Mar 312011
 

Every summer, I perform a self-imposed curriculum review of the five GIS courses I teach each year.  I think about the topics included and their sequence, and which course they belong in.  I make notes to myself throughout the year about what topics need work, what examples worked well or fell flat, or what new ideas I want to try out.  Some of these notes are made on hidden slides right in the PowerPoint file (e.g., Edit: break the following slide into three separate slides with a map example for each) and some in a Word file with headings for each course as well as for things like PowerPoint design, workflow, and administration.

Four of the courses I teach are in a sequence: introduction, intermediate, advanced, and a capstone project course (the fifth is an introductory GIS course at the graduate level).  I start out with about 160 students in the first course, and then lose about half with each subsequent course, ending up with about 20 in the capstone course.  The tricky part is trying to decide what students should learn if they are going to take only one GIS course vs. those who take two, or three, or four.  I wish it were as easy as consulting the GIS & T Body of Knowledge and/or the Geospatial Technology Competency Model and following a template, but it’s not that simple.

It seems as though I have three sets of students: those who just want one GIS course, often to satisfy a degree requirement for a “methods” course; those who take two courses, because they have heard that GIS is a marketable skill and hope that two will be “enough” to help them get a job; and those who take three or four, and see GIS as something that has the potential to become a substantial part of their careers (I realize these are generalizations, but I have a hunch they are roughly accurate, although it makes me think I should really conduct a survey).

What are the objectives for an introductory GIS course? When I first started teaching, a colleague of mine told me “just give them enough to make them dangerous”.  I know he was trying to be funny, but I actually took it as a warning and a challenge.  The last thing I wanted was for students, for which this would be their only GIS course, to finish the course  thinking they had a certain mastery of GIS when, as the joke implied, they would be unwittingly making all sorts of egregious errors and assumptions, churning out spurious results and coming to erroneous conclusions, all thanks to me!

If my introductory course really is the only GIS course half of the students will take, then I want to make sure that they are able to: find data sets and judge whether they are appropriate (by knowing about and critically appraising the metadata); choose an appropriate map projection; edit attribute tables and do field calculations; perform spatial and attribute queries; apply spatial problem-solving skills to formulate and execute basic analysis using distance and overlay; and then create a well-designed map that incorporates basic cartographic principles to clearly communicate the information and message they want to convey.  I am trying to be realistic about how much I can fit into a 12 week term and what a student should be able to accomplish once they have completed the course.  All along the way, I try to emphasize the why as much as the how, so that students can make informed decisions at each stage of a project instead of relying on simply remembering a sequence of procedures.  The challenge is to balance the development of functional skills with the creation of a strong theoretical foundation, so that students are well prepared both technically and conceptually.

The topics in the intermediate and advanced courses are not as tightly connected to each other.  For half of the students in the intermediate course, that will be their last GIS course, so I make sure to cover other popular and/or practical skills and topics they might need such as digitizing, geocoding, basic remote sensing concepts, raster analysis, and geoprocessing using ModelBuilder.  My advanced course includes topics such as GPS, terrain analysis, surface interpolation, and GIS design and implementation.

My annual curriculum review is something that I look forward to.  It gives me the opportunity to shake off the day-to-day concerns that often preoccupy me during the school year and take a fresh look at what I can improve for the next time around.  As always, I would love to hear your thoughts – what guides your choice of topics for a given course?

 

Mar 242011
 

Simultaneously published at the ESRI Education Community Blog with thanks to Dr.  Tom Baker, Education Manager, ESRI Inc.

Many people working in the cross-disciplinary field of GIS education may have few co-workers in their organization that they can learn from, brainstorm ideas, or even just “talk shop”.  They may be looking for ways that they can keep up with the latest trends, opinions, and best practices.  A great way to do this is through social media, which allow you to become connected with others who share your interests, resulting in the building of a community around those interests.

The key to community building is to make direct, personal connections with those that have shared interests.  Traditionally, this was done by attending formal meetings and conferences.  However, social media, such as Twitter, have allowed quantum leaps to be made in finding and making these connections.  With searching and filtering, it is easy to quickly find people who share your professional interests.  Once you have found even a few people, by looking at who they follow, you can rapidly build a tightly focused list of people that share your interests.  Not only that, but you will be able to read their posts in real time, which is an amazing way to keep abreast of the latest topics and events.  What many people may not realize is that one of the real powers of Twitter is not the 140 character posts themselves, but the links that people share through their tweets.  When you follow a number of people with similar interests, you have access to their collective intellectual activity, where they share information that might be hard for you to find on your own, such as a blog post they found, or a press release, or a new article on something you may find useful.

While sharing links via Twitter is a powerful source of information that you might not otherwise find, engaging in actual conversations with those you follow is a powerful way to create personal connections that you might not otherwise have.  Twitter, and other social media (including writing comments on blogs), can provide immediate and informal access to people that you might not otherwise be able to meet.  The real benefits of social media come when you begin to share your own thoughts, and begin having conversations with others.  You may then find that some of these people will be attending events that you are also going to.  This can lead to the odd but amazing feeling you experience when you finally meet face to face with someone you have been following and interacting with virtually for months or even years.  While it may seem that social media might compete with, or even replace, face-to-face interactions, the actual effect is to make those interactions more likely, more frequent, and richer.  Membership in associations and attending regional meetings and national or international conferences become more rewarding when you know you will find people there you already “know” online.  By leveraging the power of social media, you can create one (or several) personalized communities around any interest.  This can be an effective way to become more connected to others in your field, which can improve your job performance and lead to a more enriching professional experience.

Useful links:

Esri Education Team on Twitter: http://esriurl.com/edtwitter

Esri GIS in Schools at Facebook:  http://facebook.com/schoolGIS

 

Mar 172011
 

I am currently in the process of re-evaluating my PowerPoint slide designs and templates that I use for my lectures.  As a rough estimate, I have somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 slides spread over many files.  Over the last ten years, I have used the same template for all of them, with minor modifications.  In the next few months, I plan to give them an overhaul – update the designs and screenshots (there are still some Windows XP slides lurking in some of my files, which really stick out now, and not in a good way), experiment with new layouts, graphics, and content.  I have just bought some books that I’m sure will be very helpful in this process, including Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte, Presentation Zen and Presentation Zen Design by Garr Reynolds, and the Non-Designer’s Presentation Book by Robin Williams.  I like to think I’m fairly good at slide design and presentation, but I also know there is much more I can learn.  Some of what they recommend is old hat to me (e.g., less text, more graphics) or cliché (the expression “death by PowerPoint” is so overused but, sadly, still often needed) but I am voraciously reading all of these books to broaden my thinking for presentation design and execution.

So, on the topic of slide design, I thought I would share a couple of tips that might be helpful when using ArcGIS maps in PowerPoint.  First, I design maps specifically for use as slides whenever possible.  If you have the time, your audience will notice the difference (the small fonts and pastel shades often used for print maps just don’t translate well when projected for any kind of larger audience).  In ArcMap, create a custom page size that matches the dimensions you want to use, such as 7.5 x 10 inches for a map that will fill a traditional slide (sometimes I make them 6×10 inches to leave room at the top for a title).  Then set the data frame size to be the same as the page, with no offset or margin.

ArcMap layout for a PowerPoint slide
Custom ArcMap page layout for PowerPoint. Here my map will be 6 inches high to leave room for a title above.

Create your map, keeping in mind that the colour schemes, line weights, and symbol sizes should be slightly exaggerated.  I tend to use somewhat brighter, more vibrant colours for PowerPoint than I would for a print map, especially if the room I will present in won’t be that dark.  You also want the message you are communicating with your map to be easily grasped in a few seconds (this may also be true for print, but I think more so for presentation).  I then export the map from ArcMap as a 200 dpi jpeg file.  If 200 dpi seems like overkill, it often is, but it gives me more flexibility if I later want to enlarge and crop the map.  The trade-off in file size is worth it for me, but you may want to go with a smaller image resolution.  I then add the map into PowerPoint.  I usually cut and paste the legend from ArcMap directly into PowerPoint so I have the option of moving it later if I want to add a label or other text to the map.

When adding attribute tables to PowerPoint, follow the same guidelines for text size you would use for any other slide text.  In other words, the attribute table text should be BIG.  I often see presentations where people fail to do this and I always think “Why show an attribute table if we can’t see the contents?”

Attribute table with large type size
ArcMap attribute table with large type size

When bringing in screenshots of attribute tables or any dialog box into PowerPoint, I first set the size of the window so that I have a predictable, consistent size for every one.  There is an incredibly useful, free utility for Windows called Sizer (http://www.brianapps.net/sizer/), that allows you to set custom window sizes (it does not officially support 64-bit Windows 7, but I have not had any issues).  Since I show a lot of tables and dialog boxes in my lectures, I find it helpful to maintain consistent sizes throughout.

Sizer freeware
Sizer dialog box for setting custom window sizes.

As time-consuming as slide design can be, I really enjoy the process, as I’m always trying to find a simpler, more effective way to tell a story.  I hope the above tips will help streamline your workflow and help you do the same.

 

Mar 082011
 

Like many technology-oriented people, I consider myself to be a bit of a perfectionist.  There’s something about the crisp, exact, digital world that makes me want to fuss over pixel, every detail.  To be clear, I’m not saying this in a braggy, interview way (“My worst fault? Well I guess you could say I’m a perfectionist!”), but more of a confessional way (“Hello, my name is Don, and I’m a perfectionist”).  Yes, I do think that this personality trait has driven me to produce good quality work.  However, I suspect it also often leads to procrastination.

A good example is related to my intention to start using video capture software to create online software demos for my students as a way of introducing them to a new practical assignment.  I have had this on my “to do” list for at least a year, but two things kept holding me back: 1) I was afraid of the time commitment required, since once I started doing them I assumed students would come to expect them all the time  2) I wanted the demos to be perfect.  I bought a copy of Adobe’s eLearning Suite 2, and pecked away at it over a few months, but kept putting off actually creating a demo.  Then, last week, I was going over the lab assignment I was about to give to students on some basic remote sensing principles, using ERDAS IMAGINE (why do they insist on all caps?).  All I wanted them to do was use the spectral profile tools with a small Landsat Thematic Mapper image to explore the digital numbers for various land cover types in different spectral bands.  I have used this assignment before, so thought I would just give it a quick once-over before distributing it.  Then I realized that I hadn’t really spent much time with the new 2010 version of IMAGINE and realized that they had “improved” the interface (if you can call adopting Microsoft’s “ribbon” an improvement, although the old IMAGINE interface did need a big overhaul).  I spent at least half an hour rediscovering where everything was, and quickly realized my students would be pretty lost trying to find their way around the interface, for what was meant to be a brief introduction to IMAGINE.  So, I thought I would try putting together a quick video demo.  I didn’t have much time, so I opened IMAGINE, sized the various windows, started Captivate, and recorded the demo.  It was pretty rough, but I thought to heck with it, just get it out there, so I did.  You can have a look at it here.  It’s not very good – I would like to add a title slide, delete some of the extra captions that come up when I was unnecessarily clicking around window title bars, possibly resize it, and maybe actually have a script (if you have any suggestions, please let me know).  The point though, is that it got done, I gave it to my students and, so far, I have had very positive feedback.  The fact that I didn’t spend much time on it really addressed both of my concerns: I don’t mind if they come to expect them, since I can now do them in a short amount of time.

Just to add some irony, I thought about blogging about this, then hesitated, as I thought I should really make a new, better version, and do all those edits first.  Then it dawned on me: my new approach to teaching and blogging is going to be “quick and dirty, learn as you go” or QADLAYG (I haven’t Googled this phrase, so please allow me to continue to think that I am the first person to ever come up with this idea and acronym). For me, this has been a useful lesson.  I have to push myself sometimes to get beyond the planning, perfectionism, and someday-I’ll-get-around-to-it phase and just start putting something out there.  Of course, I definitely plan to improve, but I no longer plan to wait until something is perfect before I distribute it.  I’m guessing I will be better off getting feedback and learning as I go instead of waiting.

 

Mar 022011
 

One of the courses I’m teaching this term is a senior GIS capstone course, with the simple title GIS Research Project.  Students in this course are wonderful to work with.  They have all taken at least three prior GIS courses, and often cartography and remote sensing courses as well.  Of the approximately 160 students that take my introductory GIS course, roughly 10 percent find their way to this final course.  At the start of this capstone course, I explain that there are only a few lectures, and that none of those will be like my “traditional” lectures in prior courses, where I would be teaching them new GIS concepts or techniques.  Instead, the idea is for them to apply what they have already learned to a project of their choosing in a seminar-style class.  That’s not to say that they are not still learning more about GIS – on the contrary, they learn quite a lot, but they learn most of it from each other.  Many of the things that I emphasize are lower in the Geospatial Technology Competency Model, under workplace and personal effectiveness competencies: creative thinking (research design); planning and organizing (project management); problem solving and decision making; communication, listening, and speaking; critical and analytical thinking; integrity; professionalism; initiative; dependability and reliability; and teamwork.

For many students this is their first time working in a group.  At the start of the course, many of them are anxious about this aspect of the course.  They worry that not all members will pull their weight, or worse, that these other students will drag down their grade.  I tell them that I reserve the right to adjust anyone’s final mark up or down based on performance, which tends to allay their fears.  During yesterday’s class, as I often do, I went around to each group and asked them how things were going, and if they had any questions.  After that, I let them work on their own for the remainder of the class, just checked in with them now and then.  As I was watching them work, I noticed that they were engaging in detailed, nuanced conversations about data sets, models, map design, etc., but what was great to see was that they were also laughing and actually have fun.

I have been hearing more and more lately about the advantages of students working in groups, and plan to try this in other courses.  For example, one suggestion I heard was to let students work in pairs on a GIS assignment, say, in an introductory GIS course.  The idea is that one student is the navigator, reading through and interpreting the assignment, and one is the driver, actually operating the computer.  This allows each of them to act as observer and coach for the other, which makes for a deeper and more enjoyable learning experience.

But back to my capstone course – the students work in our Collaboratory, which has several peninsula tables, with a computer outfitted with a large monitor, so that they can all see what is displayed.  The monitors are on swing-arms that allow students to adjust them as needed.  Students will also often bring their own laptops, which are connected to a wireless network, so that they can look up information, write sections of their report, or run parts of their model, while they all refer to the main screen as well.  This is my second year teaching in the collaboratory.  Previously, we had our classes in a traditional classroom, without wireless access.  This was far from ideal, as I would go around each week to get status reports on their projects, and they had no easy way to show me what they were working on.  Beyond that, they would all be itching to leave class as soon as possible, so they could get to the computer lab to continue their work.  Now, they arrive early and often stay late, as they have a much more conducive work environment.  I really enjoy teaching this course, and look forward to watching students continue to develop their interpersonal and analytical skills, while also having fun in the process.

Photos courtesy of Andrew Malcolm and the Department of Geography and Program in Planning, University of Toronto