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Put IT on the map

Chris Johnston describes how technology can make life easier for teachers

In the past decade, technology has had a major impact, making geography lessons more exciting and allowing teachers to present topics in ways they could previously only dream of. The internet has a vital role in providing images -photographs and live webcams - information and other data, but software is just as important.

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are one of the best-known types of software available in the subject. They allow layers of information, such as buildings, terrain and streets, to be combined to provide a greater understanding about a particular locality. The problem is that many of these programs are expensive and difficult to incorporate into lessons.

Ordnance Survey research into the use of GIS in schools found that, while many geography teachers were interested in using the technology, about half of the almost 250 respondents felt it took too much time to learn and was too complex. The software can also be extremely expensive: one popular example, the fully featured Digital Worlds, is priced at pound;495 for primary schools and Pounds 695 for secondaries.

However, one company has recognised the need for a simpler, cheaper entry-level GIS-type software. Wildgoose recently released Vista, a software package for viewing aerial photographs and producing maps, which also serves as an introduction to using GIS. A full site licence, including data, starts at pound;69.95. Vista comes with aerial pictures of any part of England and Wales and most parts of Scotland. The images come from the Millennium Map, Getmapping's ambitious nationwide aerial survey. Lynette Rowbottom, Wildgoose spokesperson, says: "Vista is customised for each school, so each one gets the data that is relevant to their area."

The software allows maps to be created, using map data and aerial photography, and they can then be overlaid with other information, such as symbols, lines and street maps.

A key feature of Vista is a hyperlink facility that allows any text or graphic files to be linked to locations on the aerial photo. This allows pupils to take pictures using a digital camera and then download and match them, along with document files such as field notes, to map symbols and locations. The photographs and documents can be viewed by clicking on the map location.

Vista also allows distance and area to be calculated easily, and users can display, zoom, pan and print at the touch of a button, with layers being printed either independently or together.

The software is suitable for both primary and secondary geography as well as ITC. Geography teacher Nigel Parfitt, of Framingham Earl High School in Norwich, started using it on his interactive whiteboard earlier this year.

He bought the London dataset, as the topic is covered by his Year 9 class, while the GCSE group does Norwich. Next year he plans to use the software with Year 11 also. But while the Norwich images are excellent quality, Nigel says the resolution of the London aerial pictures is not as impressive. Vista is very user-friendly and has been easy to integrate into teaching, he says. Purchased with e-learning credits, in his opinion the software represents good value for money and he would recommend it to other teachers. "There are some limitations but it is all pretty positive," he says.

Sandy Kilbey is the geography co-ordinator at St Joseph's RC Junior School in Camberwell, south London. She says Vista is useful to help convey concepts of settlement to pupils: "You can clearly see roads and buildings and give them an idea of what a built-up area is."

But she feels its most attractive feature is being able to superimpose maps on to the photos, thus improving children's map skills. Sandy also uses the software with an interactive whiteboard, which she says has revolutionised the way she teaches: "A lot of children are visual learners and it allows you to show them - especially maps."

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