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Fly Around the World with Google Earth

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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.

maidis_world_globe from openclipart.org

“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 :/)