May 022013
 

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.

 

Dec 142012
 

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.

Nov 182011
 

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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Sep 092011
 

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.

Aug 162011
 

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:

Jun 272011
 

I have now completed a systematic inventory of my teaching material as part of my GIS curriculum review and renewal process.  It has been a challenging and enlightening exercise, as I forced myself to take a hard look at what I have, as well as what’s missing.   The result is I can now make more confident and informed decisions about my curriculum, particularly what topics I should add, what changes are realistic in terms of time available during each course as well as the limits of my own abilities, and what teaching goals I’m trying to achieve.

In my last post, I mentioned three phases to my curriculum renewal, and I have now completed the first two. The first phase was making an organized list of the topics I already teach, and related “Tools and Skills” and supporting “References”.  I have always emphasized the connection between theory and practice by making explicit connections in my lectures between an abstract concept and how it is applied using specific tools in the software.  However, it was interesting to see that there are some topics that could really use more of this.  That is, I spend a fair amount of time on a particular concept or topic in class but then have not adequately followed through so that students get enough experience trying it out for themselves.  I have noticed these gaps before, but now have a much better idea of where the weak spots are.  On a more positive note, it’s also nice to know which sections are well covered in this regard.

For each lecture topic, I went through all of my textbooks and filled in the “References” section with the key chapters and/or sections (something I’ve been meaning to do for ages).  I started with the books and chapters I had been using for years, but the most beneficial part was taking a fresh look at books that I had let gather dust on a shelf for too long.  Consequently, I have rediscovered some great material I can use to broaden my own understanding as well as add more depth and alternative viewpoints to my lectures.  This list of references is really for my own benefit now, but will likely be edited and turned into a reading list for students.  I had originally planned to add in references to scientific papers that I want to use as examples and case studies. However, that was proving to be quite time-consuming and I have decided to leave that for the last phase, when I will actually revise each topic’s content.

The second phase was to systematically go through the UCGIS GIS&T Body of Knowledge, the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM), ESRI’s list of required skills for technical certification (ArcGIS Desktop Associate and Professional), as well as a large pile of textbooks, in order to identify new material that should be included.  I found this to be both tedious and rewarding.  I started with the Body of Knowledge.  Even though the authors specifically state that they don’t expect any one instructor or even a department’s curriculum to be able to cover all of it, it is still a humbling experience to read through every section and realize how much I’m leaving out.  However, it was also really enlightening, as it made me think about my teaching goals, and why I include or exclude any particular topic.  I became more conscious of the fact that I take a pragmatic approach, recognizing that the majority of my students are not destined to become GIScientists or GIS specialists.  Thus, I can exclude educational objectives such as “formalize the notion of field using mathematical functions and calculus” (from Topic CF4-3 Fields in Space and Time) as well as the entire section on geocomputation, while focusing on ensuring students are able to “explain the concepts of ‘developable surface’ and ‘reference globe’ as ways of projecting the Earth’s surface” (Topic GD5-2 Map projection classes).

Once I had gone through the UCGIS Body of Knowledge, I then went over the GTCM spreadsheet and realized that there were a lot of similarities, so this didn’t take long.  One very useful difference in the competency model is that, since it is indeed about competencies and not an attempt at describing a body of knowledge, there are things listed such as oral and written communication skills, which I wanted to make sure I also included in my own curriculum.

The last step in phase two was to go through the list of skills for ESRI technical certification for both Desktop Associate and Professional.  I came to the same conclusion as with the Body of Knowledge and the GTCM, namely that I will not be able to teach everything, but that I can get a good sense of how many skills I teach now, and what could be added.  It’s interesting to note that some of their skills are quite specific (“design a file geodatabase”) and others are more vague (“determine the appropriate workflow to complete a given geoprocessing task”).  I have not seen the ESRI exams for either certification but, from the list of skills ESRI provides, my sense is that my curriculum covers many of the Associate skills but only some of the Professional skills. I should note that, while my GIS courses use ESRI software and are geared towards providing students with practical and marketable skills, I have no intention of designing my courses around ESRI certification.  I was curious to see how my curriculum compared to ESRI’s requirements though, and I do think it is only pragmatic to recognize that it would be useful for students to acquire as many of them as is practicable within the academic teaching objectives of the curriculum.

So, now it’s on to phase three, where I will revise existing lectures and assignments and add new ones, guided by the results of my curriculum inventory and review.  This is something that will extend over at least the next few months, and will be discussed in future posts.

 

P.S. yes, the title was inspired by Bob Seger’s Against the Wind – I’ve always liked that line.

 

Jun 012011
 

I have tried many times, in many ways, to create a well-organized and complete inventory of all my teaching material, and so far it has always eluded me.  I want to have one document where I can track all of my lecture topics, concepts, skills, tools, readings, and assignments.  I’m not talking about all of the content itself, just an inventory of what I have that I can use to review, assess, and improve my GIS curriculum (I teach five different GIS courses).  My attempts all seem to end up in MS Word, Excel, or OneNote.  I usually come up with a new, wonderful method, try applying it, and then find that it doesn’t quite work, spend more time noodling around with it, and then eventually abandon it before it’s finished.  Well, I think I may have finally found a way that will work.  Why?  Because it is about as simple as I can possibly make it.  No tables, no charts, no colour coding; just a simple hierarchical set of headings, subheadings, and bullet points in MS Word that match the topics, sections and slides I use in PowerPoint.  It seems obvious to me now, which is probably a good sign.

The highest level in the inventory is the topic (e.g. “Map Projections”).  Within each topic, I decided that there are three main components: theory, implementation, and readings.  The theory portion is organized under each topic as subheadings, and below these, individual bullet points that correspond to one main concept.  The implementation portion is called “Tools and Skills” to recognize that some things can be neatly itemized as specific tools in the software, while others are combinations of tools or other methods.  The last section is a list of references that, for now, is just for me to track where I’m drawing ideas from, but can also be used for proper citation later on and as a reading list for students (likely in a condensed form).

Now that the above framework has been sketched out, the first phase of my curriculum renewal will be to populate the inventory using only my existing material.  So far I have added the headings from my PowerPoint files, which was relatively easy, as I have “outline” slides at the start of each lecture and title slides for each section.  What I’m finding more time-consuming though, is adding in the tools, skills, and references, as I have never properly listed these anywhere before, at least not in a way that was complete and all in one place.

Once I have filled in all of my existing material, the real fun will begin in phase two, where I will systematically go through the UCGIS GIS&T Body of Knowledge, the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (both of which influenced the framework above), ESRI’s list of skills measured for technical certification (I’m just going to start with the ArcGIS Desktop Associate list), as well as a pile of textbooks and workbooks, to identify new material that should be included.  I will also have to edit some existing topics to make room for the new ones.  The challenge here is that each of the sources I’m using to help assess my curriculum has its own way of naming and organizing topics, a sort of conceptual taxonomy.  I will try to use these as much as I can, but inevitably find myself wanting to revise them to make them more easily understood by those new to the field.

The last phase will be to actually create the new lectures and assignments, which is no small task. As tedious and time consuming as all of this may sound, I’m actually finding it very satisfying so far.  I have wrestled with this for years, and finally think I have something that will streamline my workflow, enhance my curriculum content, and give me a simple inventory that is clearly organized and that, hopefully, will help students navigate through all the material in a way that enhances their learning experience.  Beyond that, I just think it’s fun (yeah, I’m a little strange that way).

 

May 152011
 


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.

 

 

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.