All the world's a classroom

ICT allows geography teachers to take students to the Himalayas and back by 4pm. Virginia Matthews reports
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The Independent Online

Atlases, maps and globes will always have their place in the teaching of geography, but today's more computer-literate school child expects computers to play a major part in tackling the subject too.

Atlases, maps and globes will always have their place in the teaching of geography, but today's more computer-literate school child expects computers to play a major part in tackling the subject too.

That's the general consensus among many geography teachers and organisations such as Ordnance Survey, which is actively promoting the use of digital mapping and what is known as Geographical Information Systems, or GIS, in our schools.

Already used extensively by businesses, GIS is a family of software tools that allow information - on anything from crime patterns to flood risks - to be linked digitally to a geographical location. Advocates say that GIS already allows users such as politicians, market researchers and the emergency services to visualise and understand previously obscure and complex facts. Now it is the turn of the classroom.

Whether it is accessed through a whole range of specialist websites such as MapZone and Up My Street or loaded via software packages such as InfoMapper and TrackLog, GIS allows children at Key Stage 2 level and beyond to do anything from plotting, on computer, a safe route for walking to school to arranging a virtual visit to the Himalayas for the study of extreme environments.

With teachers keen to raise the somewhat dry profile of geography and to take advantage of the current interest in issues such as climate change, the advantages of a classroom toolkit that brings to life anything from general election mapping to routine sea defences work are clear.

ICT tools, says David Mitchell, consultant to the Geography Association, are "transforming how children are taught to understand the world around them and helping them develop more sophisticated problem-solving and enquiry skills".

While Ordnance Survey continues to distribute a free local 1:25 000 scale Explorer map to every Year 7 child in the country - 2.5 million have been distributed so far in a scheme which has been running for three years - it believes that paper-based information can only be enhanced by better use of new ICT resources.

"Children really appreciate being given their own map to hold in their hands and to use at home as well as at school," says Scott Sinclair of OS, "but that doesn't mean they don't also want to experiment with the digital information that is appearing on the Web."

"Distributing our paper maps is a good way to build awareness of basic mapping techniques and grid reference work, but for today's secondary schoolchildren, it should be only the first stage in building awareness of their physical surroundings and understanding where their own school or home fits in with the local community."

While in theory a better understanding of digital mapping and its application to real-life issues such as transport and the environment can give children a leg-up in a whole range of other subjects - among them, citizenship and many different branches of maths and science - Sinclair believes there is currently a "clear polarisation in the implementation of GIS in schools".

Despite basic teacher training in the use of GIS by local authorities, software suppliers and organisations such as Ordnance Survey - much of it, in practice, limited to just half a day - Sinclair says: "Lack of teacher confidence in using the technology is a major barrier and an issue that is now being reviewed."

He says that while some self-taught enthusiast teachers have been able to use GIS to create "fantastically creative schemes for their pupils", some of their projects have turned out to be too ambitious to be replicated in other schools. More success has been enjoyed where a community of GIS users has been established in a group of schools and where an individual lead school has been given the task of mentoring and supporting other geography departments.

Although many teachers have reported problems in getting hold of digital map data in the first place, or have complained that there are simply insufficient numbers of computers in their department to allow a whole class to be taught simultaneously, Sinclair stresses that GIS is here to stay: "The implementation of GIS in schools has proved more difficult than anyone first imagined, but the new generation of GIS products and services are becoming more practical and teacher-friendly than ever."

Daniel Raven-Ellison, a geography teacher at Little Heath School in Reading, has received funding from the Royal Geographical Society to research the use of digital video techniques in school. His conclusion so far is that among today's secondary school pupils, the creative use of video cameras, backed up with powerful ICT tools, is a vital weapon in the daily battle to combat limited attention spans.

"If you are teaching children about identifying the source versus the mouth of a river, say, or explaining how the plunge pool of a waterfall works or what a water basin looks like, there can be nothing more satisfying than allowing them to see and hear it for themselves via a video camera, a Power Point presentation and a projector."

"By encouraging students to also make their own short films and add a narrative, you can bring geography to life in a way that simply isn't possible with books and paper atlases," Raven-Ellison adds.

His assertion that GIS can be used to enthuse any student - whatever their current level of attainment in geography or ICT - is backed up by Ruth Hollington, head of geography at Tapton School in Sheffield, who used the free Ordnance Survey maps, as well as interactive whiteboards, to help her Year 7 class investigate a mythical kidnapping. Her imaginative presentation recently earned an award from OS.

"I took some digital photographs of the area in which the supposed kidnapping took place and the film, along with other evidence, was used in conjunction with both paper and digitalised maps to create a police reconstruction of the scene of the crime."

"All the children were expected to examine the evidence and pinpoint the locations and various contours on maps and most importantly, use their geographic thinking skills to come up with a persuasive account of what had happened and where."

While not all students were able to come up with a detailed geographical description of what had taken place and in what location, the entire class, says Hollington, was able to "read" the clues of the photographs and relate them to the locality.

Hollington adds: "While web-based sources of information must always be examined for their impartiality and accuracy, ICT is a vital weapon in teaching what remains a very interesting and relevant subject."