Connecting Authenticity, Technology, and Geography


Timothy Keiper

Several years ago, the Geography Education Standards Project stated that “geography is composed of three interrelated and inseparable components: subject matter, skills, and perspectives.... All three are necessary to being geographically informed.”1 At the elementary level, it is unfortunately easy to offer instruction only in basic knowledge and to neglect this holistic view. Elementary students memorize the location of a variety of geographic landforms, and they doggedly pursue the states and capitals. But are they given the opportunity to “do” geography?

To paraphrase a Biblical metaphor, if new wine is placed into old wineskins, the old wineskins will burst, rendering the whole useless. Thus, if we force new technological instructional practice into the old pedagogy of “drill and practice until memorized,” the new technology becomes little more than an expensive add-on. The new wineskin of educational reform recommends that learning should focus on authentic tasks, or the everyday practices of a particular group (e.g. geographers, writers, historians, etc.). These tasks would be similar to on-the-job experiences or apprenticeships. Classrooms that embrace this approach to learning encourage autonomy and initiative, “real world” learning activities, and collaboration.

Proponents of educational reform in geography point toward the integration of technology with projects-based, critical thinking. David Hill has argued that geography education “based on standards, real-world issues, and inquiry” is well-suited for preparing students for the future.2 “Geographic Inquiry into Global Issues,” the instructional materials project that uses an issues-based, inquiry teaching strategy to actively engage students, is also a good example.3 In addition, case studies have shown that using the computer as a tool to enhance active participation in complex, authentic tasks results in a powerful learning environment.4


Applying Technology to Geography

The examples provided demonstrate how technology can enhance students’ geography skills through authentic practice. They are designed to help elementary teachers meet standards set by the National Geography Standards. The standards outline five skills: (1) asking geographic questions; (2) acquiring geographic information; (3) organizing geographic information; (4) analyzing geographic information; and (5) answering geographic questions. This article focuses on two areas of technology, used within this conceptual framework: the Internet and a Geographic Information System (GIS). Many different types of technology could also be substituted into this overarching approach.

The relationship between authenticity, technology, and geography can be demonstrated through the use of an existing Web-based project. Community Share Web, found at, promotes the study of the geography of the local community, which is of interest to many elementary classrooms. In this example, students engage in an online community-based project by following a three-step process: (1) research a local issue; (2) produce a community-based Web site based upon their research; (3) submit the project to an online community.

In step one, students use the Internet and local sources to explore and describe one of eight aspects of their local community (local leaders, community groups and special populations, businesses and organizations, local specialties, local attractions, historical landmarks, environmental awareness issues, local music and art forms). For example, students at University Park Elementary in Alaska chose to explore a local environmental awareness issue, the Chena River Ecosystem, a small river running through Fairbanks. The students determined whether the river was an area of environmental concern to their community and began to promote awareness and action. To gather information and obtain equipment, they contacted the Fish and Game Department, the National Weather Service, the high school biotechnology program, Native American elders, the University of Alaska, community members, and parents. The students used video and digital still cameras, scanners, computer software, libraries, books, museums, and Probeware for measuring water quality, and conducted oral interviews.

The second step—production of a community-based Web site—allows the opportunity to remove the barriers of the classroom setting. The benefits are twofold. Student-created Web pages are published to provide a forum for students to describe their community. (The community also benefits from students’ perspectives.) The University Park Elementary School students created the Chena River Home Page (Figure 1) located at This site provides research information from the project including photos, maps, interviews, student research papers, Internet links, letters, poetry, and much more.

Finally, the class submitted the Web site to the International Schools CyberFair contest. These globally minded classrooms welcome students throughout the world, thus providing the opportunity for heightened awareness of many other cultures and communities. The Global Schoolhouse Network solicits entries for the contest. Specific instructions related to the submission process can be found at the Community Share Web site at Project objectives, discussion questions, and activities are provided to start the process. The Chena River Study by University Park Elementary was awarded first place in the International Schools CyberFair ‘97 Environmental Awareness category. Part of the process required students to reflect upon community impact. Their comments suggest not only a high degree of satisfaction with what they learned about their local ecosystem, but perhaps more importantly, their delight and surprise at the parental and community involvement in the project.

A GIS is used for the analysis and display of spatial data. Those new to the concept of GIS may find it clarifying to consider an encyclopedia with map transparencies that overlay new information upon each other. If a teacher were to teach about the five themes of geography—place, location, human environmental interaction, region, and movement—using an overhead, he or she might use five transparencies. A computer-based GIS would be able to use the tabular data set to produce these “transparencies” and display them on the screen in any thematic order. The use of this technology would be appropriate for upper elementary students.

The connection between authenticity, technology, and geography can be illustrated by using GIS to solve a local problem. GIS can be effectively used as one of a number of available resources that allow students to address the five skills outlined in the National Geography Standards; it is an especially powerful resource for analyzing data. In the following example, students are encouraged to employ the five skills, assigned a real-world task, work collaboratively, and do the work of geographers. Students are not confined to the technology, but use it as one of a number of available resources.

In one GIS-assisted project, as a class assignment, fifth-grade students in Columbia, Missouri, were asked to determine an appropriate site for a new city park. In response, they formed a Park Selection Committee. The committee was asked to consider several criteria. Students were provided with data on the GIS relating to the City of Columbia (figure 2) but were also given the freedom to explore other data sources, such as newspapers and information from realtors. They were instructed to create an appropriate list of criteria and produce findings that they could persuasively present to the classroom, other teachers, and city officials. Students showed a high degree of personal motivation and responsibility.

The exercise had very positive effects on students’ attitudes toward the study of geography. As was noted by the Columbia, Missouri, fifth-grade teacher, “How often do you find fifth graders begging to do geography?” Consideration and implementation of the approaches described here could help shift the study of geography from the preconception that “it’s memorizing the states and capitals” to the practice of geography skills; in other words, a shift from learning “about” geography to learning to “do” geography. And technology can assist in an expanded curriculum that encourages the use of geographic knowledge.



1. Geography Education Standards Project, Geography For Life: National Geography Standards. (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1994).

2. David Hill, “Geography Standards, Instruction, and Competencies for the New World of Work,” Geographical Education 8, no. 3 (1995).

3. Phil Klein, “Using Inquiry to Enhance the Learning and Appreciation of Geography,” Journal of Geography 94, no. 2 (1995).

4. Barbara Means and K. Olson, “The Link between Technology and Authentic Learning,” Educational Leadership 51, no. 7 (1994). David H. Jonassen, Computers in the Classroom: Mindtools for Critical Thinking. (Englewood, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1996).

About the Author

Timothy Keiper is an assistant professor at the Woodring College of Education, Western Washington University, in Bellingham, Washington.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.