Using ‘Google Earth’ in the History Classroom

Once again Russel Tarr demonstrates how ICT can enrich and enliven the work of historians.

Google Earth ( is a fantastic free tool which allows you to explore the globe from your home computer. Download the software onto your computer and within seconds you can find yourself touring the planet at high altitude, zooming in and out of countries, towns and even streets; examining the terrain, adding your own overlay maps and constructing virtual ‘flyover’ tours of selected locations. This software has obvious applications in the Geography classroom, but it also has incredible potential for History teaching. 

1. Three ways that Google Earth  can enhance history

a. Terrain/Overlays

‘Overlays’ are maps which are scanned from a computer (or taken direct from the web) and then dropped over a historical site to give a much better sense of ‘place’: for example, a contemporary engraving showing London After the Great Fire, or aerial photographs of Concentration Camps around the Third Reich. Even more impressively, these pictures can be physically appear ‘laid’ over a 3D model of the landscape and then rotated and tilted as desired, which is fantastic for sites where terrain made a difference, such as the First World War battlefields at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

b. 3D Models

A number of users have actually designed their own 3D models which you can ‘whizz’ around from various angles. At the time of writing they are quite gimmicky, but examples such as the Taj Mahal, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Great Pyramid of Giza give some ideas of what the software (which will be discussed later) is capable of. 

c. Tours

Flyovers are fantastic - a series of placemarks which can be arranged by date or theme and then Google Earth ‘flies’ from one spot to another along a route chosen by you. This arrangement of placemarks can be chronological (for example, The Middle East Conflict since 1880, The Events leading to the Battle of Hastings, or The Causes of World War Two). More ambitiously, they can be arranged thematically: The Six Wives of Henry VIII contains a series of placemarks organised in six folders which can be viewed as they become relevant. 

2. Obtaining existing resources - weblinks

In the first instance, it is a good idea to locate some resources to play around with that have been created already. The two sites I am using to build up my own searchable database ( are as follows:

  • Google Earth ‘History Illustrated’ community contains hundreds of placemarks and tours posted by community members and made freely available for download. Many of these are produced by rather partisan authors; these tend to have associated discussions and debates which can form the basis of some lively lessons concerning bias and interpretation – especially those which have implicit or even explicit bias (Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe speaks for itself, to give one example). The weakness of the forum is its chaotic structure: each post is simply listed chronologically, with no thematic arrangement, although ‘star ratings’ help you to identify the strongest contributions. 

  • Google Earth Hacks: Historical Placemarks This site doesn’t have the discussion element which is the strength of the History Illustrated Community, but the links are clearly vetted for quality, so that placemarks of rather limited usefulness (‘House where my grandfather gave Montgomery a cup of tea’ and so on) don’t appear in quite so much abundance. Here you will find aerial shots of such sights as Ipatiev House, where the last Tsar was executed, a historical flyover of Berlin, and a mammoth tour of sites relating to the assassination of President Kennedy.

3. Creating your own resources - weblinks 

  • Sketchup: 3D Model Creator This free application allows you to create 3D models for Google Earth. With just a few simple tools, you can create 3D models of buildings and then place them in Google Earth. Cross-curricular links between History and Design & Technology are often restricted to building a trebuchet in Year 7, but this offers a whole new realm of possibilities: how about getting students to produce a 3D Model of Hitler’s bunker, for example?

  • Tagzania: Create collaborative tours as a classroom project This website allows for Google Earth tours to be constructed by several people at once. As a teacher, you could sign up to the site (it’s free) and you then provide a secret ‘keyword’ which other people can use to add placemarks to your Google Earth tour. This can then be passed on to your students, each of whom will have responsibility for researching and plotting onto the map a key historical location for a particular topic: one idea would be to give the students a timeline of the events leading up to World War One, and then each student has the job of plotting the event onto a Google Earth map along with a narrative of the event and an analysis of its significance. The final product will be a collaborative Google Earth tour which will highlight the geopolitics of the crisis as well as provide a visually stimulating pseudo-movie which each student could save for revision purposes.

  • FlickrMap: Geotag the photographs of your field trips Flickr ( is a fantastic site for anyone with a digital camera: for a small annual fee you can upload your photos to their server, and then arrange them into ‘galleries’ which you can view on their website. These can be uploaded at full resolution and you can make them accessible to selected people by email for download and printing.

FlickrMap comes from the same people, and gives you the ability to associate your photographs with particular geographical spots, which could provide a fantastic record of a school trip to First World War Battlefields, for example. In fact, more and more digital cameras are now coming with GeoTagging facilities as standard: in other words, the latitude and longitude of the photographs you take are recorded invisibly in the photograph, so when they are uploaded to FlickrMap all the hard work is done for you!

4. Classroom Case Studies

To illustrate the potential of the software for a range of age groups, I have constructed a number of resources which are freely available for download at Some of the most popular of these are outlined below.

Year 8: Circumnavigation of Francis Drake

This is my first attempt at a Google Earth ‘Flyover’. It comes complete with 6 differentiated worksheets and 32 locations to visit, and gives some idea of how the application can be used in the classroom. In addition, the final worksheet in the series contains a Google Earth Helpsheet with advice on how to add placemarks and create ‘flyover’ tours!

Year 9: Biased Interpretations of the Middle East Conflict

As part of our studies on the history of the Middle East Conflict, my students were provided with an timeline of events. The class was then divided into two groups. One was instructed to produce a Google Earth Tour from an Anti-Palestinian perspective, the other from an Anti-Israeli perspective. By doing so, and then comparing each other’s work, they were able not only to familiarise themselves with the main events of this very important piece of history and current affairs, but were able to separate facts from opinions, and appreciate how propaganda (adding opinion and ‘spin’) and censorship (cutting out unwelcome facts) can be used by biased people to affect our perception of events. 

GCSE: Causes of World War Two

The 20 years which separated the end of World War One and the outbreak of World War Two were obviously of immense historical significance. This Google Earth Tour provides an overview of the main events, tied to geographical spots, leading up to and including the invasion of Poland. There is a worksheet to accompany this tour which could be used in the classroom to help students reflect on the events described. Even better would be to ask students, as a revision exercise, to decide upon the key places themselves (for example, Versailles, the Rhineland, Berchtesgarten, the Sudetenland). These would then be plotted into Google Earth along with a description of what happened there and why it was significant. Finally, the points could be connected chronologically to create a flyover tour. 

A-Level: Virtual Tour of Tsarist Russia

This flyover highlights 16 key locations of relevance to students of Tsarist Russia on the eve of World War One. It is illustrated with original colour photographs from the Prokudin-Gorskii archives, organised around political, economic, social, military and religious issues. The flyover also links to an interactive decision-making game on this topic that I have constructed for the benefit of students. It will keep them busy for a double lesson or so. 


Russel Tarr teaches History at the International School of Toulouse and is the author of the history website