May 062011

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…


Apr 152011

This morning I spent 3 hours watching my students write their final exam.  It’s a strange experience, as I want them all to do well, but know that some will and some won’t, for a whole host of reasons.  You might think that spending 3 hours pacing around a room might be dull (and I admit sometimes it can be), but I usually find myself a bit on edge.  Stressed is too strong a word, but I definitely have some nervous tension.  Why?  One reason is that the students are stressed, which tends to rub off on me.  Another reason is that I always wonder if I have made the test too difficult or too easy.  In a 3 hour exam, if all of the students are still there at the very end, some on the verge of tears, then I can only conclude that I made it too long and/or too difficult (when I first started teaching, this happened more than once).  If they all leave after the first hour of a three-hour exam, with big smiles and a spring in their step, then I probably made it too short and/or too easy (this doesn’t happen too often).  I always remember chatting with a senior colleague, when I was still a rookie and he was on the verge of retirement, who told me that after all his years of teaching he still could never be sure how a particular group of students would do on a test.  At this stage, I usually have a fairly good idea, but you still never know for sure.  I design my exams to take about 2-2.5 hours to complete and I give them 3, so that time is not a factor in their performance.  Others may think differently, but I feel I can adequately survey their knowledge of the course in that time, and I know that students appreciate this approach.

Another source of tension comes from the fear that I have made some egregious and undiscovered error when I created the exam.  Sure enough, two minutes after the students started this morning, one of them politely pointed out to me that questions 2 and 3 were identical – aaagh!  I hate it when I do that!  I must have proofread that exam five times before submitting it for duplication, but still managed to miss the mistake.  It wasn’t a huge problem, as excluding one of the duplicates made the exam out of 77 instead of 80, but it still bugs me.  Fortunately, those errors are rare (really!).  At this point, I should mention that, if you are a former, current, or future student of mine, I don’t want you to think that I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown during every exam – I do manage to keep myself together.  :-)

On a more positive note, the best part of a final exam (for me at least) is when I know I’ve set a reasonable exam, and a student finishes, confidently hands it in, thanks me for the course, and wishes me a great summer.  I love it when students do well, and it’s so satisfying when it’s clear that they liked the course, learned the material, and did well enough on the exam that they have a smile on their face at the end.

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.

Ann Johnson provides an excellent summary of the various core curriculum projects here: