Apr 292011
 

In my last post, on GIS training vs. education at university, I referred to a paper by Fagin and Wikle (2011) who had conducted a survey of GIS instructors in the U.S. regarding perceptions of the importance of various GIS subject areas.  One finding that I thought deserved its own post was that “Most respondants (65.9%) indicated that programming was either not covered/unimportant or only tangentially important” (p. 7, italics by original authors, boldface added).  I found this fascinating, as it appears to be so at odds with the general impression I have, via Twitter and elsewhere, that anything to do with GIS and programming is the hottest thing out there and where all the jobs are.  Perhaps this perception is biased, as I find that more developers seem to be on Twitter, and highly active on it as well, compared with other GIS practitioners.  I still wonder though, why do so many instructors dismiss programming as not an important topic when teaching GIS?

This is just a guess, but one reason may be that many of the instructors surveyed have little or no programming background themselves, and so don’t teach it (myself included).  I took programming in high school and first-year university many years ago, and have taken ArcObjects and VBA courses since then.  Although my programming skills are now virtually non-existent, I have benefitted greatly from having a basic understanding of it (e.g., loops, subroutines, if-then statements).  Having said that, I don’t teach programming in any of my courses, and have long wrestled with this.  My experience has been that programming is not something most introductory or “general” GIS students want (and may actually scare them off), but that it is likely more appealing to the advanced students who may be considering a GIS-related career.  Just to be clear: I’m not one of those instructors who thinks programming is not important, but I am one who would have say it is “not covered”.  One of the things on my study leave to-do list is to consider adding something like an introduction to Python section to my advanced GIS course.

Another possible reason for this lack of programming in university GIS curricula may also be that instructors see it as being too far towards the training end of the spectrum.  Does programming fall under training or education?  My thinking is that learning how to program (the actual process of coding) may be more training-oriented, but knowing what to code and why requires education as well.  Regardless, it appears from the results of the Fagin and Wikle study that, even though GIS-related programming appears to be in high demand, the people who are getting those jobs likely did not acquire those skills at a traditional four-year university, or at least not through its GIS courses (I may be completely wrong on this though, so please feel free to correct me).

I was chatting with a computer science professor about this yesterday, and his suggestion was that I recommend one of his department’s first-year courses that introduces students to programming by using Python.  I think this could be a great course for some of my GIS students who want to augment their GIS courses.  Additionally, I am considering including at least a brief introduction to Python as part of a section I am revising and expanding on ModelBuilder and geoprocessing.  The questions I’m currently thinking about are: can I really provide much of an effective introduction in perhaps 4 hours of class time?  I would love to have a whole new course on this, but don’t have the time in my teaching schedule, nor the expertise to mount such a course at this point.  Or should I just point those that are interested towards a more general-purpose Python course in the computer science department?  In a recent LinkedIn discussion (in the GIS, Mapping and Geo Technology group) about what languages a new GIS professional should learn, Python definitely came out as the favourite, but are there others?  Finally, is programming becoming as essential as I think it is, or is it still beyond what a typical GIS professional (if there is such a thing) should be expected to do?  If GIS developers didn’t get their programming background from a university GIS curriculum, where did they get it? So many questions!  If you have any comments, I would love to hear them.

 

Reference

Fagin, Todd D. and Thomas A. Wikle.  2011.  The instructor element of GIS instruction at US colleges and Universities, Transactions in GIS, 15(1): 1-15.

 

 

Apr 212011
 

Many undergraduate university students take GIS courses with the expectation that these courses will increase their chances of finding gainful employment upon graduation.  While I believe that the GIS courses I teach can help students develop marketable skills, I think that there are sometimes differing opinions between instructor and student about what students should learn, what will help them in the short vs. long term, and what the right balance should be between education and training.  This was highlighted in a recent article by Fagin and Wikle (2011) entitled “The instructor element of GIS instruction at US colleges and universities”.  The authors do a nice job of summarizing the evolution of GIS instruction and instructors, and then report the results of a survey they conducted of American GIS instructors and “their perceptions concerning the importance of various GIS subject areas” (p. 1).  One passage that really jumped out at me concerns the challenges GIS instructors face:

For instance, one respondent lamented the problems of balancing the intellectual foundations of GIS with the desires of students wanting little more than software training. This sentiment was further reflected by another respondent’s recognition that many students across institutional types are seeking training to better prepare for the workforce, while many faculty are more concerned with research and the theoretical side of GIS. Nonetheless, regardless of the emphasis placed on theoretical considerations, respondents from all institutional types and educational levels signaled the importance of teaching software functionality and other practical applications of GIS.  (p. 10)

In the first class of my introductory GIS course, I explain the difference between education and training (based on definitions I heard Michael Goodchild give at a conference talk many years ago), and tell them I try to do both, but with more emphasis on education.  This is based on my belief that the underlying theoretical concepts as well as the critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills I hope to impart will serve them well, long after they have forgotten which buttons to push to perform a particular function with certain software.  It’s important that students see the value in the education aspect, both to manage their expectations from the start, and also to fuel their motivation once they see that value.  Beyond that, there are many opportunities for further software training once they’re out in the workforce, while it is much more difficult and time-consuming to get more education.

It seems to me that there is no clear separation between education and training, theory and practice, but that it is more of a continuum.  I always emphasize in my courses that students should know why they execute certain steps or choose particular parameters in a dialog box and not just memorize them, and that they should understand (conceptually, at least) what steps the software is going through to perform a particular function.  In other words, when it comes to GIS, I don’t know how you can have one without the other.

So what is the right mix of education and training that will best prepare students for life after graduation?  As I mentioned in a previous post, I sometimes have to remind myself that the majority of my students will not pursue GIS-related careers.  For them, one or two GIS courses is enough, so I try to give them a solid understanding of basic GIS concepts and the software skills they will need to perform simple mapping and analysis.  Beyond that though, I want to help them learn to think spatially, and to be able to critically analyze maps and other geographic information that they will encounter in their lives, both through work and elsewhere.

For those students who take more courses with me and are more likely to pursue GIS-related careers, I continue the process of building a solid theoretical foundation as well as teaching the practical skills they will need in order to be able to learn more on their own.  I think most GIS practitioners would agree that much of what you learn is self-taught while on the job.  When you have a task to complete or a problem to solve, you must have the requisite combination of conceptual understanding, problem-solving skills, and knowledge of the software to be able figure it out and get the job done successfully.  You have to be able to think, learn, analyze, problem-solve and then effectively communicate your results to someone else.  The software training I provide will help them get that first job, but the conceptual and theoretical understanding and the critical thinking and problem-solving skills (the education component) will continue to help them as the software changes and their professional role evolves.

 

Reference

Fagin, Todd D. and Thomas A. Wikle.  2011.  The instructor element of GIS instruction at US colleges and Universities, Transactions in GIS, 15(1): 1-15.

 

Apr 152011
 

This morning I spent 3 hours watching my students write their final exam.  It’s a strange experience, as I want them all to do well, but know that some will and some won’t, for a whole host of reasons.  You might think that spending 3 hours pacing around a room might be dull (and I admit sometimes it can be), but I usually find myself a bit on edge.  Stressed is too strong a word, but I definitely have some nervous tension.  Why?  One reason is that the students are stressed, which tends to rub off on me.  Another reason is that I always wonder if I have made the test too difficult or too easy.  In a 3 hour exam, if all of the students are still there at the very end, some on the verge of tears, then I can only conclude that I made it too long and/or too difficult (when I first started teaching, this happened more than once).  If they all leave after the first hour of a three-hour exam, with big smiles and a spring in their step, then I probably made it too short and/or too easy (this doesn’t happen too often).  I always remember chatting with a senior colleague, when I was still a rookie and he was on the verge of retirement, who told me that after all his years of teaching he still could never be sure how a particular group of students would do on a test.  At this stage, I usually have a fairly good idea, but you still never know for sure.  I design my exams to take about 2-2.5 hours to complete and I give them 3, so that time is not a factor in their performance.  Others may think differently, but I feel I can adequately survey their knowledge of the course in that time, and I know that students appreciate this approach.

Another source of tension comes from the fear that I have made some egregious and undiscovered error when I created the exam.  Sure enough, two minutes after the students started this morning, one of them politely pointed out to me that questions 2 and 3 were identical – aaagh!  I hate it when I do that!  I must have proofread that exam five times before submitting it for duplication, but still managed to miss the mistake.  It wasn’t a huge problem, as excluding one of the duplicates made the exam out of 77 instead of 80, but it still bugs me.  Fortunately, those errors are rare (really!).  At this point, I should mention that, if you are a former, current, or future student of mine, I don’t want you to think that I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown during every exam – I do manage to keep myself together.  :-)

On a more positive note, the best part of a final exam (for me at least) is when I know I’ve set a reasonable exam, and a student finishes, confidently hands it in, thanks me for the course, and wishes me a great summer.  I love it when students do well, and it’s so satisfying when it’s clear that they liked the course, learned the material, and did well enough on the exam that they have a smile on their face at the end.

Apr 082011
 

I had my last class of the term on Tuesday and will not be teaching again until January, 2012.  I have been approved for a half-sabbatical which officially starts July 1, but I am gearing up for it already.  The official term is “study leave”, but most people tend to call it a sabbatical.  The first thing to clarify is that “sabbatical” is not a synonym for “vacation”.  No matter how many times I try to explain this to family and friends, they still seem to believe that I will spend more time golfing than working.  If only!  Another sabbatical myth is that many people assume that I must be travelling to some exotic land for an extended stay.  That would be nice but the sad reality is that, in the eternal time-money equation, I will gain time but lose part of my pay.  So when I tell people I’m going on sabbatical, and they automatically ask “Are you going anywhere?” my answer is “yes, my office”.  I’m not complaining though.  A sabbatical is an incredibly valuable opportunity to take a step back from the usual routine and review and refresh my thinking.

So, what am I going to do with all this free time?  My position as a senior lecturer is in what our university calls the “teaching stream”.  This means that I am a full-time, permanent faculty member who specializes in teaching, and I’m not expected to have a research program.  Thus, my study-leave will be spent reading up on the scholarship of teaching and learning, evaluating new teaching methods (e.g., blended learning), revising my teaching material (lectures, assignments, tests), and engaging in professional development (e.g., online courses such as ESRI’s online training and webinars such as Adobe’s Captivate series).  As much as I will miss being in the classroom, I can’t wait to get started!

I am in the planning stages at the moment.  The last time I had a sabbatical I was far too ambitious, even though I had a full year.  The irony was that, because I felt as though I had so much time, I got incredibly ambitious, and then spent a lot of that time stressed because I hadn’t accomplished everything I had planned.  A colleague of mine said he went through the same thing.  This time I’m trying to be more realistic and have been working on prioritizing and scheduling phases and tasks.  My goals range from the big and broad (e.g., curriculum planning, new teaching strategies) to the specific and technical (e.g., redesigning my PowerPoint slides; incorporating ModelBuilder into an efficient workflow for content creation for lectures and assignments; trying to master editing in ArcGIS 10).  I plan to blog about it all along the way, and look forward to sharing what I’m doing.