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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Students Help Revise Illinois Geological Survey Map User Interface

I received an e-mail this past week from Andrew Phillips of the Illinois State Geological Survey. He gave me permission to share it:
Adena – As I prepare to present a Distinguished Service Award to the individual who recently revised the ILOIL [Illinois Oil and Gas Resources] map service that you reviewed, I thought that you would be interested to know that your student’s feedback, as well as other information that I could distill from your class materials, had a possibly measurable effect upon the revision. I know this because my review of the Beta version received good reviews, and my review would not have been anywhere near as thorough if it weren’t for your class.

The revision, ILOIL 2.0, can be seen at http://moulin.isgs.uiuc.edu/ILOIL/webapp/ILOIL.html.
That out-of-the-blue message made my day, week and perhaps my educational career. The feedback Philips refers to came from my Geography 897G students during in the winter of 2011; that was the last course I taught at Penn State. I didn't know the term for it then, but I'd included authentic learning (working with real world problems) in that graduate course titled "Trends in Geospatial Technology." The course aimed to help working professional identify and evaluate what's new in our field. This particular user interface evaluation project was part of the exploration of new ways to interact with digital maps.

I had my students read up on the basics of user interface design (via this short document) and then turned them loose to use the principles to critique several online maps. I'd solicited the online maps via Directions Magazine's All Points Blog, asking readers who'd want such feedback to "pitch me." I received about a dozen requests and selected three for the class to explore. Philips' was one of them. With the students permission, I shared their observations and suggestions with Philips.

I was very pleased with my students work on these critiques. They stuck to the principles and offered constructive criticism and concrete ideas on how to make the map better. I confirmed that even though these were professionals already working the geospatial field, none of them had ever studied, or thought much about, user interfaces. With just a short intro, and a real world challenge, they learned quite a lot.

And, clearly their work had an impact! Here's the old Web map, the one my students critiqued. Here is the updated one, the one that help its developer/designer win the award noted above.