Friday, January 29, 2010

When to use Tours in Teaching

Google Earth Tours (GET from now on) have excellent potential to be used in education. Here I outline a couple of situations, not requiring a great level of IT skill, in which I think GETs could be very educationally effective:

1. Students Produce a GET: Students find producing GETs interesting and compelling. When used as part of a teaching session as well as being engaging it challenges them to think what camera views best help in communicating their content. For example, after producing a Google Earth map showing litter distribution around school/university buildings students could produce a GET to communicate their findings. This would take the viewer from a high view locating the buildings on a country scale down to and around the buildings concerned with placemarks showing littered areas.

Practicalities: The effectiveness of this activity relies on students not trying to do anything too complex. You may be teaching some bright students capable of producing more complex tours but this will require intensive support from you as educator as they can easily get stuck given the currently available tools. My advice is that you should be strict and allow them only to produce a simple tour as described in this simple GET tutorial.

2. Presentations: A GET is of great value when a planned presentation focuses on a series of maps at different locations. Presenting them in this way rather than a series of slides in a program such as PowerPoint allows the audience to understand location, orientation, scale and relative position. This is because the 'virtual flight' transitions between maps lessens the mental work required to work out where they are. For example, using a GET you could illustrate the location of World War 2 battles across the whole of France. Following this initial camera view you could zoom in to show details of individual battles on the sub km scale. By doing this the virtual flight down from the country scale to the sub km scale adds the locational information for the viewer.

Some map based presentations do not work well in GETs:

  • Large Scale Maps: very large scale maps where the curvature of the Earth prevents viewing of all the countries at once (e.g. on thematic maps of future global temperature you cannot see the temperature in UK and Australia at the same time).
  • Single Location/Scale: Maps where only the layer content changes but the camera position of the map remains the same. In this case, viewing in Google Earth does not add any value, its easier to just use a slideware program such as PowerPoint. E.g. weather forecast over the UK at 2 hour intervals over the next 24 hours where the viewing position never changes.

Presentation HowTos: To produce a Presentation using other maps you will need to:
  • Produce Overlays in Google Earth (probably) (Tutorial)
  • Produce GETs that define camera positions and turn layers on and off (Tutorial)
When using the tour the controls work like VCR controls, so you will have to remember to pause when you have reached the correct position. This is not as useful as 'click next' controls that can be found in program such as PowerPoint but with a little practice they can be mastered.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

GIS in UK Schools: Digital Worlds vs Google Earth

Last week I went to BETT which is a big showcase for IT in school Education, so I was interested to see what was on offer for Geography teachers. I found AEGIS (discussed sometime in the future) and DigitalWorlds which I discuss below.

GIS Analysis vs Visualisation: Key to the discussion is a previous post of mine on the use of GIS in schools in the UK. In it I said that curriculums aren't asking specifically for GIS analysis, they're actually asking only for Visualisation. Actually the national curriculum does ask for school teachers to use GIS analysis in classes (see here link via Jason Sawle). I think this is wrong educationally, you can deliver meaningful school level Geography education by getting students to use GIS visualisation without using GIS analysis. It's an important distinction because GIS analysis is complex for school children to undertake whereas its much simpler to do GIS visualisation with Google Earth. I would love to see a teacher try and get the students to complete the activity they describe here in the allotted 20 minutes - more like 1.5 hours I reckon.

ESRI DigitalWorlds: (hereafter DW) I've spoken at length to Jason Sawle of ESRI who is one of a team of two to produce DigitalWorlds, a school GIS. In comparison with Google Earth some facts that aren't in dispute:
  1. Cost: DW is £250 per year, GEarth is free
  2. Lesson Plans: DW comes with a series of lesson plans, 24 in total with 7 more in development. To my knowledge there are 16 Google Earth lesson plans available on the web(1). I can't vouch for the quality of any of these (except my own)
  3. Home: GEarth can be used on home computers, DW licence doesn't allow this.
  4. DW features not in GEarth: comes with historical and modern OS maps of the UK, GIS like thematic/symbols mapping, graphing of points, a wider range of background imagery to choose from and better functionality to produce photos in pop ups.
  5. GEarth features not in DW: 3D visualisation, historical satellite imagery, time slider, Google Earth tours, all the content in layers.
What we disagree about:
  • Feature Set: Which of [4] or [5] is more important educationally (BTW I may not have caught every difference)
  • GIS in schools: I think 'simple is best' in this case and that GEarth wins on this count. Jason disagrees with me, he argues that DW has been developed collaboratively with teachers and stakeholders, that school students can handle GIS and that GIS enables 'real world' scenarios to be studied in class as GIS is what is mainly used in industry (I don't deny GIS is industry standard). He admitted that they hadn't done any explicit usability testing of DW which is my main problem with it and GIS generally in schools.
Conclusion: So to be fair to DW, if you think the lesson plans are worth it and you rate [4] over [5] you may want to buy the software. Also, the National Curriculum calls for explicit GIS analysis use which is to DW's benefit in comparison with GEarth. However, your specific exam board may interpret the use of GIS in a more relaxed manner meaning you can just use GIS visualisation and Google Earth (certainly the situation for EdExcel from my reading).

Jason made the point that it isn't necessarily an either/or situation, that you could use GEarth for some things and DW for others. I think he's got a good point from an educational viewpoint but in reality, few schools could afford to do this as the cost issue comes into play.

Related links: Forum posts by teachers about which of GEarth, DW or AEGIS they use and like 1, 2, 3

1] 11 at Juicy Geography, I've done 2 and Google have 4 (secondary Geography - Google also do primary ones which I haven't counted)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Geographic Usability Workshop and absence

Sorry no post this week, I have one brewing about GIS teaching in UK schools which will come out soon. Meanwhile, I'm trying to put something together for this UK based workshop about Geographic Information Usability (via Muki Hacklay) which looks like it could be a very useful forum.

Friday, January 8, 2010

London Data Store, Snow Icons and Isle of White

London Data Store: A lot of map related news has caught my eye over the last couple of days. Last night the mayor of London promised a data store for London: my neogeographer friends everywhere cheered at the thought of all the new shiny mashups they'll make and went to sleep dreaming of being buried in £10 notes rather than snow.

Snow Volunteered Geographic Information:
Talking of snow, there have been a slew of UK snow maps that deserve a look. A trending topic on twitter has been #uksnow, (explanation) where people publish the snowfall conditions in their postcode. There are a number of terms for this kicking around including Volunteered Geograpic Information (VGI) and crowd sourced maps but the best way of describing it as a map wiki: people add their own data to a map and we all benefit from the result.

Ben Marsh has a lovely map website where he takes these tweets and maps them as clickable items. To the right of the main screen (which I've grabbed above) is a list of latest tweets by people and on the left is an explanation and key. Its a lovely implementation, pulling in real time tweets but I think his icons could be improved. You get a choice of an icon made up of white spots showing snow intensity by number of dots (shown outside red box above) or red snowflake icons illustrating snow intensity by size of icon (in red box above). The white icons are difficult to see over the background and you can't really tell the difference between multiple icons showing small snow falls and a few blizzard icons. The red icons stand out well but the smallest of them are not really visible despite being red. A possible solution would be to fade out the google maps background (white translucent layer behind), increase the size of the smallest icon and make the red snowflakes white but with black borders, similar to the beige circles I discuss in another post.

Steven Gray has done a similar experiment using old BBC snow icons (which I was talking about on Tuesday). The one in the screen shot shows snow tweets from the last hour. You can see from the northern most cloud just off the East coast that there are snow icons beneath the black clouds. These get lost against the pale map and could also do with black borders. Steven hasn't sized the icons to illustrate snow intensity which gives the map a different look.

Steven's also produced a thematic map on MapTube where he's colored postcodes by the average snow report over 24 hours. This is my favourite of the three, I think it gets around the problems of icons by combining them into a thematic layer. As with the icon examples though, it would benefit if the background data was paled out to enhance the blue shading.

Finally Ed Parson's had a nice visualization that I thought I'd publish as a KMZ. I've emphasised the SW of England in this view as snow there is really rare.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

BBC Weather Maps

Southern England where I'm based is about to have a unusually big snowfall. Hellish for anyone trying to travel tomorrow but fine for me as I'm working from home for the next 3 days with a fridge full of holiday left overs :) I drove into London from Southampton today so I was keeping a close look on the BBC weather forcast to check I was going to beat the snow into town. Here's a screen shot:

BBC weather maps are clear and crisp. They also rate highly IMHO for using well chosen colors e.g: blue indicates frost and subtle blobs of white illustrate snow fall (on the forecast film clip only, not in the screen shot above). Where they don't do so well is thinking how these elements work together on the map. In the screen shot above we have a number of competing shades of blue all ilustrating different things:

A] Sea covered with cloud
B] Sea with clear skies
C] Frost
D] Snow
E] Background to a Temperature label (Deg C)
F] Rain

Poor Layer Coloring: They have 6 layers on one map plotted as different shades of blue! The map could be improved by replacing blue shading with the use of symbols, interestingly, this is how they BBC used to do it a few years ago (see above).

Related post:
I've criticised the BBC for overcomplicating maps of elections here.