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

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.

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:

My GIS curriculum review: what to leave in, what to leave out

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.

 

Taking an inventory of my teaching material

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).

 

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 academia.edu, 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…

 

Should programming be part of a university GIS curriculum?

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.