According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, 2002) report card for geography, the average scores for students in fourth and eighth grade have improved, when compared to the results from 1994, whereas those for students in twelfth grade have remained the same. In contrast, some studies (cf., Clark & Keller, 2006) have found that many Americans lack the basic skills representative of geography literacy. Results of a recent survey showed that only 60% of American respondents 18-24 years of age could locate Iraq (Clark & Keller, 2006). When questioned about local events, only 52% could locate Mississippi, a state directly affected by Hurricane Katrina. Also, studies suggest an inability to make connections between concepts in geography and other social studies disciplines. In one study, fifth graders were observed to successfully memorize facts about nineteenth century Native American cultures but struggled “to explain why any of the Native Americans they had studied developed specific technologies in response to particular environmental conditions” (oBrophy & Vansledright’s study, as cited in Fertig, 2005, p. 5). They attributed diet, customs, and housing to personal choice rather than the effects of environmental factors. Thus, findings from national assessments and surveys give rise to the same concern: despite recent improvement in geography achievement, further engagement of geography students in both lower- and higher-order thinking is an important goal for educators, researchers, and policy makers.

To strengthen students’ understanding of concepts in geography, digital technology appears to be one solution. The National Center for Educational Statistics compared students’ geography test scores with survey data that asked teachers about the instructional materials they used and concluded that there was a positive relationship between high test scores and high levels of computer usage (reported in NAEP, 2002).

This Research in Brief article focuses on multimedia geography instruction for elementary through high school classrooms. The article comprises three sections: an introduction to the five themes of geography and the multimedia tools that support these cognitive skills, guidance in selecting computer programs, and a brief review of the research on geography in digital multimedia learning environments. A list of multimedia resources for geography instruction is also provided.

Multimedia and the five themes of geography

In 1984, the National Geographic Society, in partnership with the Association of American Geographers, developed the five themes of geography: 1) Location, 2) Place, 3) Human-Environment Interactions, 4) Movement, and 5) Regions. Since then, textbook companies, educators, and researchers have used these themes in the construction and implementation of geography curriculum materials. These themes also offer a helpful framework for discussing the multimedia materials available to educators.

Theme 1: Location

Location can be absolute or relative. Absolute refers to location on an imaginary grid (i.e., lines of longitude and latitude). Relative refers to location in relation to nearby points of reference (e.g., street, building, body of water, or town). For example, the absolute (exact) location of the center of Washington, DC is 76°51'W 39°10'N, and its relative location is near the intersection of 4th and L Streets. Figure 1 shows a test item from the 2001 NAEP fourth grade geography assessment that asks students to use relative location “clues” to construct a map.

Figure 1. Relative location question from 2001 NAEP geography assessmentFigure 1

Spiegle (2007) offers several suggestions for using Google Earth to explore with students the concepts of absolute and relative location. With this free program, students can search for a location by typing a city name or address in the “Fly To” box, and the program shows the target’s location on a map. Students can double-click a spot on the map or zoom further out of a particular area with slider bars. The zoom feature aids determination of the target’s relative location. In addition, placing the cursor on a specific location shows its absolute location and altitude.

For younger learners, the British Broadcasting Center’s (BBC) Landscapes includes activities for using relative location to construct maps. This program allows students to use map construction tools in a digital environment. As an alternative to using materials such as pencils, crayons, construction paper, and clay, this program offers another way students can participate in map-making activities similar to the one presented in Figure 1. In diverse classrooms, this allowance for multiple means of expression is essential.

Theme 2: Place

The theme place emphasizes the physical and human characteristics that describe a location. Physical characteristics correspond to the adjectives one uses to explain the topography, climate, or vegetation of a place. Human characteristics are cultural aspects of a location such as language and belief systems (political and religious). Figure 2 shows an item from the 2001 NAEP fourth grade geography assessment that asks students to provide information unique to a specific place: the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Figure 2. Place question from 2001 NAEP geography assessmentFigure 2

Many websites offer collections of information that help develop a sense of a location’s place; we highlight three exemplary sites. The United Nations Statistics Databases Web page provides extensive information about literacy rates, political structures, economies, and infrastructures for countries worldwide. GeoWalk allows the user to search and obtain photographs of countries, cities, and other points of interest.

The National Geographic website, World Music, allows the user to search and sample music by country, region, and category. This site provides a great way to learn about a place through its arts. For example, when listening to the lyrics of a song, students could identify words and phrases that characterize the uniqueness of a place. These and other websites allow the user to visualize, hear, and read about the unique features of places around the world. When considering the diverse learning needs of students in today’s classrooms, these multiple means of representing a place are invaluable.

Theme 3: Human-environment interaction

The theme human-environment interaction emphasizes how humans and their environment have positively and negatively affected each other. For example, pollution, suburban sprawl, damming rivers, and terracing hillsides for agriculture represent ways humans have altered their environment. Conversely, the local environment influences the cultural development of people who live there. Hurt and Wallace (2005) use as an example a unit comparing the nineteenth century housing styles of Native American Nations: chickees in the Southeast, long houses in the Northwest, and teepees in the Great Plains illustrate how different environments prompt specific requirements for shelter and provide (or limit) the materials required to address them. Figure 3 shows an assessment item from the 2001 NAEP fourth grade geography assessment that asks students to infer why humans alter their environment and the effects of these actions.

Figure 3. Human-environment interaction question from NAEP geography assessmentFigure 3

Several of the games provided on the BBC’s website, Environment Intelligence Unit, focus on human-environment interaction concepts such as pollution and energy. Through these activities, students learn strategies that help them reuse, recycle, and reduce the materials and energy they use on a daily basis. Teachers could teach the content of this website with a jigsaw activity, a cooperative learning approach to instruction. For example, the teacher assigns each group of 3 to 5 students one of the four interactive activities on this website: 1) reducing energy at home, 2) reusing resources at home, 3) recycling at school, or 4) cleaning up trash at the beach. Members of each group become an expert in their assigned area and receive a code word when they complete the online activity. Then, the teacher reorganizes the students into new groups that include at least one expert from the previous groups. These new groups compare information they learned and share the code words they obtained. When combined, these code words allow the student access to an “environmental agent” certificate and information about the fourth “R” of eco-friendly behavior, “Respect.”

Another online activity, The River City Project, is a virtual world where students collect data and use the scientific method to explore the causes of the town’s health problems. As these and other activities illustrate, the theme of Human-Environment Interaction allows teachers to integrate social studies and science concepts in an interdisciplinary unit. In a digital environment, the accessibility of these higher-order learning endeavors is also enriched, especially when students are allowed to select the activities that are suitable for their interests and level of learning.

Theme 4: Movement

The theme movement emphasizes the travel of communication, humans, goods, and ideas. One of the key objectives of this theme is to help students recognize that they are connected to, and rely upon, other cultures worldwide. Topics focusing on this theme encompass a wide range of episodes in history and social studies concepts, including (but not limited to) popular fads, the Pony Express, the Silk Road, Democracy, food, and globalization. Figure 4 shows a movement item from the 2001 NAEP fourth grade geography assessment that also requires the use of map-reading skills.

Figure 4. Movement question from NAEP geography assessmentFigure 4

Several online activities enable users to “travel” historical trails. The most popular of these activities is the commercial program, The Oregon Trail (published by Broderbund).

Free programs that focus on making decisions along a journey are also available. National Geographic’s Go West Across America with Lewis and Clark and Underground Railroad are two programs that provide students with historical background and significance regarding these two nineteenth-century paths to discovery and freedom. A disadvantage of these online activities is that their primary approach to learning is through multiple-choice assessments. The advantage, however, is that these evaluations are presented in a multimedia environment that includes a rich assortment of illustrations and maps. Furthermore, both websites can be easily supplemented with other resources such as historical fiction. For example, an upper elementary unit on slavery and the Underground Railroad could include Gary Paulsen’s popular book, NightJohn. This book tells the story of life on a plantation in the antebellum South and the risks slaves took to learn how to read—an activity that was outlawed for enslaved African Americans at that time. Another website, Slavery in America, provides interactive exhibits such as “Roads to Freedom” that present information through various media. This combination of sources—both online and in print—provide students with multiple means for exploring information about a topic. This approach is engaging and deepens one’s understanding of complex topics.

Theme 5: Regions

The theme region focuses on what characteristics make an area unique. These unifying elements include cultural, political, and physical characteristics, to name a few. A location can be a part of several overlapping regions. For example, the state of Michigan is part of the Great Lakes region (physical), Rust Belt region (economic), Eastern region (time zone), and Northwest Territory (historical). Regions enable students to examine the world in manageable “chunks.”

Activities that apply this theme typically also include one or more of the other four themes. For example, the primary focus for BBC’s online activity, Landscapes, is map-making skills; however, this site also helps the learner generalize what distinguishes the different regions of Scotland from each other. National Geographic’s Fantastic Journey: Yellowstone emphasizes the theme of place, but it also provides information about the human and physical features that make the American Southwest unique. These and similar websites are popular because they allow students to “travel” across the world. When they present information in a range of formats such as audio, illustrations, and text, they can be beneficial to students with varied learning needs.

Selecting multimedia materials

Teachers should use their professional judgment when weighing the educational benefits of a digital multimedia environment for their students. However, Spicer and Stratford (2001) provide a few recommendations for selecting digital materials and environments, suggesting that teachers avoid digital materials with, “(a) a heavy reliance on text, (b) simple branching structures that [take] the student to more text [instead of images], (c) a basic two dimension approach that [treats] each screen as a page in a book, and above all (d) [those with] a lack of design and thoughtfulness aimed at drawing students into the content and engaging them with it” (p. 346).

Research support

Expand this section to read more about the research behind this article. [Hide]

There is little published research on geography learning in a digital multimedia environment, especially in K-12 classrooms. The available studies generally focus on comparing the learning benefits of digital versus non-digital materials and environments for undergraduate students.

The benefits of digital maps

Two studies explored the use of digital maps. The focus of their research differed slightly, and this likely influenced their findings.

Pedersen, Farrell, and McPhee (2005) compared the learning benefits of digital versus paper maps in a sample of 168 undergraduate geography students. They found that the two types of maps had a comparable effect on student learning. However, the majority of students preferred paper maps instead of digital ones because of their ease of use (e.g., the digital maps required scrolling across the screen).

Crooks, Verdi, and White (2005) focused on specific design features of digital maps and their impact on students’ abilities to recall information. They randomly assigned 213 undergraduate students to different learning environments where they learned about geography features using digital maps and 1) digital text of geographic feature definitions, 2) text accompanied with images of features on the same screen, and 3) text linked to images of features on another screen. Students were also assigned to groups that used maps with or without animated features (i.e., user clicks on a location to enlarge it). After the participants explored the texts and/or images for 10 minutes, they were asked to write down everything that they remembered from the digital texts or maps and locate geographic features on a paper map. The researchers concluded that animation and close proximity of text and related images during computer-based learning support factual recall.

The benefits of virtual field trips

Spicer and Stratford (2001) surveyed 59 undergraduate biology students about the benefits of a science virtual field trip, Tidepools, versus a traditional field trip. They found that students responded positively to features embedded in the virtual field trip, such as a digital notepad. However, the majority of students felt that a virtual visit was not a substitute for visiting a site in person.

The limitation of these studies and others like them is the emphasis on whether or not digital materials can replace the “real thing.” The realities of cost and logistics of travel aside, these either/or questions and accompanying research methods too often ignore important issues of pedagogy and accessibility. That is, digital multimedia environments should not replace the teacher or the “real thing.” Rather they should be used as a complement to other activities, enabling students to “travel” to distant locations and providing digital tools that make materials more accessible to students with diverse learning needs.

Online resources



GeoSpy On this website , students test geography knowledge by identifying states, provinces, countries, and continents to become a GeoSpy.

Google Earth

Google Earth Google Earth allows the user to search locations with satellite imagery, to zoom in and out to show topography as well as road-level information.

About: Geography’s Geographic Centers of the Fifty States

About: Geography This page provides a list of states in the US and their geographic centers (absolute and relative).


British Broadcast Company’s Landscapes (Map Skills)

Landscapes The games on this site concern Scotland. However, the map skills provided help students learn about relative location and regions.


National Map Viewer

National Map Viewer Using data from a variety of government agencies, National Map Viewer allows the user to load data on land use, climate, biology, transportation, geology and a number of other variables to create new maps of the United States.

British Broadcasting Company’s Walk Through Time: What Came First?

What Came First The online activities on this site help students learn about places and cultures from the past, including the Vikings, Tudor England, and the 1950s.


GeoWalk This site provides a database of images from around the worl displayed as a list based on where you click. Use the map as an overview and get detailed information by clicking around.

National Geographic’s World Music

World Music On this site , the user can search for and listen to music from around the world. Factoids and images about the musicians and regions accompany the tracks.

United Nations Statistics Databases

UN Statistics Databases An incredible database of demographic statistics can be found on this website .


Human-environment interaction

Geography Action! - Conservation

Geography Action National Geographic’s Geography Action! covers a variety of topics in geography, from habitats to regions of the world. The conservation page explores human-environment interaction through the use of images, maps, lesson plans, and activities.


Using images, maps, diagrams and interactive activities, National Geographic’s EarthPulse explores the human-environment interaction and global connections through such topics as population, quality of life, globalization, energy and conservation, and human impact. Students can explore interactive maps to help visualize the connection between humans and their environment, as well as our connections to each other.

British Broadcasting Company’s Environmental Intelligence Unit

Environmental Intelligence Unit Several of the activities on this website allow students to investigate how they can reduce their negative impact on the environment.

Houghton Mifflin’s GeoNet Games

GeoNet Included in the list of online activities available on this site is “Environment and Society,” an exploration of how humans have affected their environment.

The River City Project

River City This online activity allows students to explore and collect data in a virtual town to uncover the reasons for its citizens’ rampant health problems. Teachers have to sign up their classrooms in order to participate in this project.


Geography Action! - Migration

Geography Action National Geographic’s Geography Action! covers a variety of topics in geography, from habitats to regions of the world. The migration page explores the topic of human migration through the use of images, maps, lesson plans, and activities.

Houghton Mifflin’s Kid’s Place Games

Kids' Place This website includes links to various interactive maps that supplement Houghton Mifflin’s social studies textbook series.

National Geographic’s Go West Across America with Lewis and Clark

Go West This online activity takes students on a journey across the American West with famous nineteenth-century explorers.

National Geographic’s Underground Railroad

Underground Railroad Through this activity , students are able to trace the path runaway slaves traveled to freedom along with a timeline, biographies, and lesson plans for incorporating the materials into your classroom.

Slavery in America

Slavery in America This site provides several online activities for students to explore. The “Roads to Freedom” interactive exhibition could accompany any unit on the Underground Railroad.


North American Biomes - Panoramic Images

Geography 4 Kids Collection of panoramic images provides 360-degree views of North American biomes, allowing users to virtually “explore”.

British Broadcast Company’s Landscapes (Map Skills)

Landscapes The games on this site concern Scotland. However, the map skills provided help students learn about relative location and regions.

National Geographic’s Fantastic Journeys: Yellowstone

Yellowstone This online game helps students learn about the topography, climate, and vegetation of the American Northwest that includes Yellowstone.


Clark, S., & Keller, L. (2006). Young Americans still lack basic global knowledge, National Geograhic-Roper survey shows. Retrieved May 11, 2006, from

Crooks, S., Verdi, M., & White, D. (2005). Effects of contiguity and feature animation in computer-based geography instruction. Journal of Educational Technology Systems , 33 (3), 259-281=.

Fertig, G. (2005). Teaching elementary students how to interpret the past. The Social Studies , 96 (1), 2-8.

Hurt, D., & Wallace, M. (2005). Teaching American Indian geography and history with new perspectives: The Lodge Pole River Project example. The Journal of Geography , 104 (5), 187-193.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (2002). The nation’s report card: Geography highlights 2001. Washington DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Pedersen, P., Farrell, P., & McPhee, E. (2005). Paper versus pixel: Effectiveness of paper versus electronic maps to teach map reading skills in an introductory physical geography course. Journal of Geography , 104 , 195-202.

Spicer, J., & Stratford, J. (2001). Student perceptions of a virtual field trip to replace a real field trip. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning , 17 , 345-354.

Spiegle, D. (2007). Moving beyond a Google search: Google Earth, SketchUp, Spreadsheet, and more. Gifted Child Today , 30 (1), 24-28.

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