Esri Story Maps are alright!

I know thesriuc_2015_smallat Esri story maps have been around for quite a while, but I am only finally learning how to create them now. For some reason, I was quite resistant to using them, but now that I have created a couple I have to say they could be really useful for teaching both GIS and just about anything geographical (I know my friends at Esri would be rolling their eyes – what can I say, I’m a slow learner!). The user interface for creating them could still use some tweaks, as I found there was a lot of clicking involved, but I have not yet tried uploading using a CSV file, which I have a feeling would alleviate that problem.

The first story map I created uses photos I took on a little walking tour from my hotel to Stanley Park and back in Vancouver, when I was there for the Canadian Association of Geographers Conference in June. I have a GPS receiver for my Canon 70D and I have to say it works like a charm! The receiver gets a signal within a couple of minutes, and then my photos are automatically geotagged. Of course, I also used my MotionX GPS app to record my track, which I have included in the story map as a separate map layer. It was a cloudy day, so the photos aren’t exactly spectacular, but it’s not too bad as a first effort. Maybe I’m just too new to this, but the embedded version below doesn’t seem as intuitive as the “full” version when it’s opened in a new window. (Edit: I tweaked the widths of my website page elements, so now the embedded versions render in their correct, “full” versions – much better. I also changed the Vancouver base map to satellite imagery).

I hope to experiment with the different templates available in the future but, for now, the basic walking tour format seemed to work best. I have also created one with photos from the Esri Education GIS Conference and main User Conference (click here to open in a new window):

Note: one thing I have noticed is that, if my browser window is too large, or too tall and skinny, the story map doesn’t render properly. I read on GeoNet that apparently it interprets the dimensions as being on a mobile device – Esri is working on fixing this. If this happens, you can just reduce the height of your browser window until it renders it correctly (it seems to want to be wider than high).

This first foray into Esri’s online applications is part of my new commitment to making better use of the Esri platform, beyond the traditional desktop suite. While I was at the User Conference, I had an “aha!” moment where I realized that all of the various components that Esri has been talking about for the past two or three years have matured and coalesced into a coherent and powerful platform. I’m sure that was their plan all along, but I have a feeling I’m not the only user who’s taken a while to figure out what it all means.

 

Tips on getting started with teaching GIS online

globe_headphones

I was recently contacted by someone asking for advice about developing and teaching an online GIS course.  What follows is based on what I wrote in my e-mail response.

I’m pretty new to this myself, having taught my first online GIS course last fall, but perhaps that’s a good thing, as the experience of going through the start-up process is still fresh in my mind.  I’m also getting ready to teach this same course again in a couple of weeks as an accelerated summer course and I have already started to adjust based on what I learned the first time around.

I could write an enormous amount on this, but will try to be brief for now and hopefully will expand on some of these topics in future posts. Here are just a few things that come to mind:

Give yourself plenty of time: Preparing an online course is extremely time-consuming (think in terms of hundreds of hours).  I had to plan everything much farther in advance than a regular, face-to-face course.  I was going through several learning curves at once, and it was just not possible to do things at the last minute (or if you do, it will be pretty stressful).

Start with course design, not technology:  I took a two-day Course Design/Redesign Institute at my university that was really helpful in getting a fresh perspective on what I was trying to do and why.  There was a big emphasis on starting with defining learning outcomes and then working backwards from there.  They used L. Dee Fink’s book Creating Significant Learning Experiences as a framework (references below).  I read it cover to cover and found it quite helpful. Coming up with useful learning outcomes, and ones that are in alignment with what you actually teach and assess, is not easy (as Diana Sinton touches on in her post Assessment of GIS Learning).

Another book I found to be really useful is E-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Clark and Mayer.  This gave me a good foundation for general e-learning principles – what has been shown to work, and what doesn’t.  I’m currently reading E-Learning by Design by Horton, which is also useful.  These three books represent separate but equally important dimensions: Fink for course design, regardless of whether it’s online or not; Clark and Mayer for understanding how people learn online; Horton for options on current e-learning tools and best practices.

Have a technology strategy: If you teach GIS, you’re probably pretty good with technology.  One thing that will come up though, is how much you want to do yourself, and how much you want to try and rely on others.  I got great advice about course design and technology options from our amazing University of Toronto instructional technology staff, but when it came to actual implementation, I wanted to do everything myself.  Some colleagues of mine prefer to let someone else worry about the technology.  For example, they have someone else set up their recording sessions for their lecture podcasts, and the instructor just comes in and works through their slides.  They’re not interested in learning about the technology, and that’s fine, but I like understanding how each part works and what my options are.  This requires working through many time-consuming learning curves, so it’s important to be strategic about this.  I have written before about how teaching online requires a diverse skill set, and it’s worth thinking about your own strengths and weaknesses, and what you have time to develop in terms of new skills and knowledge areas.

 

References

Clark, Ruth Colvin, and Richard E. Mayer. 2011. e-Learning and the Science of Instruction; Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning. 3rd ed. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Fink, L. Dee. 2003. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint.

Fink, L. Dee. 2007. “The Power of Course Design to Increase Student Engagement and Learning.pdf.” Peer Review (Winter): 13–17.

 

Simultaneously published at TeachGIS.org with thanks to Diana Sinton.

 

Sharing my online course material

Earth and its coordinate systemI have just added some new web pages to my website that compiles much of the teaching material I developed this past term for my online course (an introductory GIS course called GGR272 Geographic Information and Mapping I).  There are lecture podcasts, ArcGIS software demonstrations, and links to readings and other resources.  A summary page of all the links is available here as well as from the main menu above, under Learning GIS.  It took quite a lot of time and effort to create all this material, and I didn’t want to see it collect dust now that the course is over.  I thought I would share it in the hope that it might be useful to others.

Sharing this type of material has been part of my plan for this website from the very beginning, and I’m really excited to finally be able to do this.  My intention for this site has always been to cover both teaching and learning GIS – up until today it has been much more about teaching, so now I hope to address more on the learning side.  I plan to add new topics over time, and to update, add to, and no doubt correct, existing material.  If you have any comments or suggestions, please let me know!

One note about Flash: the lecture podcasts were recorded using Adobe Presenter, which enables me to have a navigation menu on the right side so users can quickly jump around within the podcast.  Unfortunately, the only way to do this is with Flash.  I have asked my students if they prefer this as opposed to regular video on YouTube, and they much prefer the Flash version with navigation.  I know this is not ideal, but it’s a compromise for the time being.

Live lecture/webinar hybrid experiment

I’m currently teaching two sections of the same introductory GIS course, one face-to-face (F2F), and one online.  This morning I tried a little experiment – I taught my regular F2F class in a lecture hall as usual, but I had a live webinar version of it online at the same time.  It went remarkably well, so I thought I would briefly explain what I did, why, and how.

What I did:

Students that did not attend the live lecture (in either section of the course) could see whatever I showed using the projector in class, which included PowerPoint slides, web pages, and a live demo of ArcGIS ModelBuilder.  They could hear me talking, but could not see me (no separate video feed of the instructor).  Besides this main window, there were two smaller windows, one for questions, and one for chat (these were not visible to the F2F students). I recorded the entire two-hour lecture, broken into two parts, that was then posted online for students who couldn’t watch live, as well as for those who may want to refer to it again later.  The students who attended the webinar version were from both sections of the course (I did a quick poll before class started).

Why I did it:

There were three main reasons why I wanted to try this.  I have been thinking about trying this hybrid approach for a while, but the current impetus was that I have a guest speaker coming to class next week.  After I invited him, I realized that I couldn’t ask him to do what I have been doing up until now, namely recording a separate podcast version for my online students and then teaching the lecture to my F2F section.  I wanted to have a way to capture him speaking in class in one shot.  Second, I have been a little uneasy about the fact that my online students were not benefiting from the spontaneous questions, discussions, demos, and announcements that would come up in class, and I wanted to capture that.  Third, my in-class attendance has dropped off dramatically in the past couple of lectures (I’m guessing this is due to  the F2F students having access to the online lecture podcasts) and I wanted to have another way for them to participate if they can’t (or won’t) attend in person.

How I did it:

Aside from the usual software (PowerPoint, using presenter view; ArcGIS; Chrome browser) I used Adobe Connect for the webinar.  I have used this for about two years for holding online office hours, so I was quite comfortable with setting it up.  I presented using my own laptop (Dell Latitude E6520) and used my own newly-purchased wireless lavalier microphone.  After consulting with my amazingly helpful colleagues through the U of T Educational Technology Interest Group, as well as a professional sound engineer (a friend of a friend), I decided to go with the Sennheiser ew100 G3 system.  It worked very well, although the sound today was a bit muddy.  I think this is mainly a matter of my learning the correct settings, especially mic sensitivity.  I can also increase the sound quality settings in Adobe Connect next time, which takes a bit more bandwidth, but may be worth trying.  I used my iPad (3rd generation) with the Adobe Connect app so I could see how the webinar looked from the students’ perspective, and it was easier for me to check for online questions without having to keep switching windows on my laptop.  I didn’t go so far as to monitor the audio this way, but will do so next time (at least to check the quality).

How it went:

Really well!  I had about 15 students watching online, and they were able to ask questions and use the chat window to talk with each other (this was minimal and not distracting). I got some very positive feedback and will definitely be doing this again.  I’m really pleased that my online students now have the option of participating in a live lecture.

Student view of the webinar
Student view of the webinar
Instructor view of the webinar
Instructor view of the webinar

Teaching GIS online requires a diverse skill set

I am considering teaching an online GIS course this fall. The course proposal is currently winding its way through various approval processes and so, in the meantime, I am devising a work plan for preparing the course. I’m really excited at the prospect of teaching online, and I’m optimistic that this teaching mode can offer real advantages for learning over face-to-face, at least for some students (I have proposed to teach the same course in both traditional and online modes, so students will have their choice).

As I begin to plan what needs to be accomplished over the next few months in order to prepare my online course, I have realized that it is a daunting task. There are three main areas I need to work on, each with its own set of required concepts and skills: content, pedagogy, and technology. Yes, anyone teaching virtually anything these days has to work on those, but here I am going to address how they specifically relate to teaching GIS online.

Content

I have written before about curriculum design, textbooks, training vs. education, and working through an inventory of topics using tools such as the Geospatial Technology Competency Model and the UCGIS GIS&T Body of Knowledge. I will only add here that teaching in a discipline that is so technology-dependent is both a blessing and a curse: rapid changes to the field keep things relevant and exciting but, because the software and methods change so often, a significant amount of an instructor’s time has to be spent trying to stay current, both for their own professional development and for the sake of their courses and students. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining, and it’s something that anyone teaching in this area must do, regardless of whether it’s online or in person or a hybrid of both. It keeps things fresh and interesting for both me and my students, but it does require a substantial amount of time.

Pedagogy

Beyond the GIS-oriented pedagogical considerations mentioned above, there are others specific to teaching online. I have just finished reading e-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Clark and Mayer (3rd ed., 2011) and it has been extremely helpful. Their book is based on years of empirical evidence gathered from their own work (Mayer has been especially prolific and influential) and others about how people learn (or don’t) with multimedia. First, I was relieved to see that I have actually been using some of their recommended methods for years, which I have found through other readings (e.g., Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology) or just from experience and instinct. However, there is much more I can adopt as well. A detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this discussion, but I think anyone considering online teaching should familiarize themselves with the basic principles of Mayer’s cognitive theory of multimedia learning (e.g., Mayer 2005; Clark and Mayer 2011) and other studies of teaching online in general (e.g., Balram and Dragic 2008; Nazari and Webber 2008; Ary and Brune 2011). Other pedagogical concepts to explore are problem-based learning (e.g., Drennon 2005; Pawson et al. 2006) and blended/hybrid learning (e.g., Olapiriyakul and Scher 2006; Detwiler 2008) and the increasing popularity of the flipped classroom. It’s certainly an exciting time for the development of technology-supported learning in its various forms.

Technology

Teaching GIS in general, and certainly online, requires more than a passing familiarity with a host of technologies. I have been thinking about the software I use, or might use for my online course. Just off the top of my head, the list includes: PowerPoint; Adobe Photoshop, Captivate, Presenter, Premiere, and Connect; Blackboard; and Citrix XenApp. I also have to understand issues concerning bandwidth, mobile devices, podcasting, open learning, etc. As a technophile/early adopter, I love learning about all these things, but it takes a lot of time. For every technologic tool or solution, I have to be mindful of the actual benefits for improving communication, teaching, and learning and judge whether the invested time will be worth it.

Instructors need support

I look forward to launching my online course, and to exploring the potential of integrating technology and pedagogy in all of my courses, whether they are face to face, blended, or completely online. I am fortunate that my university has a Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation (CTSI) that, as the name implies, is a great resource for professional development and teaching support. I think all universities that are expanding their online and blended teaching have to recognize the necessary level of investment in time, energy, and resources in order to make the most of these new approaches. Even with great resources such as the CTSI, it seems as though faculty are often still left to their own devices to learn about and, hopefully, master the skills, methods, and concepts of effectively teaching with technology. This jack-of-all-trades approach is fun for me, but many faculty do not share my love of technology. Georgina and Olson (2008) list a number of impediments to the integration of technology and pedagogy, as well as some great recommendations, such as providing release time for instructors to acquire training, arranging technology mentors, and supplemental pay increases for faculty who are most involved in teaching with technology (I like the sound of that!).

Universities need to develop and maintain a team of experts in graphic art, 3D modeling, animation, video production, web design, presentation skills, and instructional design to work with faculty to develop rich content for delivery in class and online. A Hollywood director is not expected to create a finished movie, complete with soundtrack, special effects, lighting, cinematography, etc., all by themselves. Likewise, instructors should not be expected to produce high quality, digital learning content and use effective new technology-oriented teaching methods all by themselves.

I’m looking forward to teaching online, and will no doubt be writing more on the subject in the future!

 

References

Ary, Eddie J, and Christopher W Brune. 2011. “A Comparison of Student Learning Outcomes in Traditional and Online Personal Finance Courses.” Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 7 (4): 465-474.

Balram, Shivanand, and Suzana Dragic. 2008. “Collaborative spaces for GIS-based multimedia cartography in blended environments.” Computers & Education 50: 371-385. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2006.07.004.

Clark, Ruth Colvin, and Richard E. Mayer. 2011. e-Learning and the Science of Instruction; Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. 3rd ed. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Detwiler, James E. 2008. “Comparing Student Performance in Online and Blended Sections of a GIS Programming Class.” Transactions in GIS 12 (1) (February): 131-144.

Drennon, Christine. 2005. “Teaching Geographic Information Systems in a Problem-Based Learning Environment.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 29 (3) (November 1): 385-402.

Georgina, D, and M Olson. 2008. “Integration of technology in higher education: A review of faculty self-perceptions.” The Internet and Higher Education 11 (1): 1-8.

Mayer, Richard E., ed. 2005. The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nazari, Maryam, and Sheila Webber. 2008. Conceptions of geospatial information in online distance learning GIS programs. In IADIS International Conference e-Learning 2008, ed. Miguel Baptista Nunes and Maggie McPherson, 6:161-168. Amsterdam, The Nethelands.

Pawson, Eric, Eric Fournier, Martin Haigh, Osvaldo Muniz, Julie Trafford, and Susan Vajoczki. 2006. “Problem-based Learning in Geography: Towards a Critical Assessment of its Purposes, Benefits and Risks.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 30 (1) (March 1): 103-116.

GeoDesign as a teaching concept

I recently had the good fortune to attend a GeoDesign workshop presented by Bill Miller, who is the Director of GeoDesign Services at Esri, and one of the people credited with coining the term. It was a fascinating morning, and it was a reflection of how important this topic is becoming that Alex Miller, president of ESRI Canada (and no relation to Bill), attended. I had been hearing more and more about GeoDesign, but only had a vague notion of what it was, and wondered if it was just the latest buzzword.

While it may be true that it is relatively new and trendy, as I listened to Bill’s presentation the concept just “clicked” for me, especially when he put it in the context of Carl Steinitz’s GeoDesign framework (previously called the model of landscape change). I instantly saw the value of using this as a framework for teaching problem solving to my GIS students.

After the workshop, I realized that there has been an explosion of activity related to GeoDesign, which made me feel a bit late to the party. If you’re like me, a great place to start is the GeoDesign Summit website, which has a number of recorded presentations from the conferences. As I watched them, I was struck by the sheer number of examples of GeoDesign given by the speakers. I think there are several reasons for this: the definition of GeoDesign is still evolving, and it is easier to define it by example; these examples provide dramatic proof of the relevance and power of GeoDesign and each presenter wants to make that clear; most speakers tend to talk about what they know, and so approach the topic from their own area of expertise and how they are using GeoDesign; and, by providing so many examples, each participant is hoping that others will see overlaps with their own discipline, which will then promote cross-fertilization of ideas. It is fascinating to watch as all of these big thinkers hash out ideas. Another great resource is the comprehensive GeoDesign Bibliography created and maintained by Matt Artz.

From what I have seen and read so far, I have found some useful nuggets. Tom Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, said that “Geography looks at the way the world is and the way the world was. Design looks at what could be” (The What and Why of GeoDesign). I think GeoDesign is still many things to many people, but I’m struck by the number of definitions and explanations of GeoDesign that mention the words “integrate” and “collaborate”. This seems to get at the heart of it, as exemplified by Kimon Onuma’s presentation Getting Real with GeoDesign and BIM and the concept of “BIM Storms” where a group of people collaborate in real time to design one or more buildings in a short period of time through the integration of a number of tools, including GIS.

The appeal of GeoDesign as a teaching concept stems from its grounding in high-level, conceptual thinking. When teaching GIS/GIScience, it is easy for students to lose sight of the forest for the trees; we spend a lot of time discussing specific tools and how they are used to solve small, specific problems (“How far away is it? How many are found in this area?”). GeoDesign provides an opportunity to show students how to approach a problem at a conceptual level, how to evaluate the process, how to include different types of reasoning (e.g., inductive, deductive, abductive), while also providing opportunities to drill down at each stage of the process to examine what tools should be used, how, and why. One of the best quotes I’ve seen about GeoDesign was from James Fee, who contends, “I think we’ve all been doing GeoDesign…for years, even decades, but not as a whole concept to implementation practice” (ESRI, 2010).

I find it interesting that, what is now referred to by Bill Miller as Carl Steinitz’s “GeoDesign Framework”, was originally created as a framework of theory for education (specifically for landscape architects) (Steinitz, 1990). Bill Miller mentioned during his talk that students need to learn methods for problem-solving, and that the GeoDesign framework is one such method. I agree, and I’m sure that many instructors, such as those at Northern Arizona University who have recently started a blog GeoDesign in the Curriculum, are contemplating how they might incorporate GeoDesign into their curricula. Many students will be excited by the possibilities of GeoDesign and its potential for integrating, collaborating, and connecting the past, present, and future.

References

ESRI 2010. Changing Geography by Design. Geography. Redlands, California: ESRI Press.  http://www.esri.com/library/ebooks/GeoDesign.pdf 

Steinitz, Carl, Peter Rogers, Garrett Eckbo, Anne Spirn, and Angus Hills. 1990. A Framework for Theory Applicable to the Education of Landscape Architects ( and Other Environmental Design Professionals ), Landscape Journal 9 (2): 136-143.

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

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John Snow and serendipity

I was skimming through my Twitter stream this morning and came across a tweet from the intrepid Michael Gould (@michael_d_gould) mentioning David J. Unwin’s digital workbook “Numbers aren’t nasty: a workbook of spatial concepts“.  I’m a big fan of David Unwin’s Geographic Information Analysis (co-authored with David O’Sullivan), so I downloaded the workbook (it’s free) and the accompanying data sets.  I was intrigued to see that this included coordinate data for John Snow‘s map of cholera deaths.  Virtually every GIS student learns about the pioneering epidemiological work John Snow did using spatial analysis of cholera deaths, tracing them to the infamous Broad Street pump.  I thought I would be clever and quickly map them using Google Fusion Tables.  What I soon realized was that the coordinates were created using an arbitrary system that placed them somewhere in Africa and, as is often the case, realized that I needed to slow down, take a closer look at the data and what I was doing, and see what was going on.

First, I did some quick online searching, and was surprised that I wasn’t able to find a georeferenced version of the data.  So I went back to the data at hand.  In Unwin’s workbook, he states that the points were originally “digitized at the request of Professor Waldo Tobler (UCSB) by Rusty Dodson of the US National Center for Geographic Information Analysis from a reprint of Snow’s book On Cholera (Oxford University Press, London)”. Since the original data had an arbitrary coordinate system, I used ArcGIS 10 to georeference an image of the map using the Bing Maps hybrid base map, and then spatially adjusted the points (both deaths and pump locations) to match the image.  I then used the ArcGIS Online topographic base map to create the following figure:

Locations of water pumps and cholera deaths
Locations of water pumps and cholera deaths from John Snow's map (the Broad Street pump is the blue symbol at the center of the map)

 

As this is based on a sketch map scanned from a book, all locations should be treated as approximate.

I must admit that I have sometimes neglected to mention John Snow and his work in my introductory GIS course (for shame!), so now I have some actual GIS data and a modern map to show in class.  It may also turn into a good opportunity to introduce web mapping as well.  After I saw Michael Gould’s original tweet, he and I discussed how we had both been meaning to find the replica Broad Street pump in London (tip: the street is now called Broadwick).  Naturally, Mike tweeted a link to an ArcGIS Explorer map of pump locations which of course inspired me to put my version of the pump and death locations on there as well:


View Larger Map

I hadn’t used ArcGIS Explorer much, and intend to incorporate it into my courses, so this was a good excuse to try it out.  Once I got it on the web, I did another search and found that someone else had already put a similar version online – oh well!  At least I learned a lot by going through this exercise, and what else was I going to do on a Friday afternoon?

I should also mention that I came across a simple but very interesting example of spatial analysis of the data done by what appears to be a student named John Mack.  His web page inspired me to start fooling around with the kernel density tool, and I came up with a quick example:

Density of cholera deaths from John Snow's map
Density of cholera deaths using a 100 m kernel density function

I will be the first to say I made this as a quick example, and would not put too much faith in it.  However, I may spend more time on this later, as it might be a good data set for illustrating density analysis.

So, there you have it.  Out of one tweet I read this morning came an entire day’s activity and some data and figures I can use in one of my GIS courses.  Twitter can eat up a lot of time, but sometimes I come across little gems that can be really interesting and useful.

Update: I have created a map data layer package of the pump and death locations that can be downloaded from ArcGIS.com.

Update: I have created zipped shapefile and KML versions of the files as well, both in GCS (WGS84).  In both versions, there are three files: one file contains one point location of the Broad Street Pump, one files includes all of the pumps in the original map (including the Broad Street pump) and one file contains the cholera deaths recorded on the map.

 

Course evaluations: valuable, unvarnished feedback

I just read through the course evaluation forms that students filled out for the courses I taught last winter.  There is always a delay before instructors are allowed to see them, both to prevent any rash retribution on the part of a disgruntled professor, but also so they can first be read by the student union (the results are summarized and posted online in an “anti-calendar” for prospective students to read) and by our front office staff (summaries are added to our file as part of our annual performance review).  I am still amazed that some faculty never bother to even read them.  Over my past 10 years of teaching, the evaluations, and particularly the “comments” section where students can augment the “bubble numbers” with their own thoughtful observations, have been by far the most useful and influential feedback I receive.  I am usually the first one to pick them up when they become available, as I almost always modify my courses in some way over the summer based on that feedback.  I can only speculate as to why someone would not want to read them: either they are so confident in their teaching abilities that they think feedback is unnecessary, or they are worried about what they will read because they are not at all confident in their abilities.  Yes, reading them can sometimes come with a serving of humble pie, but ignoring negative feedback isn’t going to fix anything.

When I hand out the course evaluation forms near the end of each term, I make sure to tell students that I have read every single form that I have ever received (now approaching 2,000) and that every year I make changes to my courses based on their feedback.  Making this clear to students is crucial to the whole exercise; if they know that their comments will not only be read, but taken seriously, they are much more inclined to put more thought into their responses.  I then encourage them to add comments, and prompt them with some questions they might consider answering, such as:

  • What did you think of the textbook? assignments? use of technology?
  • What is something you liked about the course, and one thing that could be improved?
  • What advice would you give students considering taking this course?

So what did I learn from my latest round of evaluations?  There are usually a range of opinions, so I have to try not to overreact to one or two comments, but there are some things I think are generally true:

  • Students like that I am enthusiastic, organized, and try to make class fun. I am fortunate that I have a job that doesn’t seem like work to me (at least most of the time).  I enjoy what I do, I do have genuine enthusiasm for the material, and I have found that I have enough experience now that I can relax more in class, and try to keep things fun and interesting.  I work hard at keeping the material organized, both for my own sake and theirs, and I’m glad students appreciate that.
  • Students like how I make use of technology.  I spend a lot of time on my PowerPoint slides, and I’m glad that students notice, and appreciate my efforts.  Last year I experimented with online office hours with Adobe Connect, and created some video demonstrations of software using Adobe Captivate.  I got a lot of positive comments about these, and plan to do more in the future.
  • Students don’t like the textbook, which many complain is too expensive, and does not provide enough explanation of certain topics.  I have written about textbooks I have taught with, and my search for the perfect textbook, so I sympathize with my students.  I am now considering abandoning the textbook altogether and using online material instead, but I have to think this through, as it means they would not have as structured an introduction to the material, and it would certainly be more work for me.  I am tempted though, as I curate a lot of web content already, and they would have access to the latest available content.  I will likely write more on this in the future.
  • I get mixed reviews on my assignments.  Some say they like the fact that they are interesting, relevant, and help them learn how to use the software, but others find them very time-consuming.  I tell students that the concepts and software are complex, and that the only way to actually gain a new skill is to sit down and do it themselves, and that this takes time.  However, my current approach to assignments is to have fewer of them (I have four over a 12 week term) and incorporate more than one topic.  Some students like this, as I usually give them two or three weeks to work on it, and they like the flexibility this gives them in terms of time management.  Other students have requested I try using more assignments that are shorter and confined to one topic.  I have often debated this, and am currently considering trying a bit of both; shorter assignments for fairly self-contained topics (e.g., projections, geocoding) but longer assignments that would allow for more problem solving (e.g., raster and vector overlay)

I could certainly add more, but the above are the main highlights from this past term.  I always enjoy the opportunity to reflect on student feedback and how it relates to various teaching methods.  The next challenge is to assess what I can realistically change in the time available, caution myself against change for its own sake, and be grateful that students care enough to provide me with thoughtful, useful, and unvarnished comments.

Paper maps for driving not dead yet

Paper map

I was recently contacted by a Toronto Star reporter for an article she was writing about paper maps vs. GPS for navigation (Map publishers facing a rough road, Aug. 19, 2011).  She was asking whether I thought people used or needed paper maps anymore and if they would still be around in five years.  I thought it was an interesting question, and told her how I still have a collection of paper maps in my own car. They almost never get used, as I tend to rely on my iPhone (I quite like GPS Drive by MotionX, as I can pay as I go, one month at a time), but I keep them there (along with a good old-fashioned compass) just in case my phone stops working.  I love technology, but I’m not ready to rely on it 100%, especially when I’m driving into parts unknown, where cellular coverage may be spotty or non-existent.  Yes, the iPhone assisted GPS will work without a cell signal, but the navigation and mapping apps won’t be able to download data, which makes the GPS location pretty much useless.  One way to get around this is to download map data ahead of time, using apps like Avenza’s PDF Maps, which I plan to test the next time I’m travelling outside of Canada and want to use my iPhone’s GPS without incurring exorbitant data roaming charges.

To get back to the reporter’s question, I predicted that paper maps would not go away anytime soon.  Even though we all tend to rely on technology more all the time, and mobile map usage is growing fast (the number of smartphone map users increased 75 percent over the last year in the U.S. according to a recent comScore report) I pointed out that only about one third of Canadians and Americans own a smartphone (32.8% in Canada, 32.2% in the U.S. according to another recent comScore report).  I mentioned that this is a form of digital divide, since smartphones are more costly to buy and use, and that we can’t assume that everyone has one.  We also talked about built-in GPS options on new cars but, again, this is still a relatively premium option.  I imagine the adoption rates will increase over the next few years (for both smartphones and built-in GPS), but I still can’t see a day where I will throw out my trusty paper maps and compass – they don’t get used much anymore, but I’m still glad I have them!

Engaging new GIS students with web mapping

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

Not that long ago, I considered “web mapping” an advanced topic, best left to be taught in a senior GIS course.  While that can still be the case, depending on how it is defined, the fact is that creating a map of your own data on a web page has become something anyone can do in a matter of minutes.  This was recently made clear to me when I decided to find out what Google Fusion Tables were, as I had been hearing a lot about them on Twitter and Google+ (particularly by the prolific and informative  Mano Marks, Senior Developer Advocate, Google Inc.).  I was amazed that I was able to geocode a list of one hundred postal codes using Google Fusion Tables less than five minutes after I learned what Fusion Tables even were.  I was struck by how useful this would be for my introductory GIS course to quickly get students’ attention, establish the relevance of what they would be learning, and promote discussion of several topics that would be covered in the course, including data input, map design, coordinate systems, projections, and interpretation and analysis of geographic data.

In the past, I have asked students to anonymously provide their postal codes on the first day of class so that I could geocode them in ArcGIS and then use this as a launching point for a discussion on geocoding, the spatial resolution of postal data, and what might be interpreted from their locations.  Now I see using Google Fusion Tables as a way to take this a step further, by allowing students to try it themselves and see how easy it is to collect data and create their own web map.

Students are already familiar with web maps in general and, likely, with Google maps in particular.  They already understand and appreciate the power of web maps.  My hope is that the simple act of creating their own custom-made Google map with their own data will empower them.  In other words, they will realize that they can do this themselves, and embed the results in any web page.  They can now move from passively mapping addresses in the standard Google Maps interface to more proactively mapping their own data in their own way.

With this simple exercise, students can see geography in action; how data can be collected,  mapped, and then analyzed and interpreted.  They can start to think spatially and analytically: How many students live within 1 km of the classroom?  How many live more than 10 km away?  What can they say about the points – are they clustered? Random? A bit of both? Does distance affect the pattern (e.g., clustered close to campus, but more random with increasing distance)?

Students can also be encouraged to critique the results of this web mapping exercise: Is there a legend?  Is there much flexibility in choice of symbology?  What do they like or dislike about the Google base map?  How does scale affect the data displayed and the representation of it?  If we zoom in and out from the local to the regional, national, and international level, how does the look of the map change?  This is a great way to introduce map projections and their scale-dependence (i.e., that different projections are appropriate for different scales).  Since I will not have introduced the concept of geocoding beforehand, I can ask them how Google “knows” where to place the points for the postal codes.  This will get them thinking about data sources and the “behind the scenes” data processing that goes on in order to make a seemingly simple map.

My approach has always been that, since many of my students will only take one GIS course, the main emphasis of that course should be on learning to create a well-designed and useful map, as that is likely to be the most useful skill for them.  My traditional assumption, which I now realize is rather old-fashioned, is that the maps they would want to create would be printed or perhaps used in a PDF file created for a report.  The reality is that the more likely medium they will want to use is the web.  Even the most casual mappers will want to share something online and, by teaching them how to do this early in their first GIS course, I believe this will give them a sense of empowerment and motivation that will, in turn, help them become more engaged with the course material.  To be sure, more complex web mapping is still something that is more appropriate for an advanced class (and a different instructor) but introducing some of the fundamental capabilities early on can provide a great opportunity for getting new GIS students interested in mapping and geographical analysis.
 

P.S. I realized after I posted this that I hadn’t actually included my little test case, so here it is: