Teachers looking for ways to engage an interest in geography are realising the potential of technology such as geographical information systems. GIS enables a wealth of data, such as the number of children living in city suburbs, or the distance of rural dwellers from their nearest Post Office, to be overlaid onto maps.
GIS is now used extensively for planning, marketing and other services for business and government.
Its interactive nature has the potential to interest students far more than paper maps, but GIS has made little headway in schools. This has largely been due to the cost, but also the complexity of software such as Aegis.
However, a new product from California-based company ESRI may be about to change that. MapsDirect for Schools is described by its makers as a geography ICT learning tool that brings all the benefits of GIS but can be used with a standard web browser and internet connection. No additional software is required, nor are any changes to firewall settings necessary, and it can be accessed by every computer on a school's network.
MapsDirect provides mapping of all of England, Scotland and Wales, and while it is perhaps best suited to geography, there are potential applications in other subjects, such as economics, history and biology.
MapsDirect is a joint venture between Ordnance Survey and ESRI and uses OS maps. It allows pupils to locate their houses and those of friends and relatives, and study streets and places of interest.
What makes this possible is that MapsDirect has access to the OS MasterMap, which comprises more than 400 million topographic features, including buildings, roads, gardens and fields. They are always up-to-date because the information is delivered online, rather than on CD-Rom.
By typing in a postcode or place name, students are able to find data and print maps or copy them into other documents.
Roy Laming, marketing director of ESRI UK, says MapsDirect can help bring geography lessons to life: "The site is user friendly and the data is proven to generate high levels of interactivity, discussion and participation," he says.
Leeds Grammar School has been working with ESRI to develop materials for GIS in geography and biology. Being able to use OS map information online is very compelling, says geography teacher Steve Dunn.
He and his colleagues use MapsDirect with a digital projector for whole-class teaching, so a trip to the IT suite is not necessary. Even technophobic teachers find it simple to master, he says.
"It's a very attractive resource to use in the classroom. You can apply it to the whole curriculum and age range, so it offers staff a great deal of flexibility."
Peter O'Connor, a geography teacher at Bishop's Stortford College, says MapsDirect is a very welcome first step, but points out that it is not a replacement for other GIS software such as Digital Worlds.
Its prime asset is the ability to download maps at any scale for any part of the country, but Mr O'Connor says the lack of analytical capabilities is a drawback. He would be more interested in MapsDirect if it was possible to capture the data and pull it into a GIS system.
MapsDirect has been accredited by Curriculum Online, so schools can buy the service using e-learning credits. The annual fee gives access to the OS MasterMap for anywhere in England, Scotland and Wales on every computer on a school's network.
* A free 30-day trial is available. The annual charge is pound;75 plus VAT for primary schools and pound;175 plus VAT for secondaries, with a 20 per cent discount for subscriptions for two years.
ESRI UK Tel: 01296 745 544 www.maps-direct.comschools
Ordnance Survey www.ordnancesurvey.gov.uk