Sunday, July 27, 2014

Big Takeaways From 2014 Google Geo Teachers Institute in Mountain View, California

This week I was one of roughly 70 teachers fortunate enough to attend the 2014Google Geo Teacher Institute in Mountain View, California.  The event was two days (July 22-23) of sessions and workshops focusing on how teachers can use the array of Google geo tools with their students (Maps, Earth, Views, Street View, Maps Engine, Tour Builder and Time Lapse to name a few). The format for the institute is similar to a Google Teacher Academy except with an emphasis on the geo tools. John Bailey, Program Manager for Geo Education at Google is the organizer and he did a great job of creating two days of high level professional development. There will be a similar institute held in a couple of weeks (August 5-6) at theGoogle offices in Pittsburgh.

A combination of elements made this an amazing professional development opportunity.  First of all the participating teachers are a diverse group.  Not only were participants from a combination of K-12, higher education and administrative roles, they all came from all over the United States as well as abroad - one participant traveled from Australia to attend this week.

Me standing in front of a Google Street View Car on Google Campus
The second interesting aspect is the quality of the presenters.  Some of the presenters are teachers with a strong background in Google Geo Tools who have presented at Google Summits and past institutes.  The remainder of the staff for the institute is made up for Googlers - project managers and members of the Google Edu team.  It is a rare opportunity to sit in a session about Google Tour Builder and have a conversation with the individual who created it!  

The final element is, appropriately enough for a geo workshop, its location.  I have spent the last two days on the campus of the Googleplex, the mother ship for an edu geek like me.  It provides just a small slice of the Google workplace atmosphere.

Google Campus

The resources for the individual sessions, along with the names of the presenters,is available online here.  It was tough for me to decide which sessions to attend.  I wanted to attend them all and over the next couple of weeks I will spend time going back to this site and checking out the links and tools included on each page.

So what did I walk away with after two days in Mountain View?  Here are my “30,000 feet view” takeaways - appropriate as I type this aboard a plane flying back to Kansas City. I hope to post more specific blogs in the future on specific tools and how to use them in the classroom.

Getting past the sizzle and making it real in the classroom

Several times this week while exploring these amazing tools and apps I had to get myself past the “whiz-bang” aspect of the tool and think about how my students can use this in class.  I felt there was a conscious effort, many times vocalized in sessions, to think about building real world activities that maximize the tool.  We also have to realize that you can’t force a tool into a classroom, no matter how amazing, if it doesn’t fit.  Sometimes it is OK to let a tool soak in and someday in the future a way in which to use it your classroom will make sense.

Google is listening to teachers

Often during the week Googlers asked us, the teachers, how we use the geo tools with our students and then asked us for suggestions on how to make it better.  I give Google a ton of credit for taking the time to listen.  The project leads for Google Earth spent an hour asking us about how we use Earth and what features we would love to see added in the future.  For example, there was quite a bit of discussion on the desire to have Google Earth available in the web browser to allow users of Chromebooks to use the tool.  They said they are truly working hard on solving issues like this and I felt a vibe that in the future issues like this will be resolved to help the millions of students who are now using Chromebooks in their school.

Google Campus

Maps can be an important part of the story

It is impossible to separate geography from physical experience.  Events happen in places and sometimes the physical environment of a place helps shape the event itself.  It is great to see tools and resources like Google Lit Trips and Tour Builder being utilized to add geography to books, trips and stories. One of the new things I will introduce to the my 8th grade American History class this year is the “Big Map”.  Students will create their own custom map in Maps and then add the locations of the events we discuss throughout the year as we explore the colonization of America through the end of the Civil War.  I will also allow students to create their own personal layer on the map - places they have visited, want to visit, lived, favorite team, etc.  I want to blog more about this later but I want to create a connection for my students between the geography of the places we study throughout the year with their own experiences.

Maps can democratize data and be a powerful force

Rebecca Moore - Engineering Manager of Google Earth Engine & Earth Outreach - shared several stories with us describing how Google maps have been used to help educate communities on potential developments, removal of landmines in war torn countries, slow the deforestation of the Amazon and track bear sightings in a California neighborhood.  Here is a link to avideo of her giving a similar presentation. I think that the most powerful aspect of making maps which display data is that it ultimately translates the data into a different language - a visual language that generally more people can ingest and understand.  She describes numerous ways that Google maps have impacted world leaders, politics and environmental issues - all using tools which Google has made free and accessible.  Now my challenge as a teacher is to explore ways I can use these tools to turn the data and content I teach into maps which will help my students understand what I am teaching in new ways.
Example in Geo for Good presentation by Rebecca Moore

Google Maps are social and we are contributing content, are your students?

Back in the day, and I speak as a roughly 40 year old man, we had our maps handed to us.  Rand McNally and National Geographic created the maps and we just bought them and used them. Today we are contributing to the map.  We can create maps with our directions, our own place marks, our own images and links attached to a pin.  This summer I have played a lot with one of Google’s new geo tools - Views.  Views allows you to post 360 degree pictures, commonly referred to as “photospheres”, and publicly share them on Google Maps.  I have added almost 100 views to the Google Map this summer.  Some are of my own community and some are from vacation.  I even took some out here in Mountain View.  Here is a photosphere taken on the Google Campus this week during lunch.  I have had a blast taking and sharing these views but I also want my students to be taking these photos and being the contributors to the Google Map.  I am working on a project that will help students take photospheres of all the locations in our county listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.  I also want to help my students create maps that could be of value in our own community.  How about students collaboratively creating a Google Map which shows all the locations in Liberty which provide free wifi access.  That is a map that students, and people in the community, could really use in their daily lives.  

Google Views - See Geography in 360 degree Images

Give a man a fish, teach a man to fish…

The previous point is a good bridge to this point - don’t just hand students this content, have THEM create it.  I could make a lot of cool maps and visualizations and just show them to my students but I need to fight the urge to do this and instead try to create it with them.  Without getting too far off the intended path of this blog post, there are a lot of connections on this topic to the maker movement in education.  Students not only will find more value in a map they helped to create, they are also learning about the process which can then be applied later in different ways.  As someone who typically likes to “control” my classroom this is sometimes a struggle.  Giving the tools to the students and having them create is often messy, loud and in general scary to a lot of teachers but something we need to do more.

So there you have it - my big picture reflections from an incredible week at the 2014 Google Geo Teachers Institute in Mountain View.  Thanks again to John Bailey and everyone who made this a truly memorable week.  I leave the Googleplex with more tools to empower my students and a lot of new friends that I can add to my personal learning network and share ideas.

"Tonight, we ride!" - Taking a G-Bike for a spin around the Google Campus

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