Tips on getting started with teaching GIS online

globe_headphones

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.

 

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:

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…