Blog Post

Geospatial Tools: Creating Maps and Layers of Learning

Geospatial Tools: Creating Maps and Layers of Learning

So far this year I have blogged quite extensively about using digital tools in the foreign language classroom. The tools that have mostly interested me are ones that students are largely already using in their everyday gathering of information and communication, that is, the ones available on mobile devices. These include Facebook, Whatsapp, and other app-based. Because of an ongoing involvement in a geospatial working group, I have recently begun thinking about the possibilities of using maps in the foreign language classrooms as well. One tool that immediately comes to mind is Google Maps, which I have found to be a great way of practicing giving and following directions in foreign cities (we recently focused on Vienna in my German class). But as we begin to move away from using the app only for communication and seek a way to integrate communication and deeper cultural understanding, the standard map available in Google Maps lacks the cultural specificity needed for a more meaningful kind of student engagement with the cultural aspects of place.

When I encountered these limits, I was thankfully able to join a Geospatial working group hosted out of the Vanderbilt Center for Second Language Studies. Although we currently (as of 2016 ) lack a coordinated DH Center, many groups at Vanderbilt work together to provide resources, training, and collaborative support. Some of these are the Center for Second Language Studies (CSLS), the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise & Public Policy, Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning, the Center for Teaching, and the Jean and Alexander Heard Library.  In our working group, comprised of a variety of members from across campus and across disciplines, we not only learn how to code and how to create maps that reflect our individual research interests and areas, we also try to think about the ways maps could enhance the classroom through providing new views of a particular topic. We first learned to tweak and add small customizations to Google Maps and now have moved on to creating our own maps in Atom with GeoJSON.

Much of our inspiration comes from Todd Presner’s concept of “thick mapping,” which provides the basis for a collaborative mapping project on Berlin’s “densely layered architectural, social, political, and cultural palimpsests” (Presner, Shepard, Kawano 28). In the HyperCities project, Presner created layered maps of Berlin that reflected various and often-conflicting aspects of its 800-year past. Students could ‘explore’ this space by zooming in and out of the maps, scrolling, and clicking on various regions, neighborhoods, blocks, buildings, and streets (34). In Presner’s words, “the class seemed to elicit great curiosity, intellectual excitement, and not a small bit of confusion” (34).

This is an interesting concept, and one that might also lend itself well to a foreign language classroom. So today I'd like to reach out to the HASTAC community and ask: have any of you tried something like this within a foreign language context? If so, what were the results and advantages? What were some drawbacks? 


1 comment

I can't say that I have experience with mapping projects like you've described, but I would be interested in learning if people have thought about geocaching as an alternative method to explore new cities. I know that there are geocaching "treasures" to be in found in Berlin and it could be an interesting approach to "mapping" the city that way. I simply searched for geocaching in Berlin and was led to this page that is full of recommendations -

Thoughts on geocaching as an alternative approach to mapping cities?