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Monday, November 21, 2011

Teaching Yourself GIS vs. Being "Led"

I learned about a URISA-hosted seminar titled "Maps in the Cloud" held last week (Nov 17). The details on the $20 session are:
Bring your WI-FI enabled laptop to participate in a hands on workshop showing you how to create intelligent web maps without having any GIS software installed on your computer. Esri technical staff will lead participants through a series of exercises that utilize the latest capabilities of ArcGIS.Com.
I found a very experienced GIS person who attended. He posted the map he made on his blog.

@Geotrek's Picture from Event
I don't have any issue with the fee. What I wonder is how many GIS professionals would prefer to be "led" through this new technology versus those who'd prefer to "teach themselves." I had a sneaking suspicion this workshop would be well-attended and a tweet from @Geotrek confirmed it was.

I was confident in that hunch in part based on a totally unscientific poll I took at NEURISA in October. I suggested that Google Fusion Tables are a key technology GIS professionals will need to know going into 2012. When I asked how many of the 100 people in the room had "played with" this free technology about seven people raised their hands. Perhaps if I asked about ArcGIS.com I'd have gotten a slightly more hands, but I didn't ask.

I suggested in a Directions Media podcast that "teaching yourself" is an important skill for a successful GIS career. I was thinking specifically of being able to master new technologies or ideas without a long, expensive course or any course at all. I suspect that even novice GIS users could teach themselves the basics of ArcGIS.com. Esri has worked hard to make the interface simple and there's a big push for ArcGIS.com use in the classroom. Further, a custom-skinned version is the heart of the U.S. government's new geoplatform.gov. Why then would GIS professionals need to have their "hands held" through a workshop?

Over the weekend of NEARC, when I posed this question, a GIS professional explained that perhaps users of "real GIS" aka desktop GIS, think ArcGIS.com is just "a toy." (I've heard the same said about Google Fusion Tables...) The respondent went on to suggest current Esri users do not think ArcGIS.com is applicable to their "work."

When I pondered why professionals will in fact attend this event, I decided they don't need the hand holding, but they prefer the handholding. That raises the question of "Why?" I can think of two main reasons. First off, working GIS professionals may not not have the luxury of paid time to explore such things. Times are tight and they have to spend 100% (or more) of their time doing their current jobs. Setting aside a dedicated morning to focus on a topic, off-site, may be the best way to tackle professional development. Second, working professionals may not have the interest in, nor the experience to, teach themselves. It may not be "interesting enough" to do on their own time, nor easy enough to find the many resources online to teach them the same content as is covered in the session cited above. I'm confident content of various kinds (video, blogs, etc.) exist to do just that.

In short, I fear we have a situation where many professionals expect a formal course for new technologies and products in their field. Why? Because that's how they've learned such things in the past! There's always been a "class" - either at school, or online, from an educator or from a vendor. That doesn't sound right in the 2010s.

I don't want to put down formal education (it's served me well both as a students and as an instructor) nor Esri's commitment to edumarketing (which is key to its past, current and future success) but I do want to advocate for more exploration of self-teaching. It offers much more than a new skill; it builds confidence and as I suggested in the podcast, it also builds the type of employee an employer wants to hire.

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