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Using technology in geography teaching

“Geography in education has a reputation for being an early adopter of technologies – after all, it is an information-rich subject with an intrinsic interest in a rapidly changing world, and information is now instantly available at the touch of a button; indeed, we are soaked in information.”

David Lambert, Geography Education in the Digital World, 2021

Topics on this page:

  • Digital technology and teaching
  • Exploring available digital resources for geography teaching
  • Artificial intelligence and geography teaching
  • Accessing the technology
  • Using technology in teaching
  • Pedagogy and technology
  • How should I start using technology in my lessons?
  • Technology and A level geography
  • Online learning
  • Reading
  • Further reading

Rapid advances in technology have changed people’s everyday lives and are significant in shaping geography. Digital technologies such as interactive whiteboards influence geography teaching and the web presents opportunities for diverse and up-to-date sources and case studies to enrich lessons.

Using technology enables us to manipulate maps and graphs quickly, see them at different scales and highlight different features. Applications such as Google Earth, Worldmapper and Gapminder have changed the way we can understand the complexity of the world and give us access to information on different countries to analyse.

Technology can provide very powerful learning environment for students. Smartphones, computers, social media and the internet are all part of students’ everyday life and play a pivotal role in their lives. There is much potential to give students access to a range of sources of geographical information and enhance their geographical learning.

This can give them greater autonomy in geographical enquiries with access to web-based information and data handling and presentation tools. Virtual learning environments (VLEs) and school websites allow teachers to share digital resources with students and provide opportunities for more personalised learning environments and individual learning pathways.

Consider inclusion in terms of students’ use of VLE or web-based geography materials at home. Not all students may have access to a computer to use at home. They may be denied access completely or they may be reading maps and images on a smartphone. Lack of good access to technology can mean a poor experience for some students.

Developing effective ways to use technology-based resources can be time-consuming for teachers since it often involves searching for and selecting online resources and exploring the potential of websites. 

Read Willis (2023) who in her editorial to the Autumn 2023 issue of Teaching Geography questions whether technology always brings a brighter future. She points to several articles in this issue relevant to the pedagogic potential of digital technologies.

It makes sense to work collaboratively on this with others and share materials within geography departments, across groups of schools or through professional communities. Social media platforms play an increasingly important role to alert teachers to potential on-line resources.

  • Read Parkinson (2018) for a thought-provoking discussion on the impact of technology on geography and geography teachers.
  • Read Roberts (2023) Chapter 14 ‘Enquiry-based learning in geography in a digital world’, which provides an overview of the opportunities and challenges presented by the rapid development of digital technologies for enquiry-based learning. 
  • Note that GIS, photographs, maps, moving images and other visual resources are covered on other pages within this resources section.

Refer to Roberts (2023) Figure 14.2, which shows some of the resources for geography teachers that are made possible through digital technologies. These often provide very up-to-date information; some is in real-time and much of which is manipulatable by users. They also include resources for professional development and those provided by geography teachers. Explore a range of these resources and discuss your findings with your mentor.

It makes sense to work collaboratively on this with others and share materials within geography departments, across groups of schools or through professional communities. Social media platforms play an increasingly important role to alert teachers to potential on-line resources.

Carefully evaluate all technology-based resources before you use them, in the same way as you would do for all other types of resources. Refer to Media literacy. Also, encourage your students to critically evaluate any resources they obtain on-line or through social media.

  • Read Parkinson (2018) for a thought-provoking discussion on the impact of technology on geography and geography teachers.
  • Read Roberts (2023) Chapter 14 ‘Enquiry-based learning in geography in a digital world’, which provides an overview of the opportunities and challenges presented by the rapid development of digital technologies for enquiry-based learning. 
  • Read Hobbs et al (2023) about using Minecraft, a computer game and educational tool, to engage with real-world places and features.
  • Note that GIS, photographs, maps, moving images and other visual resources are covered on other pages within this resources section.
Roberts (2023) p 138 comments that ‘developments in digital technologies have changed students’ everyday lives and how they communicate with others‘. She notes that today most students have good digital skills from their use of mobile phones and the internet. Refer to Figure 14.1: Some key findings from Ofcom research reports, which gives some insights into their use of digital media.

Use the information in Roberts (2023) Figure 14.1 to prepare a short questionnaire for your students to find out what influences their digital lives and use of technology. Use this to find out about, for example, their social media use, main uses of the internet and their access to technology at home. Discuss your findings with your mentor and use it when you plan your teaching.

Artificial intelligence and geography teaching

The pace of technological change is very fast and this will always present challenges for geography teachers. One of the most recent developments is the technologies of artificial intelligence in the form of language-learning tools; these can summarise texts, write essays and even have human-like conversations.

In schools most attention has centred around the emergence of ChatGPT which stands for Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer. It is a free chatbot, that allows users to ask any question, on any subject.

In the GA blog Artificial intelligence in geography Brian Kerr comments:

With ChatGPT, students can access vast quantities of geographical content at lightning speed, without the need to endlessly scroll through sprawling websites or rely on dusty textbooks. Having the information at our fingertips has never been quite so literal.

  • Read Kerr’s blog post and find out how he uses the tool to cut his workload. But he points out some pitfalls, such as that AI can provide incorrect information and notes that ‘We are in uncharted waters and there is a need to proceed with caution’.
  • Refer to Griffiths (2023) who discusses the challenges and potential of artificial intelligence chatbots in the geography classroom. Do these help or hinder teaching and learning in school geography?

The U.S. Department of Education published a report in 2023 on Artificial Intelligence and Future of Teaching and Learning. Its recommendations include some key points to bear in mind, for example, that:

  • An important criterion for educational use of AI is ‘where humans are firmly at the center’;
  • The educational needs of students should be placed ahead of ‘the excitement about emerging AI capabilities’;
  • We must harness AI’s ability to sense and build upon learner strengths
  • We must build on AI capabilities that connect with principles of collaborative and social learning and which respect the student not just for their cognition but also for the whole human skill set‘.

 

Accessing the technology

In your career as a geography teacher, artificial intelligence is a future technology that you must be aware of, but it is probably not the place to start in exploring your use of technology in the classroom. 

In schools that are well resourced, students will have good access to technology in the geography classroom, through students’ use of tablets or via electronic classroom displays such as digital projectors and smartboards. This enables access to a wide range of media – photos, maps, video, diagrams, animations – which can be displayed in the classroom and used interactively by both the teacher and students.

Technology provides a platform for students to present their information to the class or for everyone to give an answer or ‘vote’. Social media can bring others’ ideas into the classroom. Increasingly the multimedia classroom is supported by VLEs which students can access at home, as well as school and many geography departments have their own areas on websites with resources to support teaching and learning.

Increasingly, teachers (and students) carry smartphones and tablets for use in the classroom and in the field. With the use of ‘apps’ these can be sophisticated technological gadgets – cameras, GPS tracking devices, compasses, scanners and recorders. However, find out about the policy in your school for students’ use of smartphones which varies between institutions.

There is a wide variation in the ease of access to digital technology such as computers, tablets and ipads in different schools. Often geography teachers report that they find it difficult to gain access to such resources on a regular basis for their classes. Roberts (2023) pp. 139-40 investigated the opportunities and challenges for using digital resources in geography classrooms and concluded that there was a digital divide: ‘some students can use ICT resources whenever appropriate, while others use them rarely‘.

  • Explore what access the geography department has to technology for teacher and student use. Are there dedicated resources available in the department, or does it have to be booked centrally?
  • Find out what main software platforms and applications are used in the school that are applicable to geography. Is there support available if these applications are new to you?
  • What geography-specific resources are available e.g. Digimap, GIS?
  • Find out the school protocols for student use of smartphones and tablets, use of the school website/VLE.
  • What technical support is available if you need help?
  • Roger, D. (2017) 100 ideas for Secondary Teachers: Outstanding Geography Lessons, Bloomsbury Education. This includes interesting and simple ideas for using Twitter, social media, YouTube, PowerPoint etc.
  • See this presentation on Tweeting techniques from the 2016 GA Conference by a PGCE student who was interested in exploring a world where ‘students and technology are intertwined’ by using Twitter during fieldwork. The potential of Twitter as a research resource is also explored in Fearnley and Fyfe (2018).

Using technology in teaching

Make sure you have the necessary skills to use the available technology in your lessons. You need to:

  • Be competent in handling the hardware and the key software tools used in your school – browser, email, word processor, presentation software, GIS, databases etc.
  • Explore the teaching potential of the specific packages available in your school
  • Acquaint yourself with specific practical skills you need to use the technology in the classroom, such as linking tablets with smartboards.

If you have concerns about your IT skills, discuss this with your geography mentor or tutor or seek some specific training. It can be helpful to meet with the person in your school who oversees technology (ICT coordinator) to find out about the specific hardware and software you can access for your teaching.

In your early days of teaching, you will be developing your confidence with using technology, that may be new to you, as well as managing learning in the classroom. Do not be afraid to seek help. Never let the technology dominate to such an extent that you forget the geography that you are teaching. Resist the temptation to be overambitious with ‘technological toys’, until you are confident in your key teaching skills.

Make sure your students have the necessary IT skills before you use an application:

  • Students are not always as digitally literate as we think. For example, they may be able to use Google, but can they use search terms effectively to achieve sensible results or narrow their search?
  • Find out from the IT coordinator what software applications the students have been taught to use e.g. do they have the basic skills to input data into a spreadsheet that will be needed for fieldwork analysis? What presentation software can they use?
  • Use students who have more expertise with the software, to support those who do not.

Remember that good questioning, effective intervention and assessment of learning are important in all lessons, including those that are technology-based. Your one-to-one interventions with students should be about geographical learning, not just about instruction in the use of the hardware or software.

When you are teaching in a computer room you will sometimes need students to move their attention from their workstations so that you can discuss a point of interest with them as a class. 

If the configuration of the room does not allow that to happen easily consider how you can do this. The questions and discussions to evaluate learning, and challenge and move students on, are just as important when students are using technology as in a standard classroom.

Pedagogy and technology

The Education Endowment Foundation (Stringer, Lewin and Coleman 2019) emphasises that the use of technology must be informed by effective pedagogy. The question of how to use technology to improve learning is not distinct from the question of how to teach effectively, or of how students learn. You should consider this carefully as you plan your own teaching. 

The role of the teacher is key for effective learning with technology; the learning activities must be carefully planned. Ofsted (2023) reports that in situations where students were asked to find information relating to a topic or place for themselves online, ‘this was rarely successful, as the pupils did not know enough about the topic to select relevant information or to put it together in a meaningful way’.

The EEF has four recommendations for teachers about using digital technology to improve students’ learning.

  1. Consider how technology will improve teaching and learning before introducing it. New technology can often appear exciting, but it can become a solution in search of a problem. You should carefully consider the pedagogical rationale for how technology will improve learning. Be clear on the learning intentions first, and then consider how technology could help.
  2. Technology can be used to improve the quality of explanations and modelling. For example, using video clips or animations can support your verbal explanation or a visualiser can project onto an interactive whiteboard the steps that model how a process works (such as the formation of a waterfall or the hydrological cycle). Technology can also help you to model how geographers think, for example to share and discuss with students how to improve an example projected on a screen or smartboard of a geographical description or an answer to an exam question.
  3. Technology offers ways to improve the impact of student practice. It can be engaging and motivating for students. It can also enable you to increase the challenge of different questions as students succeed or provide new contexts in which they are required to apply their skills, in the classroom or at home.
  4. Technology can play a role in improving assessment and feedback. It can improve the quality of information collected or the speed and ease with which you provide feedback to students. Older students can submit assignments electronically to you for marking. Technology can be effective for creating short quizzes where feedback is automated and data is gathered instantly, which can then be used to inform future planning. Devices or ‘learner response systems’ can be used in class to provide you with immediate information about how students answer questions (akin to the use of mini whiteboards). This can help you to quickly pick up on any misconceptions.
 

Teachers need to be competent in the use technology to develop geographical learning, but they also need to know when it may not be appropriate for a particular teaching purpose.  How it is used will be influenced by a teacher’s approach to pedagogy and Roberts (2023 Figure 14.3) has illustrated this in relation to the use of ICT in her ‘participation dimension’ framework.

Roberts expresses regret that practice is more likely to be at the controlled end of the dimension in geography classrooms, and that digital technologies have not yet transformed classroom practice to bring ‘a shift towards more personalised learning, increased student independence or students working at different levels and following individual pathways or students having greater responsibility for the content of learning‘ (2023 p 143).

How should I start with using technology in my lessons?

Begin with the software applications that you are already familiar with, so you will be confident when using them with your classes. It is important that the technology brings good geography to the lesson. Bear in mind what is said by Fred Martin (2001):

‘Raising achievement must mean more than simply improving the look of a piece of work, important though this is. The use of ICT must help raise the quality of the geography delivered and the students’ performance.’

  • See the support sheet First steps in using technology in geography.
  • Read Martin, F. (2001) ’Using ICT to raise achievement’, Teaching Geography, July. This provides a source of practical ways to use ICT in geography teaching. Use Figure 1: The application of ICT in geographical activities to identify likely places where you could start.
  • When you are taking your first steps in using ICT and want ideas for what to use with your classes, download ICT in secondary geography: a short guide for teachers which is a good source of ideas.

As you prepare lesson plans for using technology in your geography lessons, you must avoid the ‘technology trap’. In other words, do not let the technology divert your attention. Your focus must be the geography you want students to learn. This must always remain at the forefront of your lesson planning and curriculum development.

When preparing lessons, bear in mind:

  • What geography learning do I want to achieve and is technology likely to enhance this? How?
  • What are the students’ prior experiences of the software/application?
  • What technology equipment will I need to use in the lesson? Is it booked?
  • How will I manage the learning with the technology resources?
  • Are any support staff available e.g. IT technician?

Hint: Don’t overlook the value of PowerPoint to organise multi-media resources to use in a lesson. It can keep together in one place video, webpages, animations, audio, as well as images, and this can help your transitions between different media to operate very smoothly in lessons.

Technological change is very rapid, so keeping abreast of what is happening is not easy. Discuss recent developments with the teacher who is in charge of IT at your school and follow up their recommendations of what you should investigate.

If you are very interested in this area, you should visit the BETT exhibition as part of your professional development which is held in London every January and has on show the latest technologies for education with presentations for teachers.

Technology and A level geography

All A level geography specifications require a great deal from the students who are preparing for the examinations, and from their teachers, who are planning engaging and topical lessons. 

Download this article written by Alan Parkinson which outlines how technology can be used to support students and teachers and contains ideas for incorporating technology into lesson plans.

Online learning

COVID-19 gave an impetus to schools to adopt on-line learning and, in so doing, it has changed the perceptions of the value of educational technology tools and online learning. Schools adapted their curriculum when students were not in school to use remote teaching through school websites, or to use a blended approach of both paper-based and on-line learning.

Many schools adopted new digital tools and resources. Geography teachers introduced students to a diverse world via tools that students had available at home such as Google Earth, Streetview or other visualisers. 

Teachers began to explore the use of video-conferencing, such as Teams and Zoom, to give live lessons and use platforms, such as OneNote, to provide curriculum materials, online marking and interaction/feedback. In these ways teachers were able to continue to provide assessment for learning to both whole classes and individuals.

Teaching with on-line technology forced teachers to rethink the pedagogy they use, and to reflect on what they learned from the experience. Many teachers recognise that there are both benefits and shortcomings from on-line teaching and learning. Few believe it can wholly replace class-based teaching because of the lack of direct interaction with students.

However, most teachers soon recognised that learning isn’t fundamentally different when done remotely and the same principles of good practice apply. Feedback and assessment are still as key as they are in the classroom. 

Curriculum planning and selection of appropriate resources are still of utmost importance. Getting the right balance between explanation of concepts, questions, retrieval practice and independent study is just as essential. On-line learning has to provide a varied diet of different tasks from short responses to enquiries.

Teachers noted that some students thrive in a digital environment and increase independent learning skills. Some, often the quieter ones, gained in confidence by this form of learning. Networking ideas and resources with other students could also be facilitated via social media, email or file sharing.

Despite the recognition of such benefits, the lack of direct contact between teacher and both the whole class and individual students brought significant limitations to the teacher-student engagement that is essential for good teaching and could not be adequately replicated via technology.

The vital component that was missing on-line was the talk and discussion that are so essential for the learning process. Also, in the real classroom teachers can look and quickly assess who does not understand and who needs support. That is a lot harder to do on-line.

An important issue to consider in regard to on-line learning is the ‘digital divide’ that further widens existing attainment gaps and inequalities faced by disadvantaged students. The Sutton Trust (2020) found, that 30% of middle-class pupils were doing live or recorded online lessons at least once per school day, compared to 16% of working-class pupils.

Those at private schools were more than twice as likely to do so than those at state schools. The digital divide isn’t, however, just about whether pupils have devices. Children whose parents don’t have the skills or time to help them use online platforms, and troubleshoot when needed, are also at risk of falling behind.

  • Roberts, M. (2021) Geographical sources in the digital world: Disinformation, representation and reliability. In N. Walshe and G. Healy (eds), Geography Education in the Digital World. London: Routledge, pp.53–64.
  • Cullinane, C. and Montacute, R. (2020) ‘COVID-19 and Social Mobility Impact Brief #1: School Closures’, April, The Sutton Trust.

Reading

The possibilities for using technology and software resources in geography are numerous and so much has been written that it is impossible to list all the references. 

Much was published several years ago and newer technologies, software and applications have since become available. Also, the term ‘ICT’ has been replaced in the 2014 National Curriculum by ‘computer studies’. Do not be put off reading some earlier writing because it refers to older technology or terms.

The items listed here pay good attention to the pedagogy and principles of using the technology in geography and are well worthwhile reading even if the technology might be outdated. As you read, focus on the principles that are outlined and how applications are important tools for geographers for handling information and data. Here are some readings that should set your ideas flowing:

  • Bailey D. (2018) ‘Digimap for Schools: what is it and what can you do with it?’ Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Barford A. and Dorling D. (2006) ‘Worldmapper: the world as you have never seen it before’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Bayliss, T. and Collins, L. (2006) ‘Invigorating teaching with interactive whiteboards’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Cornish, P. (2012) Multimedia Made Easy: Geography lessons using multimedia technology, Sheffield: Geographical Association. See the sample lesson which uses a GPS unit, camera and Google Earth.
  • Dixon I. (2004) ‘Beyond technolust – inter-active web based technology and learning’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • Fearnley, F. and Fyfe, R. (2018) ‘Twitter: an emerging source for geographical study, Geography, Summer.
  • Griffiths, A. (2023) ‘Raising issues: OK computer? Using artificial intelligence for teaching and learning about climate change’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Hagge, P.D. (2023) ‘The rise and stagnation of Google Earth VR: dashing the hopes of immersive geography classrooms?’, Geography, Autumn.
  • Hazeldine, L. and Walker, C. (2019) ‘Harnessing mobile devices for field trips: enhancing learning through digital technology’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Hobbs, L., Behenna, S., Bentley, S. and Stevens, C. (2023) ‘Near and far: engaging students with place through Minecraft’, Geography, Autumn.
  • Martin, F. (2006) e-geography – Using ICT in quality geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association. This book provides many ideas on classroom applications and is intended to stimulate thought about the pedagogy of using ICT applications.
  • Mitchell D. (2007) ‘Making the most of your department website’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Mitchell, D. (2009) ‘Being critical when teaching with technologies’ in Brooks, C. (ed.) Studying PGCE Geography at M Level, London: Routledge pp. 23-35.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted, September.
  • Parkinson, A. (2018) The impact of technology on geography and geography teachers? in Jones, M. and Lambert, D. (eds) Debates in Geography Education (2nd ed). London: Routledge.
  • Parkinson, A. and Vannet, V. (2008) ‘Using digital resources in geography teaching’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Picardo, J. (2018) ‘Using technology in the classroom’, Impact (Chartered College of Teaching) June.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Shipman K. (2014) ‘Using apps in the classroom’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Stringer, E., Lewin, C. and Coleman, R. (2019) Using digital technology to improve learning, Education Endowment Foundation (available online).
  • Taylor L. and BPRS Cambridge Group (2003) ‘Effective use of ICT in geography coursework’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Todd S. and Jackson D. (2003) ‘Using interactive whiteboards in geography’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Willis, K. (2023) ‘Technology for a brighter future?’, Geography, Autumn.
 Further Reading
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, 2nd edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 14.
  • Walshe, N. and Healy, G. (2020) (eds), Geography Education in the Digital World. London: Routledge, pp.53–64.
  • U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, Artificial Intelligence and Future of Teaching and Learning: Insights and Recommendations, Washington, DC, 2023