How do we reach and teach casual GIS users?

Simultaneously published at V1 Magazine with thanks to Matt Ball, co-founder and editor, Vector1 Media.

There are many people who don’t consider themselves geospatial professionals, but instead are casual GIS users. They probably don’t go to GIS conferences, or keep up with everything that’s happening in the field, and yet I’ll bet they perform a sizeable proportion of all of the mapping and spatial analysis tasks that are done on a given day.

As I was reading the V1 Magazine interview with Phillip Davis, director of the GeoTech Center that developed the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM), I started to think about who the model is for, and what assumptions were made as it was developed. I have a lot of admiration for the people and work that went into the GTCM as well as the related Geographic Information Science & Technology Body of Knowledge (BoK). I have consulted both many times, and I am sure I will continue to do so, as they are both invaluable guides for geospatial curriculum assessment and design.

The People Focus

I was struck by the fact that the GTCM is supposed to serve the two-year community college curricula, and that it was developed through workshops with GIS technicians. This indicates an emphasis on the perspective of those that are trained and identify as GIS technicians. Seeing as how previous attempts at creating a GTCM had been unsuccessful (Dr. Davis says “previous attempts became bogged down in the fundamental definition of the industry”), it is understandable that there would be a focus on the people (and their positions) that are most clearly defined.

However, what’s harder to identify and define are the people that don’t have positions with GIS in the title, but who are expected to perform GIS tasks as part of their job; that is, the GIS generalists, or casual users. These are the people that might have taken one or two GIS courses during their four-year university degree (as opposed to those who specialized in GIS at either a community college or university), and probably have some interest in GIS but that, for them, GIS is not what defines them in terms of their current position or career. It is much more challenging to figure out what they need in terms of preparation for these jobs, and what components of the GTCM are most needed.

Department of Labor Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM)
Department of Labor Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM)

Prioritizing Components

Many of the tasks performed by casual GIS users probably follow the proverbial 80/20 rule, performing 80% of their GIS tasks with 20% of the tools. The question is what components of the GTCM do they need most? How can we prioritize each tier of the GTCM, and each component of each tier, to design a GIS curriculum that will best prepare these users?

As an instructor, I have to be mindful of the fact that I am trying to design a GIS curriculum to prepare the most people with the most competencies. While doing this, I have to remember that there is a sequence of courses needed to complete the program but that many students, for any number of valid reasons, will decide at varying points along the way that one or two courses are enough instead of four or five, and will not complete that sequence. This makes curriculum design more challenging.

With reference to the GTCM, it would seem straightforward to emphasize the lower tiers, such as interpersonal skills, writing, and basic computer skills, as these will benefit virtually everyone. I’m teaching GIS courses though, so what about the higher tiers? Things like “positioning and data acquisition”, and “analysis and modeling”? Since the GTCM resembles a layer cake, perhaps we should think of individual courses as “slices” of the cake. It is not realistic to have each course in a sequence match each tier in the model, but it makes sense to select elements of each tier. As a curriculum designer, this is the tricky part, providing the casual user with enough in one or two courses to become competent in typical GIS tasks, but also establishing a foundation for those that will go on to more advanced courses.

As GIS software becomes cheaper and more user-friendly, and more casual users start to use it, we have to think about what obstacles and risks they may face in terms of learning about GIS and in performing tasks while minimizing errors. How can they identify gaps in their knowledge that might be causing inadvertent errors, slowing them down, or perhaps preventing them from completing a task at all? It may be common for specialists to wag their finger at the casual user and advise them to leave it to the pros. However, more and more people are embracing GIS, and it is to the benefit of the field for us to, in turn, embrace these casual users, and find ways to encourage and support them.



Reference management methods for GIS teaching material

I have spent the last couple of days reviewing my reference management system (or lack thereof) and looking for alternatives.  I like to save articles and website links I find online and through journal alerts and blogs so I can use them for case studies and examples in lectures and assignments.  For the last couple of years, I have organized this material by creating a folder for each lecture topic (current and possible new ones), with the intention that when it came time to update a lecture, I could just browse through my files.  The problem is I still manage to forget where I put articles, or duplicate them (sometimes several times), and there is no elegant way to cross-reference them if they are relevant to more than one topic (I use shortcuts, but it’s a clunky method).  So now that the term is over and my study-leave is underway, what better time to take a step back and review my reference management methods?

I have given both Zotero and Mendeley a try and have found both to have their strengths and weaknesses.  I won’t attempt to write full reviews or comparisons of them, as many others have already done this.  My quick analysis is that Zotero’s interface is okay, but limited since it runs inside Firefox (a standalone version is in the works).  Mendeley’s is much better, although it would be so much more efficient if you could see a separate PDF preview pane while looking at your list of articles to review (Zotero has this via the Firefox browser).  Mendeley’s winning feature for me was the easy method for ingesting and renaming my collection of existing PDF files.  With Zotero, I had to select each file individually in order to have the software rename it with a standardized format, which got very tedious, very quickly.  By the way, I should say that I take no sides in the open source vs. proprietary battle – I go strictly on functionality and usability (even just mentioning these two on Twitter triggered a mini debate from adherents on both sides).  For now, I’m going to keep working with Mendeley, as I think it will do what I need and is pretty easy to pick up.  When Zotero releases a standalone version, I will definitely have another look.  I may try some others that have been suggested to me via Twitter, such as CiteULike and, but I really just want to get on with it!    I have dumped all of my PDF files into one folder with the fervent hope that one of these will give me a fast and efficient way to search my collection by keyword and tags so I can pull together a short reading list for teaching and writing purposes.  It’s funny – I feel like I’m late to the whole reference management software party, and yet none of the current crop of solutions strikes me as being fully baked yet.

I am trying OneNote as a repository for making notes on teaching and blog topics.  I gave OneNote a serious try a few years ago, but just couldn’t get into the habit.  At that time I felt that, whatever I produced in OneNote would eventually be transferred to a Microsoft Word or PowerPoint document as a finished product, so why not just start there?  However, I’m finding that there is no easy way to organize a large number of topics, subtopics, pages, web snippets, etc. with that method.  So, it’s back to OneNote once again.  I like the fact that I can sync it with my SkyDrive and access it from any computer or even from their iPhone app (if they ever release it outside the U.S., that is – grrrr).  I have heard of EverNote but have not tried it as, from what I understand, OneNote is better integrated with the Microsoft Office suite, which I use heavily.

I have been amazed at how many files I have, and I’m always looking for better ways to organize everything.  Hopefully all the time I’m spending now reorganizing these files and links and test-driving various software and organizational methods will pay off in the future.  If they do and I adapt/improve my workflow, I will follow up with more details.

What method and/or software do you use to keep track of all your teaching material?


GIS instructors and teaching with technology

It’s not much of a stretch to say that most GIS instructors are likely also techies (Mirriam-Webster: “a person who is very knowledgeable or enthusiastic about technology”), myself included.  It follows then, that we would also be interested in exploring the use of technology for how we teach, not just what we teach.  I attended an on-campus Educational Technology Workshop yesterday and, like many there, was struck by the level of attendance and interest.  There were some great talks on lecture capture, providing a “web option” for an in-class course, and using clickers and tablets in the classroom.   I have been considering a number of possible new ways of teaching with technology, and find that I have to remember to ask myself the following:

  • What is the problem this new technology will help me solve?
  • Is there actually a problem, or am I just being tempted by the latest thing?
  • Will students learn more, or faster, or more effectively?
  • Will it improve the student experience?
  • What is the learning curve for me, and for my students?
  • What are the long term implications/obligations for maintenance and improvement both in time and money?

It’s one thing for me to enjoy being an early adopter, but many of the things I try are discarded (e.g., I bought a Bluetooth GPS for my laptop before the days of smartphones, and never once got it to work – it makes a good paperweight).  However, I am much more conservative about using the same approach with how I teach my students.  I know they appreciate my efforts to improve their learning experience, but I have to be careful I don’t invest a lot of time and/or money only to find out something doesn’t work or actually make things worse.  Having said that, part of what I will be doing over the next few months is spending time researching new teaching methods, exploring options, and thinking about what I might do to take advantage of my techie nature in a way that improves my teaching.  Can’t wait!

Are you using technology to teach GIS?  If so, I would love to hear what you’re doing and how it’s working…