Apr 082011
 

I had my last class of the term on Tuesday and will not be teaching again until January, 2012.  I have been approved for a half-sabbatical which officially starts July 1, but I am gearing up for it already.  The official term is “study leave”, but most people tend to call it a sabbatical.  The first thing to clarify is that “sabbatical” is not a synonym for “vacation”.  No matter how many times I try to explain this to family and friends, they still seem to believe that I will spend more time golfing than working.  If only!  Another sabbatical myth is that many people assume that I must be travelling to some exotic land for an extended stay.  That would be nice but the sad reality is that, in the eternal time-money equation, I will gain time but lose part of my pay.  So when I tell people I’m going on sabbatical, and they automatically ask “Are you going anywhere?” my answer is “yes, my office”.  I’m not complaining though.  A sabbatical is an incredibly valuable opportunity to take a step back from the usual routine and review and refresh my thinking.

So, what am I going to do with all this free time?  My position as a senior lecturer is in what our university calls the “teaching stream”.  This means that I am a full-time, permanent faculty member who specializes in teaching, and I’m not expected to have a research program.  Thus, my study-leave will be spent reading up on the scholarship of teaching and learning, evaluating new teaching methods (e.g., blended learning), revising my teaching material (lectures, assignments, tests), and engaging in professional development (e.g., online courses such as ESRI’s online training and webinars such as Adobe’s Captivate series).  As much as I will miss being in the classroom, I can’t wait to get started!

I am in the planning stages at the moment.  The last time I had a sabbatical I was far too ambitious, even though I had a full year.  The irony was that, because I felt as though I had so much time, I got incredibly ambitious, and then spent a lot of that time stressed because I hadn’t accomplished everything I had planned.  A colleague of mine said he went through the same thing.  This time I’m trying to be more realistic and have been working on prioritizing and scheduling phases and tasks.  My goals range from the big and broad (e.g., curriculum planning, new teaching strategies) to the specific and technical (e.g., redesigning my PowerPoint slides; incorporating ModelBuilder into an efficient workflow for content creation for lectures and assignments; trying to master editing in ArcGIS 10).  I plan to blog about it all along the way, and look forward to sharing what I’m doing.

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 242011
 

Simultaneously published at the ESRI Education Community Blog with thanks to Dr.  Tom Baker, Education Manager, ESRI Inc.

Many people working in the cross-disciplinary field of GIS education may have few co-workers in their organization that they can learn from, brainstorm ideas, or even just “talk shop”.  They may be looking for ways that they can keep up with the latest trends, opinions, and best practices.  A great way to do this is through social media, which allow you to become connected with others who share your interests, resulting in the building of a community around those interests.

The key to community building is to make direct, personal connections with those that have shared interests.  Traditionally, this was done by attending formal meetings and conferences.  However, social media, such as Twitter, have allowed quantum leaps to be made in finding and making these connections.  With searching and filtering, it is easy to quickly find people who share your professional interests.  Once you have found even a few people, by looking at who they follow, you can rapidly build a tightly focused list of people that share your interests.  Not only that, but you will be able to read their posts in real time, which is an amazing way to keep abreast of the latest topics and events.  What many people may not realize is that one of the real powers of Twitter is not the 140 character posts themselves, but the links that people share through their tweets.  When you follow a number of people with similar interests, you have access to their collective intellectual activity, where they share information that might be hard for you to find on your own, such as a blog post they found, or a press release, or a new article on something you may find useful.

While sharing links via Twitter is a powerful source of information that you might not otherwise find, engaging in actual conversations with those you follow is a powerful way to create personal connections that you might not otherwise have.  Twitter, and other social media (including writing comments on blogs), can provide immediate and informal access to people that you might not otherwise be able to meet.  The real benefits of social media come when you begin to share your own thoughts, and begin having conversations with others.  You may then find that some of these people will be attending events that you are also going to.  This can lead to the odd but amazing feeling you experience when you finally meet face to face with someone you have been following and interacting with virtually for months or even years.  While it may seem that social media might compete with, or even replace, face-to-face interactions, the actual effect is to make those interactions more likely, more frequent, and richer.  Membership in associations and attending regional meetings and national or international conferences become more rewarding when you know you will find people there you already “know” online.  By leveraging the power of social media, you can create one (or several) personalized communities around any interest.  This can be an effective way to become more connected to others in your field, which can improve your job performance and lead to a more enriching professional experience.

Useful links:

Esri Education Team on Twitter: http://esriurl.com/edtwitter

Esri GIS in Schools at Facebook:  http://facebook.com/schoolGIS

 

Mar 172011
 

I am currently in the process of re-evaluating my PowerPoint slide designs and templates that I use for my lectures.  As a rough estimate, I have somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 slides spread over many files.  Over the last ten years, I have used the same template for all of them, with minor modifications.  In the next few months, I plan to give them an overhaul – update the designs and screenshots (there are still some Windows XP slides lurking in some of my files, which really stick out now, and not in a good way), experiment with new layouts, graphics, and content.  I have just bought some books that I’m sure will be very helpful in this process, including Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte, Presentation Zen and Presentation Zen Design by Garr Reynolds, and the Non-Designer’s Presentation Book by Robin Williams.  I like to think I’m fairly good at slide design and presentation, but I also know there is much more I can learn.  Some of what they recommend is old hat to me (e.g., less text, more graphics) or cliché (the expression “death by PowerPoint” is so overused but, sadly, still often needed) but I am voraciously reading all of these books to broaden my thinking for presentation design and execution.

So, on the topic of slide design, I thought I would share a couple of tips that might be helpful when using ArcGIS maps in PowerPoint.  First, I design maps specifically for use as slides whenever possible.  If you have the time, your audience will notice the difference (the small fonts and pastel shades often used for print maps just don’t translate well when projected for any kind of larger audience).  In ArcMap, create a custom page size that matches the dimensions you want to use, such as 7.5 x 10 inches for a map that will fill a traditional slide (sometimes I make them 6×10 inches to leave room at the top for a title).  Then set the data frame size to be the same as the page, with no offset or margin.

ArcMap layout for a PowerPoint slide
Custom ArcMap page layout for PowerPoint. Here my map will be 6 inches high to leave room for a title above.

Create your map, keeping in mind that the colour schemes, line weights, and symbol sizes should be slightly exaggerated.  I tend to use somewhat brighter, more vibrant colours for PowerPoint than I would for a print map, especially if the room I will present in won’t be that dark.  You also want the message you are communicating with your map to be easily grasped in a few seconds (this may also be true for print, but I think more so for presentation).  I then export the map from ArcMap as a 200 dpi jpeg file.  If 200 dpi seems like overkill, it often is, but it gives me more flexibility if I later want to enlarge and crop the map.  The trade-off in file size is worth it for me, but you may want to go with a smaller image resolution.  I then add the map into PowerPoint.  I usually cut and paste the legend from ArcMap directly into PowerPoint so I have the option of moving it later if I want to add a label or other text to the map.

When adding attribute tables to PowerPoint, follow the same guidelines for text size you would use for any other slide text.  In other words, the attribute table text should be BIG.  I often see presentations where people fail to do this and I always think “Why show an attribute table if we can’t see the contents?”

Attribute table with large type size
ArcMap attribute table with large type size

When bringing in screenshots of attribute tables or any dialog box into PowerPoint, I first set the size of the window so that I have a predictable, consistent size for every one.  There is an incredibly useful, free utility for Windows called Sizer (http://www.brianapps.net/sizer/), that allows you to set custom window sizes (it does not officially support 64-bit Windows 7, but I have not had any issues).  Since I show a lot of tables and dialog boxes in my lectures, I find it helpful to maintain consistent sizes throughout.

Sizer freeware
Sizer dialog box for setting custom window sizes.

As time-consuming as slide design can be, I really enjoy the process, as I’m always trying to find a simpler, more effective way to tell a story.  I hope the above tips will help streamline your workflow and help you do the same.

 

Mar 082011
 

Like many technology-oriented people, I consider myself to be a bit of a perfectionist.  There’s something about the crisp, exact, digital world that makes me want to fuss over pixel, every detail.  To be clear, I’m not saying this in a braggy, interview way (“My worst fault? Well I guess you could say I’m a perfectionist!”), but more of a confessional way (“Hello, my name is Don, and I’m a perfectionist”).  Yes, I do think that this personality trait has driven me to produce good quality work.  However, I suspect it also often leads to procrastination.

A good example is related to my intention to start using video capture software to create online software demos for my students as a way of introducing them to a new practical assignment.  I have had this on my “to do” list for at least a year, but two things kept holding me back: 1) I was afraid of the time commitment required, since once I started doing them I assumed students would come to expect them all the time  2) I wanted the demos to be perfect.  I bought a copy of Adobe’s eLearning Suite 2, and pecked away at it over a few months, but kept putting off actually creating a demo.  Then, last week, I was going over the lab assignment I was about to give to students on some basic remote sensing principles, using ERDAS IMAGINE (why do they insist on all caps?).  All I wanted them to do was use the spectral profile tools with a small Landsat Thematic Mapper image to explore the digital numbers for various land cover types in different spectral bands.  I have used this assignment before, so thought I would just give it a quick once-over before distributing it.  Then I realized that I hadn’t really spent much time with the new 2010 version of IMAGINE and realized that they had “improved” the interface (if you can call adopting Microsoft’s “ribbon” an improvement, although the old IMAGINE interface did need a big overhaul).  I spent at least half an hour rediscovering where everything was, and quickly realized my students would be pretty lost trying to find their way around the interface, for what was meant to be a brief introduction to IMAGINE.  So, I thought I would try putting together a quick video demo.  I didn’t have much time, so I opened IMAGINE, sized the various windows, started Captivate, and recorded the demo.  It was pretty rough, but I thought to heck with it, just get it out there, so I did.  You can have a look at it here.  It’s not very good – I would like to add a title slide, delete some of the extra captions that come up when I was unnecessarily clicking around window title bars, possibly resize it, and maybe actually have a script (if you have any suggestions, please let me know).  The point though, is that it got done, I gave it to my students and, so far, I have had very positive feedback.  The fact that I didn’t spend much time on it really addressed both of my concerns: I don’t mind if they come to expect them, since I can now do them in a short amount of time.

Just to add some irony, I thought about blogging about this, then hesitated, as I thought I should really make a new, better version, and do all those edits first.  Then it dawned on me: my new approach to teaching and blogging is going to be “quick and dirty, learn as you go” or QADLAYG (I haven’t Googled this phrase, so please allow me to continue to think that I am the first person to ever come up with this idea and acronym). For me, this has been a useful lesson.  I have to push myself sometimes to get beyond the planning, perfectionism, and someday-I’ll-get-around-to-it phase and just start putting something out there.  Of course, I definitely plan to improve, but I no longer plan to wait until something is perfect before I distribute it.  I’m guessing I will be better off getting feedback and learning as I go instead of waiting.

 

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 232011
 

In my last post, I wrote about my search for the perfect GIS textbook and the fact that I have not yet found one (and likely never will).  Today I thought I would mention some books that I particularly like – I am not pretending to give any of them a full, rigorous review, but did want to discuss some elements that I think work well.  To go along with this continuing discussion of GIS textbooks, I have added a list of GIS textbooks to this site.  For now, I will mainly limit my comments to books I have used as required reading in one or more courses, but will also mention some that I just admire.

There are two introductory books I have used in the past, Fundamentals of Geographic Information Systems by Michael N. DeMers, and An Introduction to Geographical Information Systems by Heywood, Cornelius, and Carver (see my book list for full references).  I would put both of these books in the “lighter” category, meaning that they don’t have an abundance of technical information in them.  They are clearly geared towards the absolute beginner, and both are very well written for that audience, including great figures that help illustrate concepts in an accessible way.  Over the years, I have tried using both in my introductory course, but eventually abandoned them for the same reason – namely, that I felt they were a little too light and that I often had to fill in additional information to cover the content I felt was necessary.  This is not to take anything away from either book though, as I think they both accomplish their intended purpose, but I just didn’t feel they meshed with my own course objectives.

There are two books that I have also tried that I would describe as much more technical and densely written: Concepts and Techniques of Geographic Information Systems by Lo and Yeung, and Introduction to Geographic Information Systems by Chang.  I used Lo and Yeung for several years in my introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses.  I liked it because it had (among other things) good discussions of coordinate systems, map projections, and levels of model abstraction and basic database design.  Alas, I received a number of complaints from students over the years, particularly in the introductory course, who felt it was hard to understand.  I really like the content in this book, but I do find that their writing at times is a bit too technical, or makes assumptions about the audience, that made me eventually decide to move to Chang.  I am currently using Chang in all three of my undergraduate courses.  If you are thinking that using either Lo and Yeung or Chang in three different courses seems odd, I did this because I had thought that, since no book would cover everything I was looking for, and I would have to fill in other material anyway, why not try it.  Beyond that, the costs of the books were so high that I thought I would try to give students a break if they took two or three of my courses.  I find that Chang is well written and makes a lot of explicit references to ArcGIS, which I use for my courses.  However, the sections for each topic are surprisingly brief, and the overall length of the book is fairly short, especially for the price.  I think students could benefit from more detailed explanations and examples in order to really understand certain concepts.

A third book I used a few years ago that I would also put in the “advanced” and “densely written” category is Principles of Geographic Information Systems by Burrough and McDonnell.  This book has some great content, some of which is still hard to find elsewhere, such as good coverage of errors, fuzzy sets, and a good amount on raster analysis.  For me, the biggest downfall of this book is the writing style.  Granted, I think it is geared towards a more experienced and advanced GIS student, but there were times in lectures where I would literally put quotes from the book on a PowerPoint slide, and then go through it, line by line, deconstructing and translating each passage into plain language.

Regarding writing style, there are some titles I’d like to mention that I have not used in courses before, but that I have always admired.  While it’s quite old now, one of the first GIS textbooks I ever read was Geographic Information Systems: A Management Perspective by Stan Aronoff.  It was a great way to get started, as it was written in a straightforward, easily understandable style.  I also really like Geographic Information Analysis by O’Sullivan and Unwin.  Even though they cover more challenging topics, particularly spatial statistics, I find that their writing makes these topics much easier to understand.

Some other titles that are not only well written, but beautifully illustrated, are The ESRI Guide to Geodatabase Concepts and Modeling Our World, both by Michael Zeiler, and The ESRI Guide to GIS Analysis, Vols. 1 and 2.  I love looking through as well as reading all of these books.  The figures have been painstakingly thought out and the use of full colour is really effective.

These are just some thoughts I wanted to share on some of the books I have used and/or admired.  There are many I haven’t mentioned, but hopefully will discuss in future posts.  If you have any favorite GIS textbooks, I would love to hear about them.

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