Monday, March 8, 2010

Interactive Learning with Google Earth

In recent days, I had the great pleasure of attending my first CUE conference in Palm Springs.  For those of you who are not familiar with CUE, it stands for "Computer Using Educators."  The conference has a longstanding history in K-12 and is comprised of a strong community of educators using technology who not only truly understand the critical importance of technology to pedagogy but advocate for it with passion.  I was impressed with the conference from top to bottom, especially the sense of community among the CUE presenters and attendees which I experienced on a new, layered level through Twitter's hash tag #CUE10 (check it out for yourself).

As most of you know, my background is in higher education.  What I notice when I attend K-12 conferences is a significant shift in the nature of presentations.  Absent is the heavy theoretical research element that we see so emphasized in higher education.  Is that a negative thing?  In my opinion, it's not.  What we had in place were many outstanding, practical presentations demonstrating how to apply tools (many open source or web 2.0) directly into instructional practice.  I believe that educators today, if they're teaching in K-12 or at the college level, need more help with the pedagogical application of technology at a conference experience (with live Q&A from experienced presenters) than they need exposure to theoretical research, which can be achieved through reading journal articles throughout the year.  But that's just my opinion.  What do you think?

I was quite amazed at what I learned and have come away from the conference excited, motivated and longing to be teaching again -- I see relevant applications of these tools for face-to-face and online learning, by the way.  For example, I had used Google Earth in my classroom before to create a visual context for the far away places and things we were learning about.  For example, when shifting from a unit about the art of Ancient Mesopotamia to Ancient Egypt, I would pull up Google Earth and "fly" the class from Iraq to Cairo, and zoom in on the Pyramids of Giza and other monuments.  This would facilitate a connection between the ancient world of treasures and relics and our own contemporary surroundings -- and often lead to compelling discussions about war and politics and their impact on these monuments and objects. 

But I was not aware of the rich interactive experiences that many educators are utilizing Google Earth!  Ken Shelton lead a dynamic workshop that was supplemented with a Google Site filled with relevant links and goodies for us to dig into.  He took us on a tour to the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain.  Together, we flew across the globe and zoomed into the 3-dimensional structure.  He clicked on it to reveal a collection of thumbnail images representation a series of images from the Prado's rich permanent collection of paintings.  He then clicked on a thumbnail of Rogier van der Weyden's "Descent From the Cross," 1435-38.

Then he clicked on the image again and zoomed in closer, closer, closer, closer to the face of Mary (figure in the back row, far left) who is collapsing in grief at the sight of her dead child, Christ, on the cross.  Her eyes reveal tears reflecting light, as if the canvas were there, right in front of us. 

All I could think about were the art historians who are still teaching with color slides and how most who have transitioned to teaching with digital images are prisoners of PowerPoint.  The technologies utilized most in teaching art history contain our pedagogy to linear presentations of images.  We are often afraid of taking risks because the technology won't work or we aren't interested in learning something new.  But these are tours that our students could embark upon themselves.  This presentation made me ache to be back in front of a classroom of students. 

The next portion of the Google earth workshop went on to explore an activity known as Google Lit Trips, which was completely new to me!  I imagined myself as a student in school throughout this portion of the presentation.  As a student, I struggled with reading -- really struggled.  At first, I was skeptical that Google Earth could facilitate a learning connection for literature but, gosh, was I wrong!  A "Lit Trip,"is a visual journey that traces the geographical landscape of a book's story.  The quintessential source for Lit Trips, from the workshop's dialogue, is the blog Google Lit Trips which provides visual examples of the lit trips available for you to download and share with your students.  Here is a screenshot from Google Lit Trips illustrating the visual journey of Homer's Odyssey.  I see how this would help me learn!

Check out Google Lit Trips if you want to learn more, I'm clearly not an expert on this topic but the blog is an incredible wealth of resources.  You are invited to download Google Earth files that you can simply drag and drop into the Google Earth application and the interactive footprint of the book's journey appears before your eyes.  Take this one more step and students can then add a layer of their own thoughts into Google Earth through writing, embedding images from their own visit to a location, sharing an audio comment as they role play the character...the learning opportunities are endless.

I am imagining an art history student documenting a diary, playing the role of a time traveler from prehistoric through the medieval period (or renaissance through modern ... any period would work), stopping at the monuments that are most amazing to her/him and writing about the objects in relation to their historical context and infusing her/his personal thoughts and questions along the way.  The end result would be shared with the class through Google Earth file (sent just like a Word file) in a wiki or Google Site. marvelous learning is today!

I learned a great deal at this conference and have much more to share...stay tuned!
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