Worlds, Great and Small: Using Ultra-High-Definition Interactive Images in the Classroom


I recall when I was learning to drive, and how I foolishly thought I knew where I was going. How could I not know where I was going? After all, I had spent countless hours looking out the car window as my parents ferried me around suburban Maryland and Washington DC. Once I had my license, and had to make decisions on my own about getting from here to there, I quickly realized that I was either completely unable to do so, or more likely, only able to do it in incredibly inefficient ways. I later realized that this was largely because the “world map” I was working on was based on a few snapshots my brain put together at fairly randomly intervals as a trip progressed. You know … car backs out of our house’s driveway, yadda yadda, pass that church we sometimes go to, yadda yadda, get on highway on-ramp, yadda yadda, work on some Mad Libs, yadda yadda, and voilà, pull into the shopping mall parking lot. The “yadda yaddas” are what get you there, and my mental world map was full of these blanks. Of course, just like most of us, once was I behind the wheel and had to really pay attention to the details, it took no time for me to develop a much more accurate and useful mental “world map.”

A few years ago I was showing my younger child some nifty things around the world using Google Earth. It took almost no time before he asked me (demanded?) to “drive” — rather than just passively see things I was showing him. He was quite fascinated with exploring the world this way — panning over the globe and zooming in and out over huge ranges of scale to reveal both tremendous detail and “big picture” relationships. I’m fairly certain that he learned at least as much about world geography doing this by himself, as he has in all his years in the classroom since. Clearly there is a big advantage both in terms of comprehension and retention to being able to explore these visually dense “worlds” and discover how things are interconnected and related to each other. To some degree this learning experience for him was not too different from my own as a child, when I would spend countless hours looking at maps. But in other ways his experience was tremendously different, since unlike me, my son could navigate at will within his map and at any point dig down to reveal an amazing amount of detail. My static paper maps, on the other hand, only contained a relatively shallow amount of information. Those old maps also presented information in a largely “pre-digested” form which emphasized only certain relationships, rather than letting me discover them, and/or identify completely new ones.

Not Just Google Earth — A Huge Range of Subjects and Scales

During this past semester I had a chance to experiment with how useful these visualization/exploration technologies can be in an academic environment. Specifically, my Geology 101 students were instructed to use Google Earth to both explore and answer questions regarding geologic processes, landforms, and structures. Several of my students commented on how many geologic concepts and relationships only really became clear when they were able to explore them on their own and in detail using Google Earth, regardless of having reviewed both lecture and static “book” materials on these topics.

Most of us are already likely familiar with Google Earth, or at least its first cousin, Google Maps, but there are many other exciting options for accessing these huge scale images/environments. Websites such as Gigapan, 360Cities, and Google Cultural Institute allow you to interact with their posted images, but even more useful is that most of these sites also allow you to create and share your own images, annotate them (see the second image below), and in the case of Google, create collections of images for your own personal use and instruction. Below are a couple of examples of images I created as a test using nothing but my regular camera and free software. For a full-screen experience, you can click on the full screen button in any of the images (immediately below the “View All” button).

While both the available detail of these images and the ease of navigation within them is generally astounding, the two images above (each “only” about 0.1 gigapixels) are utterly dwarfed in comparison to many of the images that are routinely shared on the websites I mentioned above. I’ve included an example of one such amazingly high resolution image below — this particular one of Lyon, France, by Anaïs and Martin De Graaf.

Hopefully within about week or so, one of our own faculty members will be posting the first very large-scale images of an academic nature generated here at William & Mary. I won’t ruin the surprise by naming him or her here.

I hope that the general illustrations above will get you thinking about how something like this might be applicable in your own area of expertise. I’ll provide some additional links at the end of this post to give you other examples of things some of you might find interesting.

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE!! Not only is there already a very large number of images out there that you can use at no cost, not only can you annotate many of these for your specific use, or, if you need to, create your own to suit your needs, but you should also keep in mind that they can include subjects as large as the universe, or as small as a bacteria, or even non-real world subjects such as incredibly complicated charts, virtual worlds, etc. I’ll close with one of my favorite images from the small end of the scale — which some have dubbed “nanopans.” This particularly spectacular image was created by James Tyrwhitt-Drake, and is of a diatom (a single cellular form of “planktonic” algae) with individual bacteria visible sitting on top of its flat cylindrical “shell.”

Other Images to Get Your Ideas Flowing

Here are some other suggestions for places to get you started finding large-scale images, organized by discipline.

About Pablo Yáñez

Pablo Yáñez is the Academic Technologist for the Sciences. He studied Geology at the University of Maryland (BS) and University of Arizona (MS), where he specialized in Geochemistry. He joined Information Technology at William and Mary in 2000, and has since worked with nearly all of the academic departments on campus in some capacity or another. Beyond his "normal" Academic Technologist duties, during these years he has been involved in several projects/initiatives including: the use of the College's Public Access Labs; the creation of the Center for Geospatial Analysis, the Swem Media Center, and many technology-enhanced classrooms; and in the review and planning of campus-wide software procurement.