Google Earth Lessons

An Educational Resource for Teachers

Teaching with Google Earth

Section # 2 – Application Considerations

The 3 'Flavors' of Google Earth

Before you use Google Earth in the classroom you need to download and install the software. All three versions of Google Earth are available for download from the Google Earth website as you probably already know. If you have not browsed the Google Earth versions section of their website, there are three ‘flavors’.

  1. Google Earth Free Version
  2. Google Earth Plus
  3. Google Earth Pro, with or without add-ons.

Which version you choose will depend on many factors, including your budget, what your goals are in using the program and your level of expertise in working with the technologies involved.

Each version offers distinct advantages and disadvantages over the others.

The free version’s main advantage is that it is free. For the cost of your time in downloading and installing it on a computer you can have a remarkable tool for teaching students about a wide range of topics. The disadvantages are that the functions are somewhat limited even though there are ways around a few of them which will be investigated in later sections. The most significant disadvantages are that the user cannot draw lines or polygons or import data from GPS devices. Another disadvantage is that in-line ads are displayed which is how Google generates revenue from the program.

Ads in Google Earth

The Plus version has several advantages. The cost is not overly prohibitive with a retail price of $20 per annual license (at this writing). There are the added abilities of being able to draw paths, create polygons and you can also import GPS data generated by a GPS enabled device. Other than that there are no significant differences between the free version and the Plus version. However, those differences equate into the ability to create a far broader range of lessons with the Plus version. The Plus version also includes in-line advertising.

Paths and Polygons

The Pro Version is designed for professional, commercial use. It is prohibitively expensive for most educational environments beginning at $400 per license and an additional $200 for the various add-ons for an annual license. It could be used in any type of school but is best suited for Adult Education or highly advanced High School courses. The extra capabilities of the Pro version without add-ons over the free version include: faster performance, the ability to annotate the view with lines and polygons (with height), measurement tools (square feet, mile, acreage, radius, etc.), spreadsheet import - where it can ingest up to 2,500 locations by address or lat/lon, superior printing capabilities (2400 pixels), saving and emailing of high resolution image files, and technical support assistance. The add-on modules include a movie maker module where you can export compressed movies of zooms and tours in .wmv format, GIS data import module - drag and drop .shp files, GeoTiffs,etc., and a premium printing module which allows you to print high resolution images up to 11"x 17". It is only the Pro version which allows you to turn off advertising.

Measuring Area
Extra Measurement tools in the Pro version

The 'No-Ads Option

How to Purchase Google Earth:

It had been the intent of this section to provide you with purchasing information about Google Earth beyond the on-line purchase of the software as most schools have a multi-layered purchasing system running through Department level, to facility level, to District level personnel. However, despite several emails to the Google Earth sales department, no reply was ever received. If you need to navigate your School District’s Purchasing process, you may wish to allow an extended period of time to receive information on how to submit Purchase Orders, etc. Ordering on-line is easy and convenient, but to order Google Earth any other way leaves much to be desired at this time in this author's opinion.

Installation and Setting Initial Options

Installation of Google Earth is pretty straightforward on most computers. I have had students tell me that after installation on their home computers they had a significant decrease in their computer's performance and ultimately had to uninstall the product, but I have no personal verification of this fact and have not encountered it myself. Nor have I read anything on the Google Earth Community BBS to confirm that the installation of Google Earth causes system level problems. Be aware, however, that any software installation can be problematic depending on a wide range of factors. If the computers in your classroom are identical, make certain that the installation does not cause any difficulties on a 'test' computer prior to installing it on all of them.

As for setting the initial options, the previous section detailed the advantages of setting a higher Cache and Fly-to speed. Other than that the only other option you would need to tinker with would be the Graphics Mode. Tools:Options:View:Graphics Mode. The reason is because the two options, OpenGL vs DirectX draw things differently on your screen. Depending on how your computer is set up, one option may be better than the other.

For instance, when running Google Earth under Windows XP on a laptop I use I ran into some problems. When Google Earth first starts up it asks if I wish to switch Graphic Modes to what it recommends (DirectX). If I click yes, then when the Borders are turned on, the screen becomes a bizarre display of jagged spikes emanating from the center of earth in the Google Earth display. But when I click no, everything displays fine. The reason for this has to do, most likely, with the graphics drivers that are installed on the laptop which haven't been updated in over 2 years, or it could be the graphics circuitry in the computer. Be sure when you do your 'test' install to try out as many of Google Earth's functions as possible so that you are not 'surprised' later.

Graphics Mode

I would not advise updating your DirectX or OpenGL drivers unless you have experience with troubleshooting problems at the system level as the two can cause some serious, unintended problems depending on your Operating System, your graphics card in the computer and many other factors. At least that is my experience. Have the tech specialist at your school involved in any driver installation unless you are capable of solving nasty problems yourself.

For the most part though, you should not have any problems installing Google Earth.

Optimizing Google Earth’s Performance in the Classroom

Google Earth has a lot of educational power! It has a massive ‘Wow!’ factor that almost instantly motivates most students, and by using the tools, layers and placemarks effectively you can enhance a wide range of lessons. There are, however, certain things you can do that will make your use of it in the classroom more effective and help keep the students more focused on the content you need them to learn.

The single biggest distraction is Layers. Proper use of Layers can exponentially enhance a lesson but if not used properly it can clutter the screen, slow down the performance of Google Earth, possibly crash the computer or the application and confuse the students.

Not only do layers pose a possible pitfall to your use of the program, but Placemark collections can cause similar frustrations.

First we will look at Layers.

Layers superimpose graphic information over the main Earth display in Google Earth. These displays can be everything from Placemark-like icons to full graphical overlay type information such as road maps or scientific images. Layers are available in two locations, on the side panel to the left of the main window and at the bottom of the screen by the navigation controls.

layers panellayers favories
The two places to access Layers. The choices on the right are not customizable.

Most information in Layers is served by the Google Earth servers and is not actually residing on your computer. This is both good and bad. It is good because any information presented when turning on a layer will be the latest and most up-to-date that Google can provide, but it is bad because it means the Google Earth needs to download the information to your computer before it can display it. Some of the layers contain huge amounts of information and take a long time to download and display. How long it takes and the impact on your computer’s performance are dictated by the quality of computers and network you are using. Poor networks or computers are especially vulnerable to Layers related problems.

As discussed in Section #1, you can increase the disk cache size and by doing so Google Earth will retain some of the layers data and will display it faster if you make the layer visible frequently, but if you are viewing new information or do not have a large cache some layers can take so long to display that it marginalizes the educational value of your lesson.

In addition, you will find that due to the number of selections in some layers that when you click on a single item it can have near disastrous results in terms of map readability and performance.

Too much information!
Too Much Information from a sincle click!!

Another consideration is that younger students love to click on things and unless instructed otherwise will end up activating every single layer available. While interesting to look at, it does tend to make a big mess of things.

Even more information!
Even MORE information!!

It is a good idea to teach your students about the layers issues during the very first introductory lesson to minimize problems later. A temporary solution is when you set the application up on the computers make sure the Layers panel is deselected and then hope you don’t need the layers later since once the panel is activated you need to manually deactivate it.

Removing the Layers panel
Removing the Layers side panel

Dealing with the Mystery Mess!

One maddening aspect of both complex Layers and complex Placemark collections is the appearance of what can best be called a ‘Mystery Mess’. A Mystery Mess is stuff that appears on your screen and you can’t figure out how to get rid of it.  These are especially clusters of placemarks when zoomed in, individual placemarks that just refuse to go away or even image/screen overlays which you have no interest in viewing. The Mystery Mess appears because some layer or placemark option is selected, but it is not a main display item and therefore there is no checkmark by the item in the Layers or Places windows to ‘uncheck’. Getting rid of a ‘Mystery Mess’ can be too time consuming to be worthwhile depending on your teaching situation.  There is talk of offering a ‘highlighted’ option for layer collections to indicate if sub-layers are activated, but as of the current release version of Google Earth there is no such visual indicator.

Sub-sub-sub checkmarks. Finding them can be hard!

To remove Mystery Messes the single best way is to right-click (control click) on the placemark as it appears in Google Earth's main window and choose 'Edit..' This will automatically open the placemark in question, no matter how buried it is and you can deselect it.

There are three other options, none of them very attractive from a ‘productive time’ standpoint. The first, and probably most efficient way is to try to retrace your steps. Examine the placemarks or collections that you or the student accessed recently. There is no ‘history’ as with a web browser, so you will need to try to remember what layers and placemarks were explored, downloaded or opened.

The second way is to check (activate) each placemark or layer collection in turn. By checking the uppermost box in a set it activates all options contained within it, and by unchecking it, it turns off all options contained within that particular collection. The biggest problem with this method is that some collections are so densely nested or populated with items that clicking on it will seem to freeze Google Earth, and in you impatience you click it again and again. This will ultimately lead to an active or inactive state you did not desire. Click it once, pause for a few seconds while the computer ‘thinks’ then click it again and leave it, even if Google Earth does not seem to be responding. Do this for every collection in the Places and Layers panels.

The third way is to open each collection by clicking on the black triangle next to it to see what is in the collection and just go down the list until you find the errant item. This can be very time consuming and frustrating. In addition, some collections contain Network Links which can take time to open, thereby delaying your search and resolution of the problem.

That, as far as I have been able to determine, are the only ways to get rid of Mystery Messes. If someone else has any other suggestions, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE let us know!!!

Actually, at our facility we never have to worry about this problem at all. The reason is because we use a commercial product called Deep Freeze (, which resets the state of the computer to its original configuration when the computer is restarted. It is available for both Mac and Windows. In all honesty, I will not have a student computer without it, even if I have to pay for Deep Freeze with my own money. The reason is because once I set a computer up, I never have to worry about it again. Viruses, spyware, kids changing appearances, settings, that sort of thing are never a problem again. You simply restart the computer while giving the student a ‘tsk, tsk’, for not following directions and all your problems are resolved. I believe there are similar products available under different names, which perform the same function, but I have used Deep Freeze for many years and am perfectly happy with it. With a bulk purchase of licenses, the cost per workstation can be as low as $10 or less and it will save you much more in time and anguish than the meager price. You may wish to discuss the purchase with your District technology leaders as District licenses are an extremely cost effective way of purchasing the product. Not meaning to go on and on about Deep Freeze, but it is not without its critics for several good reasons. Be sure to discuss the issue with your technology leaders at the highest levels prior to installing software such as this.


Placemarks are a wonderful way to transmit incredible amounts of information and knowledge! People from all walks of life have contributed to the global compilation of placemarks and data collections so that you and your students have access to vast swaths of human knowledge available to you in Google Earth. In addition, if you have used Google Earth much yourself you have most likely added your own personal placemarks or downloaded interesting collections that are in your ‘Places’ panel.

While placemark and placemark collections are great things, in a classroom they can pose unique problems. Depending on your classroom set-up, if you are in a lab or have only a single teacher computer, the problems will vary.

If you are using a single teacher computer for display purposes, you problems will be limited to maintaining a degree of placemark organization so that you can quickly access the desired placemark at the proper time. You can refer to the tutorial linked here to find out about how to use folders to organize your placemarks.

A general rule of thumb with Google Earth is to keep your placemark collections trimmed down to reasonable levels (as determined by your computer’s ‘power’) to increase the program’s performance and your efficiency in locating and displaying pertinent data.

On student computers, the problem of placemark management is a bit more complicated unless you manually delete placemarks yourself on a very regular (daily if need be) basis or use a product such as Deep Freeze mentioned above.

In short, you will need to be aware that without proper pre-planning, placemark collections on student computers can quickly become troublesome and problematic. There is nothing to stop a clever student working on a common computer who has minimal supervision from creating placemarks laced with obscenities, possibly offensive graphics, etc. Nor is there anything to deter them from downloading huge amounts of placemarks, causing confusion or problems for other students who use the computer, etc.

placemark nasiness
Creative students can cause creative problems.

Prior to using Google Earth on student computers you will want to have your management plan in place. Some possibilities include:

  • Use of configuration limiters such as Deep Freeze or similar products.
  • Assigning ‘Tech Specialist’ status to your most responsible students whose job it would be to ‘police’ placemark collections, deleting all but the collections that are being used for a particular lesson that day or week.
  • Workstation monitoring via products such as Net-Op School or similar products where you, as the teacher, can monitor and manage student workstations remotely. ‘The all seeing eye’ acts as a wonderful deterrent to malicious behavior and might alert you to negligent behavior.
  • Sign-up sheets for computer use to track which students are on the computers and at what times so you can track back to when problems appeared.
  • Proper training from the start. Teach students to delete all placemark collections except those in use for a series of lessons.

By having a placemark management plan in place you will increase educational time, lower your exposure to liabilities, and increase the quality of information Google Earth can provide to your students. By having your management plan detailed on paper you will also be able to quickly respond to your supervising Administrator should there be a problem or concern caused by students placemark usage (but being a teacher, you already know to Document Everything!).

In the next section ‘Teaching Considerations’ we will look at placemark strategies for distributing placemark collections to student workstations, how to keep students from modifying instructional placemarks, how to manage placemark collections that students create, etc.

Dealing with Ads in Google Earth

Fortunately, at this writing, advertising on Google Earth is confined to simple text listings when performing searches. We can hope that this remains the case. I personally do not begrudge Google using ads to generate revenue through a fantastic product which is freely distributed and has such an incredible educational potential.

In the classroom, however, you will need to address the topic of ads and how to deal with them with your students, especially the younger students. Make them aware of why there are ads and let them know that 999 times out of 1000 the ads will have nothing to do with their class work research. You will need to instruct them not to click on the ad’s link. Even if they should be tempted to click on the links there should be no real harm done other than a confused misdirection for the little kids as Google seems to be fairly good at filtering out the seriously offensive site links. Let us also hope this remains the case.

Section # 2 – Application Considerations