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 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.

 

Mar 312011
 

Every summer, I perform a self-imposed curriculum review of the five GIS courses I teach each year.  I think about the topics included and their sequence, and which course they belong in.  I make notes to myself throughout the year about what topics need work, what examples worked well or fell flat, or what new ideas I want to try out.  Some of these notes are made on hidden slides right in the PowerPoint file (e.g., Edit: break the following slide into three separate slides with a map example for each) and some in a Word file with headings for each course as well as for things like PowerPoint design, workflow, and administration.

Four of the courses I teach are in a sequence: introduction, intermediate, advanced, and a capstone project course (the fifth is an introductory GIS course at the graduate level).  I start out with about 160 students in the first course, and then lose about half with each subsequent course, ending up with about 20 in the capstone course.  The tricky part is trying to decide what students should learn if they are going to take only one GIS course vs. those who take two, or three, or four.  I wish it were as easy as consulting the GIS & T Body of Knowledge and/or the Geospatial Technology Competency Model and following a template, but it’s not that simple.

It seems as though I have three sets of students: those who just want one GIS course, often to satisfy a degree requirement for a “methods” course; those who take two courses, because they have heard that GIS is a marketable skill and hope that two will be “enough” to help them get a job; and those who take three or four, and see GIS as something that has the potential to become a substantial part of their careers (I realize these are generalizations, but I have a hunch they are roughly accurate, although it makes me think I should really conduct a survey).

What are the objectives for an introductory GIS course? When I first started teaching, a colleague of mine told me “just give them enough to make them dangerous”.  I know he was trying to be funny, but I actually took it as a warning and a challenge.  The last thing I wanted was for students, for which this would be their only GIS course, to finish the course  thinking they had a certain mastery of GIS when, as the joke implied, they would be unwittingly making all sorts of egregious errors and assumptions, churning out spurious results and coming to erroneous conclusions, all thanks to me!

If my introductory course really is the only GIS course half of the students will take, then I want to make sure that they are able to: find data sets and judge whether they are appropriate (by knowing about and critically appraising the metadata); choose an appropriate map projection; edit attribute tables and do field calculations; perform spatial and attribute queries; apply spatial problem-solving skills to formulate and execute basic analysis using distance and overlay; and then create a well-designed map that incorporates basic cartographic principles to clearly communicate the information and message they want to convey.  I am trying to be realistic about how much I can fit into a 12 week term and what a student should be able to accomplish once they have completed the course.  All along the way, I try to emphasize the why as much as the how, so that students can make informed decisions at each stage of a project instead of relying on simply remembering a sequence of procedures.  The challenge is to balance the development of functional skills with the creation of a strong theoretical foundation, so that students are well prepared both technically and conceptually.

The topics in the intermediate and advanced courses are not as tightly connected to each other.  For half of the students in the intermediate course, that will be their last GIS course, so I make sure to cover other popular and/or practical skills and topics they might need such as digitizing, geocoding, basic remote sensing concepts, raster analysis, and geoprocessing using ModelBuilder.  My advanced course includes topics such as GPS, terrain analysis, surface interpolation, and GIS design and implementation.

My annual curriculum review is something that I look forward to.  It gives me the opportunity to shake off the day-to-day concerns that often preoccupy me during the school year and take a fresh look at what I can improve for the next time around.  As always, I would love to hear your thoughts – what guides your choice of topics for a given course?

 

Mar 022011
 

One of the courses I’m teaching this term is a senior GIS capstone course, with the simple title GIS Research Project.  Students in this course are wonderful to work with.  They have all taken at least three prior GIS courses, and often cartography and remote sensing courses as well.  Of the approximately 160 students that take my introductory GIS course, roughly 10 percent find their way to this final course.  At the start of this capstone course, I explain that there are only a few lectures, and that none of those will be like my “traditional” lectures in prior courses, where I would be teaching them new GIS concepts or techniques.  Instead, the idea is for them to apply what they have already learned to a project of their choosing in a seminar-style class.  That’s not to say that they are not still learning more about GIS – on the contrary, they learn quite a lot, but they learn most of it from each other.  Many of the things that I emphasize are lower in the Geospatial Technology Competency Model, under workplace and personal effectiveness competencies: creative thinking (research design); planning and organizing (project management); problem solving and decision making; communication, listening, and speaking; critical and analytical thinking; integrity; professionalism; initiative; dependability and reliability; and teamwork.

For many students this is their first time working in a group.  At the start of the course, many of them are anxious about this aspect of the course.  They worry that not all members will pull their weight, or worse, that these other students will drag down their grade.  I tell them that I reserve the right to adjust anyone’s final mark up or down based on performance, which tends to allay their fears.  During yesterday’s class, as I often do, I went around to each group and asked them how things were going, and if they had any questions.  After that, I let them work on their own for the remainder of the class, just checked in with them now and then.  As I was watching them work, I noticed that they were engaging in detailed, nuanced conversations about data sets, models, map design, etc., but what was great to see was that they were also laughing and actually have fun.

I have been hearing more and more lately about the advantages of students working in groups, and plan to try this in other courses.  For example, one suggestion I heard was to let students work in pairs on a GIS assignment, say, in an introductory GIS course.  The idea is that one student is the navigator, reading through and interpreting the assignment, and one is the driver, actually operating the computer.  This allows each of them to act as observer and coach for the other, which makes for a deeper and more enjoyable learning experience.

But back to my capstone course – the students work in our Collaboratory, which has several peninsula tables, with a computer outfitted with a large monitor, so that they can all see what is displayed.  The monitors are on swing-arms that allow students to adjust them as needed.  Students will also often bring their own laptops, which are connected to a wireless network, so that they can look up information, write sections of their report, or run parts of their model, while they all refer to the main screen as well.  This is my second year teaching in the collaboratory.  Previously, we had our classes in a traditional classroom, without wireless access.  This was far from ideal, as I would go around each week to get status reports on their projects, and they had no easy way to show me what they were working on.  Beyond that, they would all be itching to leave class as soon as possible, so they could get to the computer lab to continue their work.  Now, they arrive early and often stay late, as they have a much more conducive work environment.  I really enjoy teaching this course, and look forward to watching students continue to develop their interpersonal and analytical skills, while also having fun in the process.

Photos courtesy of Andrew Malcolm and the Department of Geography and Program in Planning, University of Toronto

Feb 172011
 

If you’re reading this, chances are you are a fellow geonerd, and may have a shelf of GIS books that you have collected over the years (or maybe that’s just me).  One of the great perks of my job is that, from time to time, I get free GIS textbooks sent to me from publishers for my consideration.  I LOVE getting new textbooks, and immediately start flipping through them and thinking about what topics are included, how they are organized, the writing style, the quality of the figures, what’s been left out, etc.  I have a clear conscience about receiving these books because every spring, after my courses are over for the year, I review my GIS curriculum and take a fresh look at what textbooks I’m using and what else I should consider.  I have used six different textbooks in ten years of teaching, so I am certainly willing to give different titles a try, even though switching is a lot of work, as all my reading lists and references to the text in my lecture notes have to be updated.

As much as I love GIS textbooks, I have never found one that met all of my needs for a course.  I know this is a common complaint from instructors.  I think the reason it’s common is not rooted in arrogance (“no one can possibly capture all of my brilliant teaching material in one book”).  My suspicion is that it is because teaching is so personal.  In order to be able to teach something well, you have to really make it your own.  Inevitably, that means that you will develop ideas about what works, what doesn’t, when to introduce certain ideas, and so on.  It’s just really unlikely that some author out there just happens to think the way you do and has turned that into the perfect textbook.

My main complaint with most GIS textbooks is that they are organized according to the old familiar project-oriented approach: a bit on basic map concepts first, followed by data input, management, analysis, and output.  This is a great way to organize content for a reference book, but I have never been convinced that this is a useful way to organize material for the most effective learning.  When I teach, I tend to refer to several sections of a textbook in one lecture, often across several chapters.  This is because I prefer to introduce concepts within the context of a problem-solving example, or to at least link concepts that I think have a natural connection.  When I first started teaching, I made the mistake of thinking that I had to stick to the sequence of topics in the textbook to make it easier for my students to follow.  While this might be true, I found it was quite limiting and, consequently, a bit boring for me and the students.

Every once in a while a student or textbook sales rep. will ask if I have considered writing my own textbook.  While it’s flattering to be asked that, I always say no.  The short version of my explanation is that I think the traditional textbook model is problematic at best, particularly in a rapidly changing technology-oriented field like GIS.  The longer version is something I plan to address in a future post.

Feb 152011
 

This morning, students in my intermediate GIS course wrote their midterm test.  While they were writing, I started thinking about the evaluation process and wondering about ways I could improve it.  In my three lecture-oriented undergraduate courses, students are evaluated using a midterm test, a final exam, and a series of lab assignments.  My traditional approach has been that the test and exam mainly focus on concepts and theory discussed in class, and the lab assignments are meant to evaluate their understanding and use of GIS software.  I find that the test and exam work fairly well, in that I am confident that I am able to accurately measure the level of mastery each student has of the material.  However, the lab assignments are another story.

Typically, my students get 2-3 weeks to complete each assignment.  The assignments are completely digital, including submission and marking (via Blackboard).  At the start of each term, I tell students that it is easy to cheat on the assignments, but then go on to explain why that is such a bad idea.  While I do mention the university’s policy on academic integrity, and mention ethics, the satisfaction that is gained from doing something on your own, and the penaltes if they’re caught, what I actually emphasize most is the practical argument, which I hope will appeal to their logical side if the ethical approach fails.  First, I point out that many of them are taking my GIS courses to gain so-called marketable skills.  I then explain that many job interviews for GIS jobs include a practical test, where they sit you down in front of a computer and ask you to complete some GIS tasks.  I then ask what they will do at that point if they don’t have their friend there to help them?  Even if there isn’t such a test at the interview and they manage to land the job, how far will they get if they have never actually done the work themselves?  Beyond this argument, my main incentive for students is that I do ask lab-related questions on the tests, to try and mitigate any possible benefits student may gain if they cheat on the labs.  A well designed exam will reward those who have done their own work and certainly will not reward those who haven’t.

This all brings me back to the question of testing.  When I took my first GIS course many years ago, part of my final mark was based on a practical lab exam.  It was a very nerve-wracking experience, as it consisted of sitting one-on-one with the professor at a computer for 15 minutes while he asked me to complete a set of tasks.  I can tell you that I worked really hard to prepare for that test!  I did quite well, and have never forgotten it, as I know that it was a very effective testing method.  Unfortunately it is not a very efficient testing method.  I was lucky enough to go to a small university with small classes.  There were perhaps 15 people in my class, so it was not a huge time commitment for the professor (although still not insubstantial – say about 4 hours).  In the introductory GIS course that I teach, I had 157 students last term.  At 15 minutes per student, it would take almost 40 hours to test this way, not including any time in between.  Clearly, this is not a practical evaluation method in this situation.  I have thought about using Blackboard in the lab to test them using multiple choice questions but, considering my students are organized into six different lab sections spread over 3 days each week, it would mean having quite a large pool of possible questions if I were to be able to offer six different versions of the test (how many ways can I test their ability to create a buffer?).  For now, I am sticking with my approach of putting questions on the written tests that cover the practical component, but I am always looking for something more effective.  One approach I now use is to make the assignments more open-ended and self-driven, with a full lab report, which really cuts down on cheating (I plan to blog about assignment design in the future).  If you have any ideas, or other evaluation methods that you use, I would love to hear about them.

Feb 112011
 

I thought I would follow up yesterday’s post on ESRI technical certification and my GIS curriculum with a discussion of the UCGIS Geographic Information Science and Technology Body of Knowledge project.  I don’t think that ESRI is in any way intending their certification program to be a model curriculum for the entire field of GIS, but it got me thinking about how their requirements fit in with the UCGIS Body of Knowledge (BoK).

First, a little about model GIS curricula.  When I first started teaching GIS full-time back in 2001, I was so happy when I discovered the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) core curriculum in GIScience – first the 1990 version (still faithfully hosted by Brian Klinkenberg at UBC), and then the revised version.  I was in the process of developing my teaching material for several courses, and really wanted to model my own curriculum after something authoritative, and what better than the NCGIA?  Their core curriculum included actual lecture notes and figures (although the figures were sometimes omitted or hard to find).  The list of contributing authors was impressive, and included some big names in the field: Mike Goodchild, Peter Dana, Albert Yeung, Jacek Malczewski, Kenneth Foote, David Unwin, and many others.  I adapted some of this material for my own lectures but quickly realized I would have to refer to a wide variety of other sources in order to make sure I really knew what I was talking about, and had found the best way to explain a particular topic.  Nonetheless, it was a great source for thinking about the organization of topics, as well as a great reference.  Unfortunately, the last update to the core curriculum was August 13, 2000.

I’m not familiar with all the details, but my understanding is the core curriculum project was handed over to the UCGIS who agreed to carry it forward.  The list of the UCGIS editors, contributors, and board members is truly impressive.  They started on it in 1998 and the first version of the Body of Knowledge was published in 2006.  I had been monitoring their progress before it was published, read the “straw man” version, and ordered a copy of the BoK as soon as it was finally published.  I have to say that my initial reaction was one of disappointment.  What was included was great – there was a well thought out list of topics and goals.  What was missing was the actual substantial content I thought would be included, as was done with the NCGIA core curriculum.  I realize that getting as far as they did was a huge feat, and I in no way want to detract from their accomplishment, but I had envisioned something more like the book Geographical Information Systems: Principles and Applications (known as the Big Book of GIS) by Maguire, Goodchild and Rhind, 1991, (which weighed in at over 1000 pages).  However, I certainly still refer to the current BoK and look forward to the planned second edition.

This all brings me to what I wonder is the bigger question: is it even feasible to try and have a core curriculum?  Has the field of GIS become so wide and varied, and does it change so quickly, that any attempt to capture it all in one curriculum is becoming unrealistic?  It took 8 years to publish the first UCGIS Book of Knowledge – how much had changed during that time, and is this a constantly moving target?  Or is there still indeed a “core” set of concepts that define the discipline?  I would love to hear your thoughts, and will likely write more on this topic in the future.

Resources:
Ann Johnson provides an excellent summary of the various core curriculum projects here: http://www.esri.com/news/arcuser/0706/curricula.html