Monday, March 8, 2010

Geographically-Situated Learning

Michelle Pacansky-Brock offers some fascinating ideas about how Google Earth can be used to teach art history ("Interactive Learning with Google Earth"). The basic premise is that Google's open software solutions for terrain mapping have allowed people to develop tremendous value for instruction -- as, for example, in an art studio class that flies across the Google Earth, zooms in on the Prado, and has high-quality digital images of famous paintings available to look at.

Another great example of how location-based sites can really improve learning comes from Andrew Lavigne's fantastic site about the 46 High Peaks in the Adirondack Mountains, here in New York. That's a topic near and dear to my heart since I normally spend most of the year hiking or (rock/ice) climbing there. Andrew is a Winter 46er; I'm a bit more than halfway there, although I made almost no progress this year thanks to a bad knee injury. Anyway, Andrew has done a masterful job of combining trip reports, photographs, GPS traces, and geolocation to give hikers a truly valuable resource--and to give non-hikers a sense of what it's "really like" to climb these mountains. Check out his base map: click on any of the tags and you'll get a link to that mountain's page, which includes photos, trip reports, etc. It's great!

My friend Dale Hobson, webmaster for North Country Public Radio, got the geotagging bug recently. Now they're tagging news stories, to help readers get a sense of what "local" means up here in the big north. Check out their map.

The possibilities for rich instructional environments are obvious, and I think it's also possible to limit the information enough to provide some educational direction. If one of the tasks of instruction is to help learners discover a hunger for more information, I think situated learning has a lot of potential.

If I'd had access to this kind of information when I was working on a bagpipe music archive in Scotland, I might have used it to tie our recordings to the villages where the pipers lived. Scottish bagpipe music has a definite terroir just as wine does, and it would be really neat to make it easy to hear the regional differences, and to listen to the changes as you scrolled across a landscape. We could integrate sheet music that tracked with the recordings, to help with differentiated instruction for our students, and we could include photographs of the pipers, their homes, and the landscape.

Learning to play the glorious piobaireachd "Lament for the Children"? You should see where Padraig Mor MacCrimmon lived when he wrote it, and be able to learn about that remote cove on the Isle of Skye where he lived. Cognitively, the repeated F#s in the tune--normally cheerful notes in pipe music--take on a different sense when you know that Padraig wrote his tune after losing seven of his eight children to smallpox--carried by a Spanish vessel that sailed into that bay. You might even draw some melodic comparisons between his Lament and the Spanish traditional music of that time. The possibilities are rich. (Thanks to Bruce Gandy for the recording--Bruce is a fantastic piper from Nova Scotia).

Teaching children about the geopolitics of food, and the reason why there's a "going local" movement? You can talk about climates, transportation costs, spoilage rates, piracy, and the rest. But might it not be clearer to start with the image of your local grocery store on-screen, and zoom out to a map of the world, with clickable tags showing where the foods you ate came from? Draw lines to map out the trading pathways, and you start to see why China enjoyed Most Favored Nation status--the pathway is as thick as a slab of imported beef.

It's been said that all politics is local. So is everything else. So many interesting trends emerge when we start taking data out of the statistical realm and start mapping it onto the globe. When we can use the newer technologies to make that data accessible through a mapping model, we present learners with a fascinating view... of the world. Let's get on it.


  1. This is a fascinating idea and you're right, the possibilities are endless. I love the visuals connected with eating locally.

  2. I would love to see it--I just don't know how to do it (yet?). Maybe one of my classmates will know how to make that stuff happen, or maybe I can figure it out.

  3. I'm glad to see my blog post has triggered some further thoughts for you. Looks like you're off and running. On my blog you suggested the question of whether "the explosion of educational technology is changing the way people learn?" There's solid evidence that our students are learning differently, that's for sure.

    I recommend that you take a look at my post "The Future of Learning Institutions" at
    This post reflects on a provocative report shared by the MacArthur Foundation about the critical importance of participatory learning to the future of educational institutions. I believe learning has already changed and we (educators) now need to figure out how to catch up to it.

    Michelle Pacansky-Brock