Bring the outside world into the classroom with Google Maps

Brian McMillan, Hiroshima Bunkyo Women’s University


Teaching students to give and follow directions is a common fixture of beginner English lessons. Students typically have to give or ask for directions to various places in a fictional town using a two-dimensional map from a textbook. With Google Maps, teachers can easily have students practice giving directions to actual places that are familiar to them, allowing students to perform tasks that are more relevant and tap into their existing knowledge (see Appendix A for an example). Using maps of real places is already an improvement over many of the imaginary town maps found in textbooks; however, with the Street View function of Google Maps, the outside world can be brought into the classroom like never before. Learners of all levels can become virtual tourists finding their way through the streets of real cities like Hiroshima, Seattle, or even Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Using Street View maps, students see almost everything they would see if they were really walking down the street—and sometimes more! They can turn 360 degrees, pan up and down, and zoom in to see interesting details of the mapped area.

Teachers can have students explore a city or town by creating Virtual Walking Tour (VWT) direction cards (see the VWT cards for Charlottetown provided in Appendix B). After selecting a starting point, teachers should choose a route with interesting sights and cultural landmarks. Including screenshots from the Google Maps Street View on some cards will provide visual reference points to help keep students on track. In addition, a few scavenger hunt-type questions can be included to draw students’ attention to shop signs and other interesting features along the tour, adding another element of fun and challenge.

To help students who may not be familiar with Street View maps, start with a teacher-guided VWT displayed on a screen. Student volunteers can act as lost tourists by coming to the front of the class to operate the computer under the teacher’s direction. First, go to <> and show students where the city is located on the world map and where to start the VWT. Grab the little orange person (i.e., Pegman) from the top of the vertical navigation bar near the top left corner of the map and drag it to the starting point (see Figure 1). The map will automatically shift into Street View mode (see Figure 2).

The teacher can distribute numbered VWT direction cards and call on students to read the directions. The lost tourists do their best to follow the directions with the teacher assisting as necessary and pointing out interesting sights along the way.

After having experienced a teacher-guided VWT, students should be ready to attempt one in pairs or small groups. Students work together to find their way along the tour by following the directions on the cards and answering the scavenger hunt questions. For more advanced learners, group members can take turns leading their group on an information gap VWT. The teacher keeps piles of direction cards (one copy of each card per group) face down at the front of the class. Each new leader gets the next set of directions from the teacher and returns to her group, standing so that she can’t see her group’s computer screen. She reads the direction card while the other group members listen and try to follow the directions. The first group to reach the goal or answer all the scavenger hunt questions wins!

The instructor should be aware that, depending on the number computers to be used at one time, the available bandwidth and computer processing speeds may not be sufficient to allow the Google Maps Street View to run smoothly without freezing.

The possibilities for using Street View maps are certainly not limited to lessons on giving directions. For more advanced classes, or as an extension activity, students could do a larger-scale scavenger hunt with questions such as, What’s the name of the sushi restaurant located at 409 Spadina Avenue? or How many people are sitting at the sidewalk tables outside BMac’s Café on Richmond Street? Students could also be given 15 minutes to wander freely around a city, taking notes and reporting back to the class about anything interesting they discover.

VWTs can also prove invaluable in preparing students for actual class trips in the real world as students can practice navigating through the streets of their destination city before they ever leave the classroom. In addition, the images and information from Street View maps are perfect for use in culturally-based discussions or as research prompts. Students can use Google Maps Street View to actually go inside museums to view masterpieces, visit restaurants and shops, and explore parks and cultural landmarks around the world. With Street View Collections, students can visit UNESCO World Heritage sites, explore the Amazon Rainforest, stroll across the campuses of prestigious universities, or compare their school with Kiilinik High School in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut—to name just a few. Students can even swim with sea turtles at the Great Barrier Reef! Phil Bird’s blog provides a number of additional teaching ideas and resources for using Google Maps Street View with students.

With Google Maps, learners can use English in engaging, realistic situations and can also gain insights into local culture through seeing famous sights and buildings, as well as cars, pedestrians, and signs. In a multitude of ways, Google Maps allows students to experience the outside world inside the classroom.



The appendices are available below.


  • Google Art Project: <>
  • Street View Collections: <>
  • Phil Bird’s blog: <>