Creating rich resources with free tools: Customised Google Maps for Learning & Teaching

Workshop at the Durham Blackboard Users Conference, Durham University, 9 January 2013. See: Conference Website.


This was my workshop at DurBbU with the general aim was to showcase the way that Google Maps has been used by academics in my Department and to invite workshop participants to try out the Google Maps interface on different devices to understand the strengths and weaknesses of such tools. Participants were able to leave the workshop with a sense of what might be achieved by using Google Maps as well as the guides (linked at the bottom of this post, which you can use/amend as you see fit) which I wrote to help others avoid some problems I discovered. Tying into the conference theme, this workshop offered a way of creating rich learning resources and learning processes suited to visual understanding of concepts, utilising the freely available Google Maps tools.

Full details: Abstract and Presentation Slides. At some point over the next few weeks I will follow up with a Google Maps API template using the high resolution photos ‘lightbox’ method used in the case studies.

Thank you to Dr Lisa O’Malley, Sharon Grace and Dr Stuart Lowe for allowing their use of Google Maps to be to be showcased in this workshop.

Why use maps?

  • Connect theories and ideas to the physical world. This is particularly important in the social sciences, and in social policy where the theoretical and policy literature may be perceived as isolated from the people which it affects. Understanding the environment in which we live helps us understand individuals and the way community works. Maps add context in understanding the relationship between environment, policy and impact.
  • Exploratory learning. Large, information-rich maps can be used by students in an exploratory way through self-paced learning to complement other activities.
  • Visual elements are easier to digest and can aid in the understanding of complex concepts poorly expressed in text alone.

Why use mobile maps?

  • Need to be aware that smart-phone ownership is not ubiquitous and will vary between cohorts. Based on my surveys of first year students in the Department: 66% owned a smart phone in 2011 [RR 70%] and 78% in 2012 [RR 76%]. Whilst this shows we cannot use mobile where every student needs to complete a task individually, we can assume that in a group work situation at least one group member will have a smartphone.
  • Mobile allows flexibilty in location, ad hoc learning and bite-sized learning responding to different priorities and preferences of learners.
  • Google Maps can also be seen as a window into the past (we used StreetView which hadn’t been updated in 4 years to show housing pre-regeneration) and hence acts like a pocket time machine.

Potential issues

  • Device interaction. As we discovered in the workshop, building a map on a phone is near impossible (even with an iPhone dedicated app called My Maps Editor) due to the fiddly, imprecise nature of the physical interface and small screen.
  • Device compatibility. Android devices did not support seamless photo-mapping, however the iPhone did (with My Maps Editor free App). If students were asked to contribute to an app using their mobile, support and guidance is a consideration here. See my guides linked below.
  • Maps need integrating as part of the learning activity. Do not expect them to be used unless there is a particular reason.
  • If a paper alternative is available, students will use it. As shown with the ‘walk’ activity, paper was easier to handle in a group. However the ‘fieldtrip’ activity provided extra contextual information that would have required several pieces of paper to hold together and so the map was a more appropriate, compact way of accessing the device.
  • Security and ownership of device. As mentioned by a participant: students (and staff) may not wish to use their own personal devices in this way, using their own data bandwidth (though I believe this is best mitigated against by surveying student expectations early on). In addition, workshop participants also highlighted the security risk of a) having a device in hand in potentially easily stolen situations and b) having people focus on a small screen whilst not paying attention to the surrounding environment.
  • Security and integrity of map. Whilst a publically editable map is the quickest and easiest way to get collaborators on board, there runs the risk of major data loss. You can instead invite users, but a Google account is required by each collaborator (not a problem if your institution uses Google Apps). For assessment purposes, a map could be edited by a student post-deadline. The way to overcome this is to set up the maps as a tutor, add the student as a collaborator and then remove them from the map at the deadline.

Possible learning contexts

  • Historical (archive maps, photo archives, layering via API).
  • Socio/Political (with crime, service provisions, communities outlined).
  • Art and architecture (key locations, background information, connected locations).
  • In-class as a teaching aid (high resolution zoomable photo archives).
  • Collaborative tool (students working together to create a map).
  • Individual tool (for research or portfolio).


  • Maps can be used for greater understanding of the topic/environment relationship.
  • They are dynamic, adaptable and historical.
  • Collaborative or a teaching aid.
  • Creation of maps is device dependent and most comfortable on a full sized laptop/desktop.
  • Maps may be extended on locally coded maps using the API.
  • Maps do offer a way to create a rich, creative learning resource and learning process with very little cost.


  • Google Maps:
  • Create a walking tour / pub crawl map of Durham (or another city of your choice)
  • Include photos and at least one video(!)
  • Submit your maps by tweeting @mattcornock #durbbu #maps
  • Tip: when creating a weblink to your map, ensure you use both lines of the URL. Google splits the line in the ‘Collaborate’ popup, and hence will cause problems copying and pasting.


Example maps for editing:





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