Tips on getting started with teaching GIS online

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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.

 

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

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.

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).

 

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…