I wrote before that Twitter was like a magic cafe or an eternal, really good TESOL conference, but it can actually be a lifeline in times of disaster.
When the Tohoku Earthquake hit Japan, I was in California, but I was using Twitter at the time, on my @readable account with a lot of Japanese users. Many of them quickly tweeted 地震だ–”it’s an earthquake.” I realized something was wrong when, even fifteen minutes later, they were tweeting things like まだゆれる–”it’s still shaking.”
For people who were and are in a disaster area and are not totally fluent in the local language, the situation can range from stressful to life-threatening. Even being in the Tokyo area (distant from the tsunami and major quake damage), with aftershocks, confusing power outages, train stoppages, and food shortages, is proving a challenge for many people. People who have made a good effort to learn Japanese are still finding that a whole host of new vocabulary is cropping up–planned power outage, aftershock, evacuation, contamination, nuclear power plant, and so on.
For the first couple of days, information from official sources was hard to get (at least overseas) in English–people kept saying to watch NHK World News, but when I turned it on, it was often just a loop of tsunami warnings, or a loop of translated news that I knew to be many hours old. (I knew the news was old because Twitterers like @makiwi, a food writer, and @TimeOutTokyo, an entertainment magazine site’s account, were tweeting live news in English–read about Six 6 Tokyo Tweeters Who Kept the City Informed here. And while NHK World News was behind, CNN and MSNBC and so on were woefully behind, and just so bad overall that I quit bothering with them. Meanwhile, BBC’s radio announcers mangled Japanese place names so badly that I couldn’t understand where they meant, which was pretty useless. While there was some good mainstream reporting later [caveat], I would not currently rely on these news outlets in a crisis where I needed to make decisions.)
During this time, and even (to a great extent) now, if you wanted to get information about things like the current status of the nuclear plants, who could help with emergency translation (seriously–medical experts were volunteering on the spot!), what all those microsieverts and millisieverts meant, where you could get shelter, how you could get from Point A to Point B with the expressways closed, where get temporary medication refills, which train lines were running, where to buy bread and batteries, how to use Google People Finder to check on survivors, who would take English-speaking volunteers, where to get information on cooking with limited resources, how to extend a visa or replace a passport, and so on, you could find the answers on Twitter. And during the aftermath, many of my Japanese friends say that Twitter has also helped them feel less alone, more reassured, and constantly encouraged, despite the stress and confusion. Some people have criticized Twitter for spreading hoaxes and rumors, but those spread by word of mouth, too (and for, heaven’s sake, even newspapers). Critical thinking, asking questions, and checking with reliable Twitterers all go a long way.
People rapidly came together on Twitter to help each other find information, connect users to other users who could translate something or supply an answer, and otherwise assist each other (even outright offering spare rooms to strangers). I noticed people’s lists of followers exploding, and not just those (like @makiwi and @TimeOutTokyo) who were valiantly translating NHK live and otherwise providing information you couldn’t get anywhere else.
Anyway, I can tell you that if I’d been in Japan, I wouldn’t have wanted to have been without Twitter. At the moment of a crisis, of course, it’s better to head for high ground, get under your desk, or whatever rather than checking Twitter (although at least one person was apparently rescued from a rooftop due to Twitter, since he wasn’t able to make a call but could send a tweet!). After that first moment, though, Twitter’s usefulness really kicks in. Disasters of one kind or another–floods, invasions, earthquakes, wildfires, uprisings–can happen almost anywhere. And despite the way we humans naturally tend to think, you’re not immune to disasters if you’re an outsider who is only there for a year or two: without fully-developed family and social networks, high-level language skills, knowledge of your surroundings, a fully-stocked household, and so on, you are probably more vulnerable.
Of course, you can’t necessarily sit there and wait for information to flow in–you need to either already have a well-developed Twitter network or be willing to seek out and find additional useful people to follow (or both). And you need be adventurous and creative in your use of English and the local language to search Twitter for the information you need (and not hesitate to ask people who might be helpful). Two places to start are 1) my Twitter guide for ESL students (simplified, but suitable for anyone, including people who use Twitter but haven’t explored its various functions–hashtags, for example, became very useful for regional information-sharing), and 2) my Twitter lists. To use Twitter lists, click on the name of the list and then the “Following: ” tab at the top. You can choose to follow individual members, who will show up in your Twitter timeline as usual. Or you can follow the whole list, but the members won’t show up in your timeline unless you also follow them individually. To read tweets from the list, you’ll have to go look at the list in your Twitter app or on Twitter.com.
Anyway, sorry for the length, but I hope this is useful to someone (although I suppose it’s better if it’s not, eh?). If you have any questions, let me know–and take care!
I wasn’t able to post here during the holidays, but I was somewhat active on Twitter. Here are a few links that I shared that may be of interest to you, rewritten a bit for context and easier clicking.
This is part of how I use Wikipedia (and part of why the kneejerk brainwashing of students against it is wrong):
You heard about the possible closure of Delicious by Yahoo and then the backpedaling, right? You’d better read this on Yahoo’s “Delicious isn’t dead” statement (basically, the Delicious team was laid off, so plan ahead. The worst part is that either the service will degrade or everyone will scatter to a different service. And I DO NOT LIKE Diigo and its toolbars and disguised links. Hat-tip to @immlass). http://pinboard.in/ (run by some of Delicious’ original people, I think) is on my radar (one-time low fee, like Metafilter.com) to replace Delicious if needed, as is http://xmarks.com. Pinboard connects to Twitter, Instapaper, & Google Reader, so it may be worth $10 (1-time, not/year). Not to mention that actually having a tiny fee may keep it alive and answerable to its users–remember paying for stuff that you liked and valued?
Here are a few things that make my life a little easier. I hope they help you, too. All of these tips are very easy to follow. You don’t need any particular tech skill level to implement them.
Install Adblock Plus. Sorry, as long as legitimate websites use pop-unders, flashing banners, expanding ads, and animations, I’ll use an adblocker. Unfair? Well, they can use unintrusive ads like Google’s text ads, and I’ll leave them alone. If you’re using it and a website that should work looks really strange, click the red ABP stop sign and disable it, then reload. You can also use it to right-click and block individual images, which is sometimes useful.
Block the Delete Goes Back Action: Annoyed by accidentally hitting “delete” and Firefox going back a page and losing everything you’d typed into a blog comment form, etc.? It’s simple to turn off. (If you want a keystroke to go back and forward, use command/ctrl left and right.)
How to tab into pull-down menus and more (OS X): I was used to being able to do this, but it’s not on by default. Using keyboard shortcuts instead of clicking around makes you a more efficient tech user, you know (more on that in the future).
Delete useless search engines in the search window (answers.com? honestly!), and change the order so the ones you like to use are at the top. Add ones you use often (I often use wikipedia.jp), and add some that can’t be found through the Add Search Engines option at the bottom (click the little magnifying glass)–Mycroft Project has things like ALC’s Eijiro on the Web, a powerful Japanese/English dictionary.
Click on View at the top; make sure Status Bar is turned on (putting your over links will usually show where they take you in the status bar at the bottom), and check, uncheck, and customize the Toolbars and Sidebar until they’re the way you like in terms of functions and screen “real estate.” You can also right-click on the toolbar and drag things around to access some of these features.
If you’ve never explored the main preferences (look at the top under Firefox -> Preferences) or your add-ons’ preferences (Tools -> Add-ons, then highlight each one to see if it has preferences), it’s worth doing so.
Forget This Site: If you’re going to use Firefox in front of other people, such as in a conference presentation, and you recently read an article at the New York Times called “Sex Trafficking on the Rise in Asia,” or one of Zen Kimchi’s great “Food Porn” articles, you might not want it to flash across the address bar if you type in something else that has a few letters in common. Short of deleting your entire history, if you know there’s a specific site that should be removed, go to History at the top, then Show All History. Search for the site you need to remove. Right-click on the entry, and choose the last option, Forget About This Site. It won’t come up when you start typing in the address bar (so make sure you’ve bookmarked it if you need to go back!).
I am baffled as to why my post on Delicious isn’t coming up as a related post, but since it isn’t, I’ll link it here. I wrote a whole post on it, and it’s so worth using. It’s like a faithfully-following online filing cabinet, butler, secretary, genie, and Library of Alexandria. I love it.
If you’re traveling and using internet cafes, using library or school computer labs, using a computer in an adjunct office in a classroom, etc., you may be exposing your personal information to hackers or risking the chance of getting a virus on your USB stick.
Here are a few articles I’ve found that may be helpful. You don’t have to drive yourself crazy with these precautions, but follow as many as you reasonably can. I’ve found that most people don’t realize either how easy it is for even casual miscreants to swipe passwords from wifi networks (in certain situations), or that things such as keyloggers (which record everything you type–like your usernames and passwords) even exist.
- Given a choice, if a machine is running any browser other than IE, use the other browser (e.g. Firefox, Chrome, or Safari). For one thing, Internet Explorer tends to have the most security flaws at any given time, and Firefox, Chrome, and Safari tend to have fewer (see this page for a comparison of the up-to-date versions only. Never use a really old version of IE or any other browser, which is likely to have a variety of well-known security flaws. Another reason is that IE tends to be a popular target for people who want to exploit security weaknesses.
- Given a choice, if a computer lab or library lets you choose between Mac and Windows machines, and you can get your browsing or other work done on a Mac, choose the Macs. This is not necessarily because of any inherent properties of the Macs, but because the Windows machines (being more common) are more likely targets for casual hackers. (The only drawback is that in a few school and library labs, the Macs are poorly maintained because the lab staff doesn’t understand them, but you’ll soon realize if that’s the case.)
- If there’s a website that does not use https:// or SSL to log you in with your password, just don’t use it on a public machine or public wifi. If you really must use it–like a WordPress-based blog that you want to update from the road–look for solutions. (For example, you can add the Semisecure Login plugin to your WordPress installation, which adds some level of security.)
- If you use public computers frequently, consider keeping a USB drive that only has your own copy of Firefox and other Portable Apps on it (no personal information). (Or you may wish to consider a “secure USB drive” that is meant to resist having its data altered, to keep personal information safe and to avoid introducing malware back onto your own system.)
- Keep these suggestions in mind when borrowing friends’ computers, as well. Many people are surprisingly lax about updating their browsers, running and updating antivirus and antispyware, etc.
If you have other suggestions or further reading, please leave a comment!
Update 8/26: You can now make calls from your Gmail interface even without a Google Voice account, but the two services play well together (North America only for free calls; international calls originating from the US are cheaper than the very cheap service I currently use). Here are some useful and less-useful tips and tricks from Lifehacker.
If you live in the US, Google Voice is now open to everyone. I wrote about it before, but now you don’t need an invitation to use it. By the way, if you’re US-based but working overseas, it might still be worth getting if you have a friend in the US who could activate it for you–it’ll give you a US number you can use for web-based texting (you can get the texts in e-mail) and voice mail, so friends and family can call you and leave messages on their own schedule. You’d get an e-mail with a link to the recording and a transcription (when it works). It might be great in an emergency, for people with totally incompatible schedules, and for relatives who don’t do e-mail. As I mentioned before, it’s really an amazing thing for private tutors and “freeway flyers” with 3 different work numbers, too.
Anyway, Lifehacker has done a good job writing about it in the past as well as now that it’s open:
Now, I haven’t really noticed the lag that they mention, but I have had 1 call out of the calls that a client has made to me not go through, and 1 other call was garbled so badly that I couldn’t hear him. That was during the beta test, though, so I’m hoping that things are better now. It really has made life easier, and my husband uses it all the time so that his students can call him (he’s a part-time community college teacher) and text him (they mostly prefer texting to e-mail). It lets him communicate with them on both their terms and his terms (he hates texting, but typing on a keyboard is fine). He turns the number’s setting to ring when he’s on campus, but it’s generally on Do Not Disturb (straight to voice mail) when he’s at home, unless something special is going on.
Anyway, if you’re already interested and you want to give it a try, go to http://www.google.com/voice/
Sorry for the long radio silence here and on Twitter, etc.! I went to a convention over Memorial Day weekend, and when I came back, my place had been broken into. My beloved MacBook Pro was stolen, among other things. I hadn’t backed up as often as I should have, because too much other stuff has been going on recently.
Odds are, if you’re a teacher–and particularly if you’re an edtech fan or writer-type or grad student–you also have valuable information and technology in your place. Here are the lessons that I learned from this experience:
If you rent your home and own expensive laptops, TVs, jewelry, or other stuff that would cost a lot to replace if damaged or stolen, consider renter’s insurance. It doesn’t cost a lot per year, and it’s made a huge difference for us–replacing two Mac laptops would be an issue for two teachers, otherwise! (Traveller’s has been pretty good, by the way.)
Get an external hard drive and, if you are not a conscientious frequent updater of it, find an automatic backup solution. I think newer versions of the Mac OS have options for this built in…I didn’t have that and wish I had.
Anything that’s automatically stored in more than one place is a good thing, so anything that’s automatically synced is a good thing. My address book from my laptop was synced to my iPod Touch, so I didn’t lose friends’ phone numbers and addresses (I just wish I’d filled it out more instead of relying on a file!). My calendar with appointments was, too, and so on. If you don’t have a Touch/iPhone/Blackberry, etc., there are some free online services that do similar things. My bookmarks, which include things that are very important like research articles, teaching activity sites, etc., are intact because I use Delicious.com rather than just saving them in my browser.
Use an e-mail service that stores your sent mail forever and doesn’t delete it (and can be searched easily, like Gmail). Someday, those sent attachments may be your only record of things like, oh, your most recent CV. (Ack.)
Anyway, without getting into the security side of things, those are just some ideas to keep you rolling/help you bounce back in this situation. I’m sure there’s a lot more out there I could have done.
Ultimately, nobody was hurt, I’m getting a new MacBook Pro, and things could have been a lot worse.
If you are stuck desk-warming* or just have a little time to kill at your computer, but your network doesn’t support IM programs or won’t let you install them, Meebo is a nice web-based alternative alternative. You can log in to any or all of your instant messenger accounts–AIM, MSN/Live, Google Talk, Facebook chat, etc., at once. (It’s also very useful in internet cafes.) This doesn’t mean that I can use my Yahoo account to talk to someone on AIM, though–you still have to be on the same system to talk to each other. It just puts everyone in the same window.
I suspect the website is blocked by many net-nanny programs simply because it means you can get around restrictions on IM services, but perhaps you’ll get lucky if you need it.
Meebo also has an iPhone app, although it’s a bit annoying because you have to log out and press the home button every time you’re done with it, or you’ll get logged back in.
If you can use IM software on your network, check into Pidgin (Windows/Linux[?]) and Pidgin Portable (if you can use IM software but can’t install anything on your work computer) or Adium (Mac OS X). Both handle multiple accounts, letting you stay in touch with friends, family, and students across the world who are on different systems, and letting you keep various groups separate–for example, when I use Adium I can have two Yahoo! IM accounts logged on at the same time, such as “teacherclarissa” and “ffordefangirlccs”, for different purposes. (Not my real account names!) Just as with Meebo, you still have to have an account on that system to talk to someone using that system. (But at least you don’t have to have 2 or 3 different programs running and using up system resources.)
These “client” programs, as they’re called, are also not prone to the ads and other annoyances that the proprietary programs produced by the companies themselves are. The drawback is that there are occasionally glitches when trying to transfer files, if you often use your IM program to do that.
All of the above programs and services are currently free to use.
*This doesn’t happen as much to teachers in the US (I don’t know about other places), but in K-12-equivalent schools in Japan and Korea, at least, foreign teachers are often required to stay on campus when they don’t have class and are done with lesson-planning. It’s not easy to spend time in the teachers’ room if you’re not fluent in the local language yet, so they often remain at their own desks or in their classrooms (some teachers don’t have another desk or office). It doesn’t seem like the most efficient use of teachers’ time, but I can’t comment on it in detail because I haven’t experienced it firsthand.
During @blythe_musteric’s session and later during the tweetup, I mentioned that, particularly in Japan and Korea, English-language learners are using Twitter as a self-study tool. I have another Twitter account, @readable, which is for ELLs. I use it to post relatively simple tweets on topics of interest to English learners, links to news posts, and links to self-study tools. Eventually, I started seeing posts from my readers using the hashtags #twinglish (Twitter+English), #eigodewa (“as for English…?”), #engtwit (English+Twitter), and #kor_eng (Korean+English). Putting a hashmark (#) in front of a word makes it clickable; when you click on it you see everyone’s tweets using that hashtag, I was impressed by how many users there were experimenting with English and chatting with each other in a second language.
Some of my followers’ (connected users) responses about why they are using Twitter in English (minor mistakes corrected for one user by request; others exactly as written):
@[anonymous]: 1) Expect to meet people from all over the world and share ideas or talk with freely 2) Need to practice English regularly
@oxwinter: That’s because… I learned English at school, but few opportunities to use it here, Japan. Twitter gives us that opportunity.
@akaSEANJUNG: in ma case.. it’s just 4 fun. tryin to not to forget how 2 use…too.
@noelsora: It’s a good tool for driving me to to think in English.
As I mentioned at the conference, I also discovered some Japanese ELT professionals, including teachers and publishers. In particular, @MakotoIshiwata and @mayumi_ishihara do a good job using Twitter with ELLs. @Makoto_Ishiwata is actually Mr. Makoto Ishiwata, the president of Kaplan Japan. He’s written a great short post about how Japanese learners of English can benefit from using Twitter: “Suggestion: three easy steps for the Japanese to start tweeting in English.” He writes about the difference it made for him years ago when he began to think in English, and feels that Twitter can help Japanese English learners, who study English at school in an artificial way, start really thinking and communicating in English. He says that “Twitter is easy to use. The limit of 140 words is a great plus for English learners too because they don’t have to think too seriously before typing. Above all, we can share what we tweet. We can start communicating with each other. We can make new friends, including people from abroad, when we tweet in English.” (Actually, a lot of that goes for teachers, too…) Check out his post.
@mayumi_ishihara is Ms. Mayumi Ishihara, an English teacher and author. I’ve seen one of her previous books, 『英語で日記を書いてみる』Try Writing a Diary in English!, at my local Kinokuniya. She has a new book coming out in May, 『Twitterで英語をつぶやいてみる』Try Tweeting in English on Twitter! (Oh, Japanese book prices…it’s only ¥735–about $7.80 US–and it’s 200 pages!).
Both of them regularly interact with their followers in English, and their/our followers interact with each other, too. I don’t think Twitter is perfect for learning English–for one thing, there are certain grammatical structures that I just don’t even use because they take up too much room. I’m not sure if @mayumi_ishihara will address this in her book, but I hope so. [EDIT: Another drawback is that many of the English-teaching accounts that post vocabulary and so on are regularly sharing information that is archaic, useless, or downright incorrect or ungrammatical.] You also have to deal with learning abbreviations such as w/o, b/c, wknd, and so on. There are also some differences in Twitter culture between most of the fluent English-using Twittersphere and the English-learning Twittersphere: #twinglish users usually use RT in replies, not just retweets (like forwards), leaving a truncated piece of the original tweet at the end of their reply; they’re generally not familiar with things like Follow Friday/#FF; they often send a reply to thank people not just for following them but even for responding to them; and so on.
I don’t think the differences between other modes or registers of English and Twitter constitute a deal-breaker. Every mode and medium is different, and I’ve noticed that many ELL twitterers use it to share other recommendations for input, such as TV shows, books, and websites. No one is trying to learn English solely from Twitter that I’ve heard of. [EDIT: And the problem with the useless, archaic, and ungrammatical/incorrect teaching accounts is also quite true for many textbooks and commercial texts sold overseas and in the US, as well. It's not just an online problem.] Learners in countries such as Korea often feel starved for spontaneous, unstructured English input, and Twitter provides that, even if it’s not perfect. It may require access to a phone or computer, which is a time-and-money barrier that makes it somewhat less useful for the average ELL in the USA, but for East Asian learners with extensive access to sophisticated cell phones, it’s a cheaper and more flexible alternative or supplement to expensive English lessons.
I’ve had some great conversations with my followers. We’ve discovered cultural misconceptions about beer and weather, made jokes with each other, commiserated about everything from procrastination to language study, and helped each other with grammar and vocabulary (since I’m studying Japanese myself).
[EDIT: Overall, I think Twitter is a useful additional tool for English learners, particularly EFL learners and others with limited access to spontaneous English interaction, authentic English input, and an English-understanding audience. It contributes to learner autonomy, lowers the affective barrier, and promotes the idea of English as a tool for communication rather than an abstract object of study--goals that many teachers struggle with even partially achieving.]
(Note: This post contains lots of speculation and generalizations based on some extremely subjective observations, without any hard data to back it up. I’m not claiming I’m right about any of this! I’d love to get different points of view, so please comment. Thanks!)
I’m on Twitter as talkclouds. Since I’m currently working as a private instructor/editor, it’s been invaluable for staying connected. The e-mail groups that I joined as part of my various professional organizations are mostly dormant, and conferences are infrequent. Twitter lets me ask questions, discuss issues, and (best of all) share resources. In the last couple of days, I’ve found out about an event in San Francisco with the Japanese ambassador, two open-source textbook websites (more on that soon!), a JapaneseEnglish iPhone app, a new Pearson Longman site for teachers, an article on teaching English in Taiwan, where I could watch part of a Pecha Kucha session at the IATEFL conference in the UK live online, etc.
That leads to me my next question, which is — is it just me, or are UK-based teachers more with it when it comes to twenty-first century communication tools like Twitter and Pecha Kucha*? It’s frustrated me for a long time that technology seems more alien to English teachers than to, say, librarians–ALA (American Library Association) conference websites are usually more advanced than TESOL/affiliate conference websites, there are librarians all over Twitter, and so on. Meanwhile, CALL and TELL are basically niches, and even many of their advocates focus mainly on twentieth-century “language lab”-style stuff.
At any rate, I thought it was English teachers as a whole that were behind, but when my Twitter list exploded with #iatefl tags (see above), I realized that might not be the case. (Putting a # in front of a word in a post/”tweet” makes it into a “hashtag,” which makes it a clickable, searchable term collecting all the tweets on that particular topic/at that particular venue/etc.) So many people were tweeting from the conference, whereas TESOL’s conference just a couple of weeks before in Boston hardly even registered on my Twitter radar. One person I chatted with, who was at both TESOL and IATEFL, indicated that not only were there very few “tweechers” (Twittering teachers) at TESOL, but mentions of it were not received with favor or interest.
(Alternatively, is it not a North America/UK divide, but an ESL/EFL divide? If IATEFL is really focused on EFL, as the name indicates, and is not a general UK-based ELT association–I confess I don’t know–then that might be part of the difference. Most of TESOL’s membership is composed of ESL instructors, and many of them teach composition rather than or in addition to communication-oriented English classes. The former generally have less in common with EFL instructors than the latter. I’ve noticed a relative lack of interest in using technology other than basic computer applications among many composition instructors.)
I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should get on Twitter.** It’s not for everyone; lots of people will just find it annoying even after putting in the time needed to get used to it and learn its culture. (After all, I’ve tried Second Life twice and just can’t get into it.) But I think more people need to try it out–after all, teachers also need support and “personal learning networks.” Twitter is great for that. It’s also very casual; there’s not a lot of Twitter etiquette*** to worry about. You can follow (add) and unfollow (remove) people freely, and you don’t need to worry about catching every tweet.
My Twitter stream is like a magic cafe filled with English teachers from all over the world, plus some international journalists, cultural critics, general educators, linguists, and so on, all chatting to each other and to me. No one is making speeches, since it’s not a lecture hall–although someone may hand me a paper to read later. If I pop in, I can catch all kinds of interesting things and share my own thoughts (and due to the magic properties of the cafe, I can rewind a bit too). I have three other accounts–one for my personal life, one for English learners, and one where I post local news and events for my area. I just think the people in these “cafes” would be bored or confused by each other, so I’ve kept them mostly separate. Most people don’t go quite that far, although a lot of people have both professional and personal accounts. Fortunately, many Twitter clients and apps (small programs that just run Twitter) make handling multiple accounts easy.
CATESOL is in a few days, and I would love to propose a tweetup (a meetup organized through Twitter)–however, I’ve only heard from two other people who are going. I wonder if there are enough of us for a tweetup. You would think California would be cutting edge, right? So far that hasn’t really been my experience.
Any theories on what’s up? Am I and the other people I talked to just wrong and just not hooked into the North American ESL twitter community? Anyone want to talk about how it is in other places and disciplines?
* Pecha Kucha is not especially high-tech, nor are unconferences, but you could argue that both are part of the spirit of TED Talks and other tech-communication related innovations, and Pecha Kucha first came to the attention of many outside Japan though Wired magazine.
** I included this digression because I knew some people were going to think “What is the point of Twitter, anyway?” — as I did before I started using it and, to a certain extent, while I only had my personal account and didn’t have my @talkclouds account.
*** Previous link deleted due to a malware report [on the site I linked to, not here] by Google.
I swear I’m not a cheerleader for Google, but they consistently bring out free products that are of interest to the international community, and they’re often or usually cross-platform. Google Earth is a program that I think everyone should try, especially if you’re curious about other parts of the world, you live overseas, or if you may be moving. (I think most English teachers fall into one or two of those categories!) One note though–a very old computer won’t run it, and I doubt netbooks will either, though I could be wrong.
“Isn’t Google Earth the same as Google Maps?” said a friend, wondering what the point was. No, it’s completely different. Google Earth lets you zip around the planet in a really natural way, the way you may have twirled and spun a globe as a kid. (Although you may feel a bit like Superwoman as you dive toward the roofs of Paris and then glide across Beijing–whee!) Similar to Google Maps, you can also zoom in and view satellite imagery, which I’ve heard has higher resolution in some areas than Google Maps will show, due to some countries’ privacy concerns about Google Maps. (For some reason, maybe due to the lack of directions or its lower popularity, Google Earth is perceived as less of a threat. I don’t know if that’s true.) More importantly, as you zip around, the map lights up with markers for photos, videos, descriptions, restaurant reviews, hotels, convenience stores, volcanoes, parks, World Heritage sites, and whatever other “layers” you’ve turned on. You can see photos of a train station from many angles, a panorama of a lake, and “step into” a spherical photo of a park or a shopping neighborhood that lets you tilt the camera in all directions. There are brief Wikipedia summaries and so on that can be viewed from inside Google Earth, while video links and other links may take you out of the program and into your web browser. It’s a very rich, multi-layered experience that can really help you get to know an area–and yes, there really is extensive coverage for places outside North America. You can get very familiar with neighborhoods in Taipei, Seoul, Hokkaido, Cuzco, and other places in which you may be considering teaching.
Naturally, popular tourist sites have the most info, but Google Earth is widespread enough that there’s information on a lot of places. The more you browse around, the more you see–and it gets updated periodically, so more things will pop up. In addition, there’s user-created info that you can download according to your specific interests, such as these Google Earth bookmarks for Korea from ZenKimchi. There’s a strong Google Earth community working to add interesting stuff all the time–here’s the Google Earth Gallery with just some of the things you can view once you’ve installed Google Earth. I haven’t played with these kinds of extras much though, because I can already spend a lot of time just looking at the photos and such that are included already.
Google Earth also winds up serving as a kind of geographical IMDB–when you’re driving down I-5 and you see some weird dirt formation off the highway, just note the next exit and look up that area on Google Earth when you get home. Chances are good that there’s a photo and a note explaining what you saw.
You can put together tours in Google Earth, which is a feature that has some potential in the classroom; students are sometimes interested in where you’re from, or there may be some other theme you want to present. You can even record audio if you want to get it done in advance. There are existing tours you can download, too.
Some caveats: sometimes Google Earth only has information on a location in the local language. This can still be of use even if you can’t read that language; if you click on a restaurant icon in downtown Kagoshima, you may not be able to read the reviews that pop up, but the URL that shows in the window often includes a romanized version of the name, and about half of the time there’s a photo of a characteristic dish that the restaurant serves. So that’s better than nothing. In addition, Google Earth often doesn’t handle Asian addresses well, I’ve noticed. Sometimes it can go directly to a specific street address in Taiwan, Korea, or Japan, but sometimes you have to try alternate spellings or go up a level or two (to the ward or even the town/city level).
Anyway, there are a lot more features (and there’s also a surprisingly nice free iPod Touch/iPhone app). They also have an Outreach area aimed at nonprofits, for example. Give it a try and see what else you can discover in your neighborhood, old neighborhood (I found where I used to live in Taiwan!), or potential new neighborhood!
Oh, and in case your teacher-brain is percolating, yes, teachers are teaching with Google Earth. Even math teachers are using it! If you’ve used it with English-language learners, please comment and tell me how–I’ve only used it casually, to show individual students where I used to live, in Arkansas, and how different it is from California.
EDIT: Here’s something else useful! Clicking on the little ruler icon lets you create and measure paths, so you can figure out how far it is “as the crow flies” from one point or another–which Google Maps will not let you do–and you can also figure out how far it is, say, on foot from the closest subway station to the school you’re considering working at. Google Maps will calculate walking routes for some cities, but not all, and certainly not worldwide. Although it’s a rough estimate since you can’t necessarily see sidewalks (or the lack thereof), etc., it’s still a potentially handy tool–especially when you can’t travel to check out a location yourself. Just click on the ruler, choose your unit of measure, and start clicking each point (corner/turn) of the route. The distance will be shown in the ruler box.
(By the way, if you’re on a Mac using 10.4, stick with Google Earth 5.0 and disable automatic updating. 5.1 doesn’t run on 10.4 :/)