Peak performance. ICT in geography

16th June 2006 at 01:00
Mountaineering and IT can go hand in hand, as Douglas Blane reports

Besides being a geography teacher, Ollie Bray is also a mountaineer, which means understatement comes easily and a little probing is needed to learn exactly what happened when he and two other teachers "got into a bit of bother" while climbing the highest peak in North America, Mt McKinley: "We were caught up high in a severe storm and had to dig in. Other groups around us had their tents ripped to shreds. We were on the mountain for 22 days. Being that high for that long was interesting."

So when Ollie tells his pupils at Dunbar Grammar School, East Lothian, about the world's wild places they tend to listen, since he has been to many of them and has the windswept, ice-encrusted pictures to prove it. But the Earth's surface is vast and the geography syllabus covers most of it, so adventurous holiday snaps need a little help from technology.

"Last week we looked at cold deserts," Ollie reminds his first-year class (Year 8). "Who can tell me the largest cold desert in the world?

Antarctica, that's right. Today we're going to be studying the other end of the world, way up in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge." He points to the map displayed on the interactive whiteboard.

"This is an area about the size of Scotland but with far fewer people living there. It's one of the most outstandingly beautiful places on Earth and almost untouched by human hand. Let's take a closer look using Google Earth. Here we are at Dunbar Grammar, and that's us zipping across Iceland and Greenland and into northern Alaska. Now can anybody tell me what these things are? This white stuff gives you a clue." He points to the bottom left of the board. "Yep, mountains with snow on top."

A vast, wild land, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge stretches from the Brooks Range to the sea. It boasts a complete spectrum of sub-arctic ecosystems - tundra, boreal forest, barrier islands, coastal lagoons - and is home each summer to almost 200 species of migrating birds, including the Arctic tern all the way from Antarctica.

Black, grizzly and polar bears, wild sheep, wolves and wolverines all live in the refuge, the coastal plain is the calving ground for a huge caribou herd, and marine mammals such as the bowhead whale thrive in the rich waters off the coast. It sounds an idyllic place for wildlife. But there is a threat from a particularly dangerous species," says Ollie.

"We'll look at two groups of people today," he tells the class. "The Inuit who live up here on the coast and get their food from the sea, and the Athabascan Indians, who live near the Brooks Range and hunt caribou on the plains and salmon in the rivers."

The big danger to this remote land, however, comes from neither of these indigenous people: "In the ground under the Wildlife Refuge may be enough oil to supply the entire United States for maybe 20 years. Nobody knows but the oil companies are very interested. So we have to ask: is this an oilfield or a sanctuary?"

Appointed head of geography at Dunbar Grammar last year, Ollie brought with him an enthusiasm for every form of educational technology, from wikis to digital video and a sophisticated weather station that is now on the roof of the school.

Learning geography through ICT brings huge benefits, he believes: "Map references, for instance, are very difficult and quite boring to teach in the traditional way. But a group from this class is outside right now using hand-held GPS to get six-figure map references and draw a map of the school grounds. That really motivates them."

The prospect of losing control to technology and allowing pupils to explore the curriculum in creative ways is one he welcomes: "I'm happy for kids to be doing different things. It's hard to manage but good to do. Some pupils have fantastic IT skills I want to find out about, and we're suppressing these by telling them they have to do things a certain way. We need to get away from the idea of a teacher here and a class over there."

The ideal equipment for individualised learning, Ollie believes, would be a set of wireless laptops linked to the teacher through a class-in-a-box system. Until these are universally available, geography lessons are enlivened by the much-maligned interactive whiteboard, which brings landscapes to life and turns dull maps into exciting images.

"We've got two in this classroom, which means I can use one for presentations while the pupils use the other for group activities. It's a huge help when teaching ICT skills to students. I do use a lot of equipment, much of it funded by private grants or sponsorship, because there's lots of money out there for ICT in the classroom," he says.

It's an attitude shared by the whole geography department at Dunbar Grammar. "I couldn't live without the whiteboard," says Colin Borthwick, former head of department who now job-shares while pursuing the chartered teacher programme. "People can get bogged down by interactivity, but there's so much you can do in geography using PowerPoint and a whiteboard.

Getting the pupils to use digital video to produce and present weather forecasts is also highly motivating."

Geography is such a visual subject, agrees Ollie, that trying to teach it now without the internet and a data projector would be inconceivable: "The days of looking at little pictures in textbooks are gone. If I couldn't get one in my classroom any other way I'd buy a data projector out of my own pocket."

It's not that long ago that acetates and overhead projectors were the cutting edge of technology, and student teachers still have to use them, says Colin: "But we don't have an OHP in geography any more - we gave it away."

"Yes, to history," laughs Ollie.


* Google Earth: satellite images and maps bring the physical geography of almost anywhere on Earth into the classroom.

* Anquet Maps: revolutionise geography by converting 2-D maps into 3-D moving images.

* Geography revision podcasts: contentindex.phpmain teaching_and_learninggeographygeocast_revision_area

* Ollie Bray's blog: index.phpmainweblogsollie_bray_s_weblog

* Website covering Scottish Standard Grade ( GCSE).

Above: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge near the Brooks Range in Alaska, Polar bears are among the animals living here

Lesson ideas

ICT in Ollie Bray's classroom

* Every morning I let my registration class on to the internet, through the data projector so the whole class can see, but restricted to BBC news, Geography in the News or the Scottish Parliament websites. It's a great way to get young people interested in the world.

* Text is often too small, language inappropriate and resources unadaptable in commercially available PowerPoint resources. I've spent several years developing my own, which are hosted on the school intranet to be used for revision, or printed, modified or enlarged for absent students.

* Interactive whiteboards bring presentations to life and are a huge help.

Let students take ownership and don't fall into the "the whiteboard can only be used by the teacher" trap.

* Interactive voting system: this is the future. Combined with data projector and interactive whiteboard, it gives instant feedback and lets the teacher gauge opinion, graph results, and test and track progress.

* I spend a lot of time training students in ICT - producing presentations, creating digital videos, and in particular searching the web. There is lots of money out there to develop ICT in the classroom; you just have to look for it.

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