in middle school or high school.

So, why did the GAO (a well known source of reseach on teaching and learning)1 undertake this study? As you might expect, the student deficiencies in this particular subject are tied to economic issues.

Geography–the study of places and the relationship between people and their environment–is present across many facets of modern life, from tracking lost cell phones to monitoring disease outbreaks like Ebola. The growing use of geographic information and location-based technology across multiple sectors of the American economy has prompted questions about whether K-12 students’ skills and exposure to geography are adequate for current and future workforce needs.

They do make a good point, however, about how the interconnected nature of the world will impact the lives of students, as well as their parents. Unfortunately, even when geographic topics are included in the curriculum, kids rarely learn about tracking lost cell phones or Ebola.

The approach taken is far too often based on memorization. We still ask kids to collect and repeat lists of state capitols, African countries, and bodies of water – in Virginia, elementary students learn about the state by “locating and describing”, the five regions, important river features, and the bordering states – even though those facts can easily be retrieved in seconds on their phones.

That’s true even in Fairfax County Schools’ (aka the overly-large school district, my former employer) where one of the six major goals of the superintendent’s Portrait of a Graduate plan declares that students will become “ethical and global citizens”.

Maybe students are “not proficient” in the geographic understanding they’ll need to meet that standard because they have very little interest in a world consisting of a list of facts. If kids are actually going to understand the larger world they live in, we need to do a better job of helping them connect to the people and issues out there.

The Politics of Maps

One of the pieces of technology I most love showing to other educators is the ever growing collection of Google’s “mapping”2 resources. Not only do they often come with layers of great information, Google also provides excellent tools for anyone to do it themselves. Take a look around the other side of this site for other posts on how to use them.

But one aspect we rarely address, or even consider, is that not everyone in the world views those maps in the same way. A very current example is the fact that Google says Crimea is still part of the Ukraine, something certainly disputed by Russia.

The geopolitical aspect of map making throughout history, and Google’s place in the center of this latest example, were the subject of two segments on the most recent edition of the public radio program and podcast On the Media.

If your students are studying geography, current events, world history, or anything to do with the nature of information, the program would be a good starter for discussion and analysis.

Also from the world of Google’s maps, they continue to their Street View cameras into places that really don’t have streets. The latest example allows visitors to wander through the ruins at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

And finally, one question that comes up regularly in my sessions, is where does Google get its maps?2 This post from the Google Earth blog is a good overview of the process.

Cross posted from the other side of this site on which you’ll find my training resources and other good stuff.

Touring Margaritaville

Google released version 5 of their Earth software this week and their engineers have done a great job of improving what was already an excellent resource for teaching and learning.

The most notable new feature is called Touring in which you can record a fly-through tour of stops you’ve placed on the map and save it into a KMZ file for easy sharing with others.

But that’s not all. Touring also allows you to record an audio narration at the same time and save it into the same file.

To show everyone what can be done, Google presents a tour of the Hawaiian Islands with stops at the sites of Jimmy Buffett’s 2009 tour, complete with the man himself performing Margaritaville as the sound track.

Just download the KMZ file (remarkably small at 8mb) and open in Earth 5.

Then take a look at the short tutorial on how to create your own tour with sound, also posted this week.

Better yet, show the demo and tutorial to some students (maybe one of the other demos that don’t involve Jimmy singing about drinking :-) and let their imaginations work.

Very cool stuff!