Summary: experiences of teaching an 2-hour OpenStreetmap workshop to 10 year old kids in an elementary school
I had the unique opportunity to hold my (and possible Austria's) first OpenStreetmap Workshop in an elementary school for a class of 10-year old students. True to Austria's best business practice, the workshop was arranged not by official request but instead by a chance chat - I discovered that the mother of one of my game programming students, Ulrike Heppner works as an elementary school teacher in Vienna's Sacré COEUR school and she invited me for an workshop.
As my experience of working with elemtary school children (her class consisted of 24 students, around 10 years old) is rather limited I decided not to try out one of my visual programming workshops but instead to try out something new. OpenStreetMap had always attracted my interest, but so far I was never able to figure out the OpenStreetMap editor. That changed this year as I discovered that the in-build, run-inside-a-browser map iD editor of OpenStreetmap is indeed so easy to use that children should be able to have fun with it.
After playing around with the OpenStreetmap editor using my own students as test candidates we discovered it is very simple to add or modify points of interest. The point can be any object of interest, from a park bench to a water fountain, but I was most fascinated that Vienna's Openstreetmapping community had already marked indiviual trees as (geolocated) points. (Vienna's Baumkataster - the official list of trees inside the city - is aviable for OpenStreetmappers as Open Data). Each point in openstreetmap can have several attribute fields, among others a free “note” field with details. For trees, there are ready-made fields containing information about the type of the tree, leaf type, diameter of crown, circumference, height etc. And you can add your own field names and values.
Like the more popular Wikipedia project, all data inside Openstreetmap is licensed under the Open Database License, allowing anyone to use, edit and republish the data for free, like the creative-commons share-alike license license used for Wikipedia articles.
I figured out that measuring and editing data of trees in the shool garden should keep the children occupied enough for an 2-hour workshop. Vienna's Baumkataster apparently does not cover trees on private ground like inside the school garden, so the children could really experience the “i made the first entry” feeling.
Like most elementary schools in Austria, Ms. Heppners classroom had 2 working computers, but was not equipped with tablets or laptops for each school children. However, an computer lab with internet connection did exist and was available for us. I also asked beforehand that the children should bring metric tape measure and pen and paper for measuring trees and other interesting objects in the school garden.
Normally I make sure to visit the computer lab before holding an workshop to get an idea about the speed and quality of the internet connection and the power of the hardware. Sadly I did not found time to do so before the workshop started.
Editing OpenStreetmap is only possible after registering an account using a valid email address.
I prepared some student email accounts for Openstreetmap because I wanted to focus the Workshop on the editing, not on registering email accounts.
The Sacré COEUR school in Vienna is a big, traditional building featuring it's own church, an elementary school, a gymnasium and a very nice school garden (a park), children playground and sport facilities. The school is run by the catholic church of Vienna (Privatschule), meaning that parents have to pay extra fee even if the teachers are paid by the republic of Austria (generally, school is cost-free for all children in Austria). Unlike other (non-private) schools in Vienna, it offers school uniforms, prayer time and focus on language learning. Like in all private schools demanding fees, a side effect is a less diverse social background of students.
I met Ms. Heppner at school start and admired a bi-lingual morning prayer (german and english) in her class of (for my experience) unusual not-rowdy 10-year old boys and girls.
After a short introduction about OpenStreetmap, where I discovered that the children had very good command of the english language, I tried to explain my intentions with the workshop and that they should seek out objects of their interest in the shool garden, measure them, take notes and later add those objects and measurements into OpenStreetmap. The kids were mostly busy measuring each other with their metric tapes and generally excited to go out in the school garden while the other classes remained stuck indoors.
In the large shool garden the kids got instantly lost in small groups busy searching attractive trees and other objects to measure. I realized that I had forgot to tell the children to note the exact position of an object relative to reference points, as the objects (small trees, statues etc.) are usually not visible in the top-down, satellite photos of OpenStreetmap. It would also have been helpful to print out a map of the school garden in advance (with a 10×10 meter grid) or to assign children to specific map grids only.
After one hour of measuring trees and objects (a shool hour is usually 50 minutes) it was time for the children to return to class for their break and I was guided to the computer lab room.
I discovered that not every computer in the room had a working web browser (or working internet connection), but I managed during the break to set up 10 machines logging into Openstreetmap using my prepared student email accounts.
Then it got really noisy as 24 kids filled the room and clogged in groups at the machines, excitingly using OpenStreetmap to check out other continents, their family homes and the zoom function.
I did not managed to make the beamer work (and I doubted that the children would have paid much attention to it) so I sliced the task of making an entry into very little steps, divided the children into 2 groups and demonstrated each step for each group, one step at a time.
The steps consisted of:
The final step, hitting the “save” button, was only executed by one group as the workshop was already over by this time.
The concept of map-editing by drawing lines or marking areas was not part of this workshop, I concentrated only on creating/editing of “points”.
The biggest problems I faced in the computer lab were not so much technical, but rather organisation: The kids were very excited (a world to discover) and keeping them calm and focused even for only short moments was difficult.
The accidential editing of existing structures (paths), like re-drawing an existing building wall, happened only once at one group and the children realised themselve that something was wrong.
Better knowledge of the written and unwritten guidelines of how to handle OpenStreetmap's object database (best practice for multilingual editing of free fields etc.) would have improved my ability to solve ad-hoc questions, like how to categorize a flower bed correctly.
As becoming an experienced and confident OpenStreetMapper is a question of practice, one single workshop was not the ideal time format. It was just long enough to give teachers and students a good impression of what is possible and to demonstrate how easy to use the iD-map-editor is.
Handheld devices (not used in this workshop) are at the moment good to use as an OpenStreetMap Viewer, but not ideal for using the OpenStreetMap Editor: For the editing of points, like in an computer paint program, high precision when clicking is required. If high-precision, internet-able, hand-held devices become more common (tablets with electronic pen?) a complete outdoor-workshop would be possible.
In most aspect, the workshop was better than I expected. The young age made the children very easy to excite about almost anything. No single child showed sign of being bored, and the children were not shy to ask me tons of questions. However, due to lack of time I was not able to let the children edit / add several points of interest or control / edit the data points entered by their peers, as I originally planned to do.
To use OpenStreetmap as a meaningful tool for teaching I figure several steps would be ideal:
From the question of the kids, I understood that the children were grapsing the concept of crowdsourcing, public viewable data (“can anyone see what I added? - yes, worldwide! - wow!”) how to react to wrongly edited data (“what will you do if someone paints a lake in your shool garden?”) and the shared, collective ownership of the edited data.
I see OpenStreetMap not only as a worthy tool to learn in itself, especially for young students, but also as a potent teaching tool for students and teachers independent of age.
For example, several methods of measuring the height of a tree were possible (Pythagoras, measuring the tree shadow and time, or measuring a floor height and going upstairs to a floor heigher than the tree). While every good teacher can can give a homework like “figure out ways to measure the height of a tree”, the beauty of using OpenStreetmap was that the children started asking this question themself.
It was nice to see what objects in the shool garden the children choosed worthy of measuring (from trashcans to single flowerbeds). An opportunity to specify plants by taking photos and looking up the name of the plant in wikipedia was lost due to lack of time, but some children brought me leaves of unknown plants wanting me to specify the plant type for the Openstreetmap database.
Most important, I realised that OpenStreetmap has high potential to teach very difficult to describe concepts by simply experiencing them:
The whole set of issues of crowdsourced, collectivly owned, free-licensed, easy-to-edit-by-everyone content like wikipedia articles, creative-commons artwork or free/libre open source software.
To have not only an abstract map symbol for “playground”, but detailed (geo-located) points for see-saw, swing, slide and sandpit is meaningful and very clear to understand for every child. The joy and pride of creating public (geo) data for an worldwide audience was clearly visible when watching the kids interacting with OpenStreetmap. It may not be often the case that 10 year old kids in an elementary school can do things that are useful for the real world outside their classroom, but here it happened.