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Monday, September 24, 2012

Integrating Top Tech Skills for Students in GIS/Geography Coursework

eSchool News asked readers to identify the top five tech skills students should learn. Interestingly, few were really tech skills.  In fact, some of them are akin to the soft skills that some argue are more important than "cognitive skills." (Did you listen to This American Life a few weeks back? Highly recommended!) The responses in brief:

1) Digital literacy
2) Critical thinking
3) The Science Behind the Tech
4) Adaptability
5) Courage

The tricky part, as some of the commenters point out, is putting these in the context of technology, rather than other subjects taught in school. What I want to do in this post is provide examples of how to incorporate them into GIS and geography teaching and learning.

Digital literacy, to me, covers everything from protecting one's privacy online, to addressing online bullying, to knowing how to evaluate an online source as authoritative or biased, to appropriately citing the use of other people's content. One great place to practice some of these skills is via evaluating online resources. How good are the datasets available for the city of Atlanta (for use in a GIS)? How do you find them? Evaluate them? Pick the best one for the project at hand? How good are the online maps for regarding the upcoming election (for geography). Who produced them? For what purpose? What is the source data? Is it credible? Was the right projection used? Is there metadata? Part of such an evaluation should always include suggestions for how to improve the content. How could the dataset and/or its metadata be improved? How would you make the map "better?"

Critical thinking is a term I hear a lot in education circles and it's a hot topic in GIS education as well.  What is it exactly? I think of it as making good logical decisions. A toddler might tackle this critical thinking challenge: What goes on first, shoes or socks? In GIS there are number of similar procedural questions: Which data sets are needed to answer the question? What preparation must be done to use them? (Re-project them, merge townships into counties, etc.) What is the best way to display the answer?

The science behind the tech speaks directly to GPS! Using a system is easy; understanding how it works and why it may fail is a bit more difficult and frankly, more valuable! Other technologies students can study and understand: LiDAR, satellite imagery, drones, mapping applications on their cell phones, wi-fi locating, indoor locating, Photosynth...the list is very long. But, if forced to pick one, I'd pick GPS. (I wrote an article on just that topic for Directions Magazine.)

Adaptability refers to empowering students to accept and roll with changes. What if all of the sudden they need to change from using Windows to Linux? Or MapInfo to QGIS? What if a new version of ArcGIS comes out? Do they have the skills to take what they already know and apply them to the new situation? Can they ask the key questions about the new environment? I particularly like classes where students work with more than one GIS package or geography application; it helps hone adaptability.

Courage is needed to try something new and potentially, make a mistake. Younger students tend to be less apprehensive about such things while older students can become self-conscious among their peers. Sadly, older students sometimes lose the excitement of experimenting. I was reminded of this in recent years when the "old" Microsoft Surface came out. I spoke with a vendor who had one in the booth at a conference. He was disappointed that children would happily touch the screen to make the fish swim but their parents were hesitant.

GIS is a great place to practice courage and "risk taking via "what if" questions. Some may be based on project: "What if we have 18 categories on our choropleth map? Is it useful?" Others may be about the software itself: "What happen is if choose this option?" Courage relates to hardware too, and sadly, sometimes means a device may be ruined. I know of several schools that collect old tech precisely for students to disassemble and explore. That type of project relates back to "the science behind the tech" topic above.

I do think it's valuable for GIS and geography instructors at all levels to keep these five skills in mind as they craft their lesson plans.