Virtual tours (with Digimap for Schools)

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It’s been a delight engaging with the folks at Digimap For Schools. I’ve now done two webinars, the first about mapping a walk and the second (the focus of this blog entry) giving some ideas for virtual trips.

This doesn’t focus specifically on field work (data collection, analysis etc). That’s for another day, but rather I’ll cover a range of things that Digimap For Schools can do with regards to virtual exploration, from quick little tasks to full-blown field-trip itinerary!

We’ll look at:

  • how to use the ‘image search’ function to browse geolocated photos
  • some examples of ‘guided self exploration’ by setting criteria or goals
  • an example in combining real-world play and virtual trips
  • a decision-making exercise example: “Which site is most suitable for a hotel?”
  • a full virtual excursion by taking a trip to London!

Here’s a recording of the full webinar which is now up on the Digimap For School’s YouTube channel:

What is Digimap for Schools?

Digimap For Schools combines Ordnance Survey mapping and GIS (as well as some other features) in a way that makes both accessible and fun. Usually accessed through a yearly subscription (which in many teachers’ opinions is exceptional value for money), they have generously offered their service for free until the end of July 2020 to support remote and home learning due to the coronavirus lockdown.

DfS-NorwichYou can view not only use OS maps at the classic 1:50000 (shown above) or 1:25000 scales, beloved by many as those iconic pink and orange foldable maps,  but also zoom right in to see individual buildings, or way out and explore the world. You can also travel through time, looking at maps from the 1950s and 1890s, or overlay aerial imagery. The sidebar on the left gives a number of simple tools to start creating your own GIS map.

button-imagesearch Using the ‘image search’ function

The image search on Digimap For Schools is like a portal to a gold-mine, and is very easy to access by clicking on ‘Image Search’. You can type in a specfic search term, like ‘river’ or ‘castle’, or you can use the wildcard * (asterisk) to view all pictures.


The database from which all these photos come from is called Geograph – an incredible crowd-sourced repository of images with the aim of photographing every grid square in the UK. We’ll come back to Geograph a bit later.

Self exploration through the image search: setting criteria or goals

While of course you could get a student to simply have-at-it and self explore, it is always good to provide a little guidence and structure. Here are a few ideas to generate more focused outcomes.


Perhaps you could search for only one type of feature and investigate the diversity, similiarities and differences? I used to love taking a trip on the London Underground when I was a kid, and look at the different architecture of the stations. You could focus on what you can see along a particular named footpath, and virtually walk it. Zoom right into the footpath and click on the camera icons along the way. Challenge yourself to find as many different types of the same thing, and see how they differ across the country. For example, searching for ‘castle ruins’ and seeing the types of ruin, how ruined, the stone they are made of etc. Switching to the historical 1890s map to look for pictures of historic buildings and see if it it still standing and what it looks like today. If you’re lucky, someone may have uploaded a old photo of it to Geograph and you can see changes over time. Of course, you can pick something related to studies, such as glacial formations, coastal landscapes, tourist activities, new developments etc…

Combining virtual visits with real-world play – good for ‘lockdown’

I had a go at this with the UK’s favourite mini-geographer, Theo. While I was scheming in thinking how he might be able to help with the ‘virtual trip’ webinar, he was more keen to play with his wooden train set – so I thought why not combine the two! We decided we would use Digimap For Schools to find four places Theo would like to visit, with the criteria that we had to get there by train.

After using the key to work out that a railway track is a solid black line, and a railway station is a red circle with a thin black border, the places accessible by train that Theo chose to ‘visit’ were Bridlington (for the beach), Betws-y-Coed (for the mountains), Manchester (a big city) and Oxford (because he’s been there and would like to go back!) He then used the ‘image search’ tool to choose a picture of each place – which we printed so he could have each of them as a station for his wooden train track.

What was awesome is not only did he let his little brother join in with no-quarms (phew!) but with what we had, we built our stations to look like the picture of each place. We used a folded up flag of Sweden to be Bridlington bay, for example! It was a great way of combining virtual trip and real-world play to discover different places and landscapes around the UK.

Objective-based virtual trips: an example of a decision making exercise to site a hotel

In my old school we used to take Year 7s to Castle Acre in Norfolk for a joint Geography-History trip. For the Geography element, we walked around the village looking at how it had changed over time and evaluated four different sites for a potential hotel. Incredibly, the schools old VLE is still live! Here’s the VLE webpage for that trip and DME task.

Firstly, it’s always good to place things in context. Why would a hotel even be built in Castle Acre? The teacher could set up some information on a saved Digimap For Schools map, such as annotations pointing out tourist attractions, and of course they can use the ‘image search’ tool to look for interesting things to see and do.


How the student records their thoughts is up to the teacher, whether by their own annotations directly on Digimap For Schools (and then saving the map in their own name), or writing it down on a worksheet in in their exercise books.

Secondly, it’s time to check out the four possible sites for a hotel (marked out by the teacher) to see what they are like. The areas can be measured out using the measuring tool, and the sites can be ‘explored’ using a wildcard image search.


Providing some kind of guidence to help students judge the suitability of each site using the Digimap For Schools tools is the final step. This can be as simple or complex as you like, suited to your students. For example, they can use the key and the image search to look at the roads that access each site, and so judge whether they are suitable for delivery lorries or coaches bringing visitors.


I’ve put together a PDF work booklet for the Castle Acre hotel DME – feel free to download it and give it a go: Castle Acre VIRTUAL TRIP BOOKLET (Digimap For Schools) PDF.

Unfortuantely we’re not yet able to share maps created on Digimap For Schools between accounts, only users can access saved maps on your school’s account – so you’d have to set up the initial bits yourself – but maybe that kind of sharing will be a future thing!

A full ‘virtual excursion’: London Calling!

The last part of the webinar I took all participants on a trip to London. It was to demostrate what a full virtual trip could look like, and the Digimap For Schools tools that could be used. I based this trip on an actual one that I did with Year 9s every year, plus the ‘virtual version’ I put together using PowerPoint for students who were unable to go for any reason. I’ll come back to that and a download link for you later.


The trip actually begins with the ‘coach journey’ itself from my old school just outside of Norwich. On a ‘real’ trip, many learning opportunities are missed simply on the coach ride. A virtual trip can address that. Even the junction of the A47-A11 is a chance for learning (you can guess I was always on that coach tannoy, can’t you!? much to the ‘joy’ of the students…)


Simply using annotated notes that are geolocated to exactly where you want to draw attention is very useful. Again, how you as the teacher decide to get the students to document this, or record their responses is entirely up to you – there is no set method.

When we first ran the trip to London, we had to leave really early (no later than 6:30am) mostly because of the A11 pinch-point through Elvedon – which was the last remaining section of that road that was still single-carriageway. But in 2014, dualling was completed and Elvedon was by-passed. Chance for more learning, and an extra half-hour in bed!


As well as an image search and annotations, I also used the ‘buffer tool’ to highlight the sections of road, just to make them stand out a little bit.

Southbound on the M11 and as you approach junction 7 you pass by my home-town of Harlow, Essex. But its not noteworthy for that, rather that it was a 1950’s New Town. Here, a different Digimap For Schools feature can be put to use, and that is the ‘map selector’ slider located at top-left in the map window. Sliding between ‘Ordnance Survey’ (latest map) and 1950s you can see how Harlow New Town developed. Switching further back to 1890s and you see how it was mostly green space, farms and villages.


Once you get inside the M25, you can then start a urban transect of London. Digimap For Schools is great to do a virtual urban transect using the image search, and the key to identify different building types etc. Also, comparing with the historical maps means you can judge the age of an urban area, at least whether it is less than 60 years old, betwen 60-120 years old or older than 120 years old. First the outer-suburbs:


The inner suburbs (e.g. Woodford) and inner city:


And then one of London’s CBDs (Canary Wharf). After virtually exploring those areas, I then got the participants to jump on the Docklands Light Railway with me to see how quickly the London urban landscape can change.


Now that was only about a third of the London trip for the Year 9s, and when I was creating the Digimap For Schools virtual version, I almost overcooked the demonstration and did the whole thing! But for everyone’s sanity I stopped at the DLR.

Unfortunately as mentioned before I cannot share the Digimap For Schools version of the London trip, but as consolation, you can download the PowerPoint version (plus worksheet and answer sheet) that I made for students who were unable to go on the trip itself.

It’s a little dated now (2012), but if there is enough demand out there, I’d be very happy to update it and include some tasks students can do on Digimap For Schools.

Geograph – worth checking out itself

The source of all the images you can find on Digimap For Schools is Geograph. This website has been around for a long time now, and started off as an ‘ambitious’ project to photograph every OS grid square in the country, when cheap and easy digital photography was still in its infancy. But now thanks to the ubiquitous nature of digital images, Geograph’s database is huge. If you want a little project to do for yourself during lockdown, why not upload them to Geograph?

Uploading your photos to Geograph could be a way to get around the (unlikely) problem that there is a place you want your students to explore but doesn’t have any pictures. You could go to Geograph and upload pictures there, if you have any. However, there is a lag-time between when your photo is live on Geograph and when the Digimap For Schools database ‘catches up’ with it. The good news is that it’s unlikely you’ll go on a virtual trip where there aren’t already photographs, plus you could always upload a photo direct onto Digimap For Schools anyway (see previous blog post).


So there we go! Hopefully you’ve got a few ideas and can still take yourself and your students on those trips even though we can’t leave our houses right now. Why not convert a trip that has been cancelled into a virtual trip on Digimap For Schools? If you do that, let me know and I’ll share it here. 🙂


The full edit of this Digimap For Schools webinar will be available soon on their YouTube channel. I’ll let you know via Twitter and Facebook when that is up. In that edit, host Pete O’Hare and I take some questions and give a few more ideas. On the Digimap For Schools YouTube channel, you will find recordings of other webinars, some ‘how-to’ guides using their tools and some other cool stuff!


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