Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in the Classroom

World Touristiness Map By

Geo What?! Think Google Maps, Apple Maps and Waze, these are all examples of popular Geographical Information Systems (GIS). GIS can be fantastic for displaying even fairly benign information, because everything happens somewhere! But in this blog we’ll go beyond the likes of Apple Maps, to display our own information that we can then share with others, such as showing a route travelled, plotting historic battles, analysing climate change and viewing terrain.

I’ve got a reasonable level of experience in GIS and have had many discussions on how to employ GIS in a classroom setting. The problem is, you know the students can achieve a lot with it, that they will love the result, and even that they will probably use it for evermore. But… you only have a few short sessions, and the software will take half of them just to be installed and teach the basics. Many teachers have been there, and many are even struggling to grasp a single software, never mind taking it into the classroom.

I will address the problem, coming from two angles:

  1. I’m not even a *INSERT GEOGRAPHY RELATED SUBJECT* teacher, but just want to put things on maps.
  2. I teach *INSERT GEOGRAPHY RELATED SUBJECT* and want more than Option 1, maybe some analysis and/or add data from a recent event (think hurricane/fire/route planning/disease monitoring).
  3. Three?! Hasn’t someone else already created a map/analysis of *INSERT GEOGRAPHICAL PHENOMENA*? Probably! Here’s our blog on GIS resources.

I’ll base the answers on free software/solutions, but also make mention of some paid alternatives, as it would be remiss of me not to.

I just want to put some things on a Map

So, you don’t want to learn any special software, and you want to get your map together quickly, and need only basic functionality (draw points, lines, add some labels etc).

One simple solution, and you already have an account: Google Earth Web, it runs straight out of your browser. Not to be confused with Google Earth Pro, which you have to install and is more advanced (covered later).

Google Earth Web offers basic functionality, but brilliantly, being a Google product, is extremely easy to use for adding points and lines. You can enter co-ordinates, search for places/addresses, choose your icons and even jump into StreetView images. It’s also designed with presentations in mind so each place/line becomes a slide in the presentation mode. Check this out, it took me no more than 5 minutes to put together having watched the tutorial video below.


  • Extremely easy to pick up, which is very rare with GIS software.
  • Can share your project with two clicks.
  • Can use StreetView, seamlessly.
  • Defaults into 3D view, so you can fly through valleys and over mountains.


  • Very limited functionality, i.e:
    • Cannot change imagery for a map.
    • Cannot import bulk data easily (think spreadsheet of points).
    • No analysis of points available (density of points, closest road, etc).

In summary, Google Earth Web is hands down the tool for quick projects or for the students to use for simple homework, but if you’re looking for any sort of analysis (beyond measuring a distance), you should read on. Another alternative is StoryMaps by Esri, check with your school district, they may even have some licenses. It is not quite as easy as Google Earth, but offers more functionality and is entirely web based.

Note: At the time of writing, Google Earth Web is ‘experimental,’ I don’t think it will go away, but functions may change.

I want to do more with GIS, I’m getting serious about it

The software available quickly get more technical and will need some time investment to learn and create products, but they can be fantastic teaching tools. I’ll take this one in two steps, with a big jump in learning curve in between, because I’m not sure there’s much to fill the gap.

Google Earth Pro

If I stood on the Sphinx in Egypt, what could I see?
Google Earth View-shed – What could I see from the top of the Sphinx?

Another free offering from Google, that is a step up from Google Earth Web, but still nothing like as capable as a full GIS software package. It is quite user friendly and offers a broader set of functionality including the ability to see the contour of a route, display a view-shed (see right), and a big step up is that you can choose the imagery date, show/hide roads/places/rivers, record a tour, measure area and even add some data types that you might find elsewhere or create yourself such as high resolution imagery from your local municipality.


  • Quite quick to pick up the basics.
  • Lots of data is pre-loaded in the Places tab for you, more advanced GIS will often come with no data at all, leaving you to find it.
  • Lot’s of people produce downloadable data for Google Earth Pro, search for .kml and .kmz filetypes, there are many out there!
  • You can export your own data, including onto GPS and smart phones.
  • Defaults to 3D.


  • Some of the more complex tools may need some googling as they are not obvious to a first timer.
  • Limited functionality, specifically analysis is still lacking, although you can complete a few minor operations such as the view-shed, measuring area and getting a contour of the route.
  • Requires installing on your computer, can make an older computer struggle.

A good tool for basic analysis and the intermediate GIS user in education. moving onto the next software will be quite a jump. This would also work with students, but plan ahead as they will need to install it and time to familiarize with it.

Note: As I understand it, Google Earth Pro is being shut down permanently at some point, and replaced by Google Earth Web (currently experimental), I think you’re safe for a while though.

ArcPro/ArcGIS (from Esri) or Quantum GIS (Everyone calls it just QGIS)

ArcPro/ArcGIS is free to high-school educators (I believe this is a global program, check with your local distributor) and is a full GIS system supporting desktop and online work. QGIS is also a full desktop GIS system and is completely free. Both have the capability to import a broad range of data types, and output full maps, among other things. You can load images from handheld cameras, drones, satellites, or maps from a variety of sources, and adding your own data and conducting analysis, before exporting the result as a PDF and having your map professionally printed. The draw back is, with all this functionality, they are less intuitive to use. If you have never used anything beyond Google Earth Pro before, expect a bit of learning.

However, I don’t want to put you off! It’s very achievable, just a step up from the previous solutions. There are a huge range of excellent how-to guides, videos and forums to get you going, and once you know what you are doing, the sky really is the limit. QGIS is used by many companies to produce maps that end up printed, and for sale in shops, and also by people analyzing data such as crime information, census results and deforestation. ArcGIS is the industry leader for software and has an excellent range of resources including free training, howto guides, videos etc. With time, practice and forums/the GIS community, the sky really is the limit with these two options.


  • Enormous capability.
  • Professional grade software, you can build a full paper map and export as a PDF
  • Lots of resources to get you going, from simple first time projects, to in depth guides.


  • This will need some time investment to get started.
  • It’s not as intuitive as Google Earth Pro or Web.
  • You need to find all your data, most desktop GIS are like this, but there is lot’s of free stuff to be found!
  • Primarily 2D tools, but there are 3D add-ons.

Great tools that really opens the options for what you can achieve. However, generally this will not be suitable for K-12 students, unless it is a GIS course they are completing.


In this post, I have only touched on a tiny portion of the GIS offerings; there are hundreds of solutions, both free and paid. But in the K-12 teaching realms, these are my recommendations at this point.

For the vast majority of teachers, Google Earth Web and Google Earth Pro will fulfill their needs, but occasionally someone will need more horsepower, and QGIS is a great offering for this.

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