Feb 232011

In my last post, I wrote about my search for the perfect GIS textbook and the fact that I have not yet found one (and likely never will).  Today I thought I would mention some books that I particularly like – I am not pretending to give any of them a full, rigorous review, but did want to discuss some elements that I think work well.  To go along with this continuing discussion of GIS textbooks, I have added a list of GIS textbooks to this site.  For now, I will mainly limit my comments to books I have used as required reading in one or more courses, but will also mention some that I just admire.

There are two introductory books I have used in the past, Fundamentals of Geographic Information Systems by Michael N. DeMers, and An Introduction to Geographical Information Systems by Heywood, Cornelius, and Carver (see my book list for full references).  I would put both of these books in the “lighter” category, meaning that they don’t have an abundance of technical information in them.  They are clearly geared towards the absolute beginner, and both are very well written for that audience, including great figures that help illustrate concepts in an accessible way.  Over the years, I have tried using both in my introductory course, but eventually abandoned them for the same reason – namely, that I felt they were a little too light and that I often had to fill in additional information to cover the content I felt was necessary.  This is not to take anything away from either book though, as I think they both accomplish their intended purpose, but I just didn’t feel they meshed with my own course objectives.

There are two books that I have also tried that I would describe as much more technical and densely written: Concepts and Techniques of Geographic Information Systems by Lo and Yeung, and Introduction to Geographic Information Systems by Chang.  I used Lo and Yeung for several years in my introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses.  I liked it because it had (among other things) good discussions of coordinate systems, map projections, and levels of model abstraction and basic database design.  Alas, I received a number of complaints from students over the years, particularly in the introductory course, who felt it was hard to understand.  I really like the content in this book, but I do find that their writing at times is a bit too technical, or makes assumptions about the audience, that made me eventually decide to move to Chang.  I am currently using Chang in all three of my undergraduate courses.  If you are thinking that using either Lo and Yeung or Chang in three different courses seems odd, I did this because I had thought that, since no book would cover everything I was looking for, and I would have to fill in other material anyway, why not try it.  Beyond that, the costs of the books were so high that I thought I would try to give students a break if they took two or three of my courses.  I find that Chang is well written and makes a lot of explicit references to ArcGIS, which I use for my courses.  However, the sections for each topic are surprisingly brief, and the overall length of the book is fairly short, especially for the price.  I think students could benefit from more detailed explanations and examples in order to really understand certain concepts.

A third book I used a few years ago that I would also put in the “advanced” and “densely written” category is Principles of Geographic Information Systems by Burrough and McDonnell.  This book has some great content, some of which is still hard to find elsewhere, such as good coverage of errors, fuzzy sets, and a good amount on raster analysis.  For me, the biggest downfall of this book is the writing style.  Granted, I think it is geared towards a more experienced and advanced GIS student, but there were times in lectures where I would literally put quotes from the book on a PowerPoint slide, and then go through it, line by line, deconstructing and translating each passage into plain language.

Regarding writing style, there are some titles I’d like to mention that I have not used in courses before, but that I have always admired.  While it’s quite old now, one of the first GIS textbooks I ever read was Geographic Information Systems: A Management Perspective by Stan Aronoff.  It was a great way to get started, as it was written in a straightforward, easily understandable style.  I also really like Geographic Information Analysis by O’Sullivan and Unwin.  Even though they cover more challenging topics, particularly spatial statistics, I find that their writing makes these topics much easier to understand.

Some other titles that are not only well written, but beautifully illustrated, are The ESRI Guide to Geodatabase Concepts and Modeling Our World, both by Michael Zeiler, and The ESRI Guide to GIS Analysis, Vols. 1 and 2.  I love looking through as well as reading all of these books.  The figures have been painstakingly thought out and the use of full colour is really effective.

These are just some thoughts I wanted to share on some of the books I have used and/or admired.  There are many I haven’t mentioned, but hopefully will discuss in future posts.  If you have any favorite GIS textbooks, I would love to hear about them.

Feb 172011

If you’re reading this, chances are you are a fellow geonerd, and may have a shelf of GIS books that you have collected over the years (or maybe that’s just me).  One of the great perks of my job is that, from time to time, I get free GIS textbooks sent to me from publishers for my consideration.  I LOVE getting new textbooks, and immediately start flipping through them and thinking about what topics are included, how they are organized, the writing style, the quality of the figures, what’s been left out, etc.  I have a clear conscience about receiving these books because every spring, after my courses are over for the year, I review my GIS curriculum and take a fresh look at what textbooks I’m using and what else I should consider.  I have used six different textbooks in ten years of teaching, so I am certainly willing to give different titles a try, even though switching is a lot of work, as all my reading lists and references to the text in my lecture notes have to be updated.

As much as I love GIS textbooks, I have never found one that met all of my needs for a course.  I know this is a common complaint from instructors.  I think the reason it’s common is not rooted in arrogance (“no one can possibly capture all of my brilliant teaching material in one book”).  My suspicion is that it is because teaching is so personal.  In order to be able to teach something well, you have to really make it your own.  Inevitably, that means that you will develop ideas about what works, what doesn’t, when to introduce certain ideas, and so on.  It’s just really unlikely that some author out there just happens to think the way you do and has turned that into the perfect textbook.

My main complaint with most GIS textbooks is that they are organized according to the old familiar project-oriented approach: a bit on basic map concepts first, followed by data input, management, analysis, and output.  This is a great way to organize content for a reference book, but I have never been convinced that this is a useful way to organize material for the most effective learning.  When I teach, I tend to refer to several sections of a textbook in one lecture, often across several chapters.  This is because I prefer to introduce concepts within the context of a problem-solving example, or to at least link concepts that I think have a natural connection.  When I first started teaching, I made the mistake of thinking that I had to stick to the sequence of topics in the textbook to make it easier for my students to follow.  While this might be true, I found it was quite limiting and, consequently, a bit boring for me and the students.

Every once in a while a student or textbook sales rep. will ask if I have considered writing my own textbook.  While it’s flattering to be asked that, I always say no.  The short version of my explanation is that I think the traditional textbook model is problematic at best, particularly in a rapidly changing technology-oriented field like GIS.  The longer version is something I plan to address in a future post.

Feb 152011

This morning, students in my intermediate GIS course wrote their midterm test.  While they were writing, I started thinking about the evaluation process and wondering about ways I could improve it.  In my three lecture-oriented undergraduate courses, students are evaluated using a midterm test, a final exam, and a series of lab assignments.  My traditional approach has been that the test and exam mainly focus on concepts and theory discussed in class, and the lab assignments are meant to evaluate their understanding and use of GIS software.  I find that the test and exam work fairly well, in that I am confident that I am able to accurately measure the level of mastery each student has of the material.  However, the lab assignments are another story.

Typically, my students get 2-3 weeks to complete each assignment.  The assignments are completely digital, including submission and marking (via Blackboard).  At the start of each term, I tell students that it is easy to cheat on the assignments, but then go on to explain why that is such a bad idea.  While I do mention the university’s policy on academic integrity, and mention ethics, the satisfaction that is gained from doing something on your own, and the penaltes if they’re caught, what I actually emphasize most is the practical argument, which I hope will appeal to their logical side if the ethical approach fails.  First, I point out that many of them are taking my GIS courses to gain so-called marketable skills.  I then explain that many job interviews for GIS jobs include a practical test, where they sit you down in front of a computer and ask you to complete some GIS tasks.  I then ask what they will do at that point if they don’t have their friend there to help them?  Even if there isn’t such a test at the interview and they manage to land the job, how far will they get if they have never actually done the work themselves?  Beyond this argument, my main incentive for students is that I do ask lab-related questions on the tests, to try and mitigate any possible benefits student may gain if they cheat on the labs.  A well designed exam will reward those who have done their own work and certainly will not reward those who haven’t.

This all brings me back to the question of testing.  When I took my first GIS course many years ago, part of my final mark was based on a practical lab exam.  It was a very nerve-wracking experience, as it consisted of sitting one-on-one with the professor at a computer for 15 minutes while he asked me to complete a set of tasks.  I can tell you that I worked really hard to prepare for that test!  I did quite well, and have never forgotten it, as I know that it was a very effective testing method.  Unfortunately it is not a very efficient testing method.  I was lucky enough to go to a small university with small classes.  There were perhaps 15 people in my class, so it was not a huge time commitment for the professor (although still not insubstantial – say about 4 hours).  In the introductory GIS course that I teach, I had 157 students last term.  At 15 minutes per student, it would take almost 40 hours to test this way, not including any time in between.  Clearly, this is not a practical evaluation method in this situation.  I have thought about using Blackboard in the lab to test them using multiple choice questions but, considering my students are organized into six different lab sections spread over 3 days each week, it would mean having quite a large pool of possible questions if I were to be able to offer six different versions of the test (how many ways can I test their ability to create a buffer?).  For now, I am sticking with my approach of putting questions on the written tests that cover the practical component, but I am always looking for something more effective.  One approach I now use is to make the assignments more open-ended and self-driven, with a full lab report, which really cuts down on cheating (I plan to blog about assignment design in the future).  If you have any ideas, or other evaluation methods that you use, I would love to hear about them.

Feb 112011

I thought I would follow up yesterday’s post on ESRI technical certification and my GIS curriculum with a discussion of the UCGIS Geographic Information Science and Technology Body of Knowledge project.  I don’t think that ESRI is in any way intending their certification program to be a model curriculum for the entire field of GIS, but it got me thinking about how their requirements fit in with the UCGIS Body of Knowledge (BoK).

First, a little about model GIS curricula.  When I first started teaching GIS full-time back in 2001, I was so happy when I discovered the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) core curriculum in GIScience – first the 1990 version (still faithfully hosted by Brian Klinkenberg at UBC), and then the revised version.  I was in the process of developing my teaching material for several courses, and really wanted to model my own curriculum after something authoritative, and what better than the NCGIA?  Their core curriculum included actual lecture notes and figures (although the figures were sometimes omitted or hard to find).  The list of contributing authors was impressive, and included some big names in the field: Mike Goodchild, Peter Dana, Albert Yeung, Jacek Malczewski, Kenneth Foote, David Unwin, and many others.  I adapted some of this material for my own lectures but quickly realized I would have to refer to a wide variety of other sources in order to make sure I really knew what I was talking about, and had found the best way to explain a particular topic.  Nonetheless, it was a great source for thinking about the organization of topics, as well as a great reference.  Unfortunately, the last update to the core curriculum was August 13, 2000.

I’m not familiar with all the details, but my understanding is the core curriculum project was handed over to the UCGIS who agreed to carry it forward.  The list of the UCGIS editors, contributors, and board members is truly impressive.  They started on it in 1998 and the first version of the Body of Knowledge was published in 2006.  I had been monitoring their progress before it was published, read the “straw man” version, and ordered a copy of the BoK as soon as it was finally published.  I have to say that my initial reaction was one of disappointment.  What was included was great – there was a well thought out list of topics and goals.  What was missing was the actual substantial content I thought would be included, as was done with the NCGIA core curriculum.  I realize that getting as far as they did was a huge feat, and I in no way want to detract from their accomplishment, but I had envisioned something more like the book Geographical Information Systems: Principles and Applications (known as the Big Book of GIS) by Maguire, Goodchild and Rhind, 1991, (which weighed in at over 1000 pages).  However, I certainly still refer to the current BoK and look forward to the planned second edition.

This all brings me to what I wonder is the bigger question: is it even feasible to try and have a core curriculum?  Has the field of GIS become so wide and varied, and does it change so quickly, that any attempt to capture it all in one curriculum is becoming unrealistic?  It took 8 years to publish the first UCGIS Book of Knowledge – how much had changed during that time, and is this a constantly moving target?  Or is there still indeed a “core” set of concepts that define the discipline?  I would love to hear your thoughts, and will likely write more on this topic in the future.

Ann Johnson provides an excellent summary of the various core curriculum projects here: http://www.esri.com/news/arcuser/0706/curricula.html

Feb 102011

When ESRI recently announced their new Technical Certification Program, I was really interested in what they specified as required skills, particularly for their ArcGIS Desktop Associate and ArcGIS Desktop Professional designations, since those are likely to apply most directly to my students.  I was impressed with the number and range of skills, and it seems as though they’re not planning to just hand these out to anyone that comes along.  This got me thinking about which of these skills I already teach, which I should add, and which are beyond what I can do with the usual time and resource limitations.  It also got me thinking about the relationship in my courses between training and education.  This is something I address on the first day of my first introductory GIS course each year.  I explain that my courses emphasize education, but that I do my best to build in practical, marketable skills whenever I can.  My approach is to get students to understand the underlying concepts first, but to use examples from ArcGIS wherever I can to show how that concept has been implemented in the software, how to apply that concept correctly, and what risks there may be if you don’t understand it and plow ahead anyway, fingers crossed and clicking on defaults all the way.

If you look at the skills listed under “Coordinate System (Spatial Reference) Awareness” for the ArcGIS Desktop Associate (under the Skills Measured tab), it lists things like “specify a coordinate system in ArcGIS desktop when creating or editing a feature class” or “implement a transformation for a data frame”.  These are definitely important skills to know.  However, what’s missing are things like “be able to explain why you would choose one coordinate system over another for a particular study area and purpose”.  That to me illustrates the difference between a list of skills and a list of concepts or knowledge sets.  However, conceptual understanding does seem to be emphasized much more in the Desktop Professional list, as they include skills such as “determine suitable projection parameters for a specified set of data given bounding coordinates for a specific geographic area and purpose”.  Even though this is listed as a “skill”, the implication is that you can only master this skill if you understand the theory necessary to successfully complete that task.  I’m not sure how this is actually tested, but it appears as though they have the right idea.  This really doesn’t surprise me – as much as many people want to bash ESRI for various reasons, I know they have incredibly bright people working there, including many who come from academia, and who uphold rigorous standards (of course, I’m not saying they’re perfect either).

This new certification program is an interesting development, and one that will be useful.  It’s may be tempting for us university GIS instructors to want to teach to the Technical Certification requirements in an attempt to stay current and show students that what they’re learning is marketable, but how much this happens (or even should happen) will depend on a lot of factors, such as time, expertise, and personal and pedagogical views on the value of training or even views on ESRI itself.  Personally, when I begin my annual curriculum review in the spring, I will definitely see where I can incorporate some of these skill sets.  I don’t think I can or should attempt to have as a goal that students would be able to pass the certification test at the end of my courses, but I would like to prepare them as much as is practicable while maintaining what I consider to be the academic and pedagogical goals I also want to achieve.

Feb 092011

Last night I had the pleasure of having a drink with a former student of mine, who is now a rising star in a large and prominent market research company.  He’s a great guy, who finished university years ago, but always makes the effort to keep in touch.  I hadn’t seen him in a while, so it was great to catch up.  Once we had finished with the important stuff (family, weddings, etc.), we got down to some serious shop talk.  I love keeping in touch with former students, certainly because they are nice and interesting people, but also because they are the ones that are now out in the workforce, and can keep me up to date with changes and new trends out there in the “real world”.  It’s also great to get their perspective on what they feel are the skills needed for graduating students to get their first job.  For example, last night I heard my former student lament that many of the people they interview have weak Excel skills.  This really surprised me, but got me thinking that, while I have some Excel-related material in a couple of my assignments, perhaps I shouldn’t take it for granted that students either already know it or can pick it up on their own.  This leads to another benefit of keeping up with my GIS alumni: curriculum renewal.  I am always reviewing my curriculum to see if I have the right balance of topics and in the right sequence.  After our talk last night, I am going to think about adding not just more on basic Excel skills, but also Access, and even basic statistics, based on his advice.  Interestingly, he also mentioned how hard it is to find people with strong analytical skills who are also strong communicators.  I do try to emphasize this to my students.

It was great chatting with my former student last night.  Whenever I write reference letters for graduating students, or perhaps talk to them about applying for their first job out of school, I always ask them to keep in touch (and this goes for all my students, not just those that go into a GIS-related profession), as it is really satisfying to see them continue to grow and pursue such a wide variety of careers.  I certainly don’t take credit for their success, as that was all their doing, but I am fortunate to have been able to contribute to their development in some small way.

Feb 082011

I try to do all my teaching on Tuesdays.  It took me a while to come to this little strategy, so I thought I would share it in case it is of any use to others.

My courses usually have a lab component and, since our lab holds 32 students, and my courses have several lab sessions per week, it’s helpful to know that I can teach a particular topic early in the week, before students go into the lab.  That way I know they are adequately prepared to start working (my lectures and lab assignments are closely linked).  So why not have classes on Mondays?  I have done that in the past, but found that I like to have a day before my classes to go over them and make any last-minute revisions.  If I did that the preceding Friday, it’s too far ahead for me to keep things fresh in my mind, and I don’t want to do my class prep on the weekend.

In the faculty of Arts and Science, we have two hours of class time per course per week.  In order to get all of that class time finished early in the week, I hold two-hour classes.  There are advantages and disadvantages to having a two-hour class, and I, and I think students, have mixed feelings about them.  Our university has many students who commute long distances to come to class.  Having to do that once a week for a course instead of twice a week is something many students prefer.  Other students though, have told me that trying to absorb a lot of technical information in one two-hour session is a bit much.  I find that the two-hour sessions give me more time to get into a discussion, and that two hours is often sufficent time for a particular topic.  I should mention that I always have a 10 minute break halfway through so students can stretch their legs.  I also do my best not to do all the talking, so that the classes are broken up with discussion.

Since I teach two or three classes per term, I have four hours of class time on Tuesdays, both terms.  This means my Tuesdays are fairly hectic, and I am definitely tired at the end of the day.  However, it also means that I then have the rest of the week, with larger, uninterrupted blocks of time, that I can devote to developing new teaching material, working on other projects, administration, and meeting with students.  To summarize: Mondays are course prep, Tuesdays are in the classroom, and the rest of the week is for everything else.  Everyone has their own preferences, but this approach seems to work best for me and my students.

Feb 072011

I recently read a great blog post by ProfHacker called On Being Busy that essentially says we faculty members should try to make time to serve on various committees, and not rely on the old excuse of being “too busy”.  He argues that participating in university governance is really of service to both the university and ourselves.  Coincidentally, shortly after that my dept. chair asked if I would serve on the Arts and Science Council for the remainder of the school year, to fill in for a colleague.  I was happy to oblige, and have just returned from my first meeting. It was short, and not too contentious, but I can tell already that my participation will be quite a learning experience.  There are discussions on budgets, curriculum, new programs, and many other topics that concern a large number of faculty and students (Arts and Science has over 21,000 full-time undergraduate students, over 3,600 graduate students, and 930 faculty), and I find it quite interesting.  I also serve on the teaching stream committee for our university’s faculty association, as well as several departmental committees, and have learned a lot from them as well.  Yes, there are times when I really do feel like I am “too busy” and yes, I continually struggle with balancing the demands of my job with making sure I make time to enjoy the other parts of my life, but I encourage all faculty to consider getting involved in governance.  It’s too easy (as I admit I have done in the past) to focus on more immediate priorities.  Try to make time for some of the bigger picture issues, as well all need to contribute to governance at various levels, and I have a feeling you’ll find it rewarding.

Feb 062011

I have been thinking about starting a blog for a long time and have finally taken the plunge.  Why?  I’m sure like many other bloggers, I have gotten to a point where I feel like I might have something useful to say, and want to reach out to others who have similar interests.  What interests, you may ask?  Mainly, I want this to be a place where I can share my passion for teaching geographic information systems (GIS).  Topics may include how I teach a particular GIS topic, how I use technology in my job, and issues related to higher education in general.  I also plan to add content this site to help those interested in learning about GIS.   I hope you find this interesting and useful, and look forward to many lively conversations!