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Online Edge

Interactive Online Maps

Powerful tools make maps and geography come alive

After Hurricane Katrina smashed the Gulf Coast, Larry S. Anderson, director of the National Center for Technology Planning, sent K-12 colleagues a link to online aerial photographs of the area taken by the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. The photos "send chills up and down your spine," he says.

A year earlier, Anderson had been a speaker at Mississippi's Bay St. Louis-Waveland School District, but now "things are so blown away I can't even find the photograph of the school." Such visual resources bring powerful new dimensions to teaching and learning, and make maps and geography come alive.

Web-based technologies have revolutionized how teachers teach and use maps in K-12 education, and it is difficult to imagine finding locations and planning trips without services such as MapQuest and Mapsonus. Online mapping skills are now integrated into the curriculum in most schools, and many districts offer map-related resources on their Web sites. For example, Illinois' Indian Prairie School District provides Mapquest-generated driving directions to each of its more than 30 schools.

Integrated Satellite Views

But far beyond customized maps and driving directions are the new online technologies that marry photographs with geography so users see views from anywhere on the planet they choose to explore. Using technologies pioneered at sites including TerraServer--since acquired by Microsoft--and Google Maps, districts such as the Somerton School District in Arizona are adding satellite views to their Web sites, and inviting staff and students to travel the country virtually.

Through TerraServer, users can see any area in the U.S. as a topographic map or aerial photo, and visit landmarks including the Space Needle in Seattle, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and the U.S. Capital in Washington, D.C. Similarly, the newer and more powerful Google Maps lets users move their mouse across a detailed road map of the United States--and selected other countries--zoom in on locations, jump to specific addresses, get driving directions between points, and view localities as road maps, satellite images or hybrid combinations of the two.

Flying Google Earth

However, the most amazing example of integrated online mapping technologies is Google Earth, acquired from Keyhole and released last June. It enables users to fly across a 3-D representation of the entire globe. This standalone application--which requires broadband connections and powerful up-to-date computer technology--combines satellite imagery with Google Maps, and overlays additional information such as international boundaries, schools, airports, parks, malls and cities. It also displays stunning 3-D views of buildings. (Note: The service runs only on PCs, not Macs.)

Will Richardson, supervisor of instructional technology at N.J.'s Hunterdon Central Regional High School describes the phenomenon. "My son Tucker can't get enough of Google Earth. He picks random places and looks for bridges, rivers, dams or canyons, and asks thousands of questions along the way. He's learning all sorts of things in the context of what interests him, and can zoom in and see that people really live in mud huts in the desert in Africa, tend cattle and own colorful blankets. He can find it, see it, explore it and own it in ways that he never could with text or a movie."

Odvard Egil Dyrli,, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Conn.