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Monday, January 30, 2012

Textbooks Revisited

I just don't like textbooks. I used them in school, but when I finally called the shots for my first solo class, I didn't require my students to use the $60 tome. I used the text to help guide me as I was teaching something I'd never formally studied or taught (World Regional Geography). I made sure three copies were available in the school library. Instead, I asked my students to spend $15 on a softcover copy of Goode's World Atlas. I told them by the end of the course it should be dog-eared and have coffee stains. I also told them that they could use the atlas on every exam. That was 1991.

In 2007 I started teaching online in a master's program and the topics were so "cutting edge" no text would have made any sense. Instead, I cobbled together readings, videos, podcasts and student created content as resources. These would be the key "texts" for my students out in the workforce, so I decided, why not use them now? Moreover, GIS technology was changing so fast that even a Web-based resource might be out of date after one semester! I literally revamped the "reading list" each term I taught.

This is all background to explore Apple's recent education announcements (Engadget coverage). It had three parts:
  • the three largest publishers partnered with Apple to provide text books for iOS devices (only)
  • free tools for teachers to create their own textbooks (Mac only, in a closed format)
  • an update to iTunes University (again with a closed format)
I suspect readers have already identified my concern about the closedness of these solutions. My real question, however, is: Do we need text books anymore? I ask that trying to consider K-12 and higher ed across the curriculum, even though my experience is mostly with higher ed in the geography and GIS disciplines.

Why do student, teachers and parents like textbooks? I'll toss out these ideas:
  • set a standard for what is to be learned
  • include key resources like maps and tables in one place
  • include exercises (the best ones also include answers)
  • organize a topic into chapters
  • provide step by step instructions (GIS ones do that a lot)
  • include review questions/quizzes
  • provide an outline for teachers new to the topic
  • authoritative discussion of topic
  • no one ever got fired by used the state approved text book (safety net for instructors)
Why do those same people dislike them?
  • too heavy 
  • too expensive
  • dull text/boring
  • static and dated
  • can restrict teacher creativity
  • don't cover everything a teacher wants/needs to
These responses, I think, apply in many cases to both paper and electronic versions of textbooks, though costs for the latter are still being set. Apple's vision of $14.99 per text, per student, per topic, per year for K-12 may or may not mean a cost savings. The cost of the device (and its maintenance/connectivity) on which it must be run must also be considered, alongside professional development for the instructors who will use them.

A more important question, perhaps, is "How are textbooks used today?" I suspect they are used at least in part as they were used when I was in school: as homework reading collections, in class reading  collections, and collections of "problem sets." That set of uses aligns with, I'd argue, the "sage on the stage" vision of education. I'm hopeful we are moving to at least a smattering of the "guide on the side" approach. I wonder if the textbook makes sense for that approach.

The final concern I have about textbooks is that they, be they paper or electronic, put a topic in a box. They may have aligned websites or links to other multi-media, but they are by definition the "starting point" for teaching and learning. Does that make sense in today's world?

Learners have access to their cell phones (to call Dad and ask about the second law of physics), videos by top notch teachers (detailing how to multiply fractions and how to play Journey's "Don't Stop" on the piano) as well as complete online texts about geospatial data. Why should they start with a single textbook?

I think it's time the "guide on the side" stepped up to really be that guide. Why not have students seek out a way to learn what a (GIS) buffer is and how to create one in whatever software they are using? As much as we are teaching students content, in today's world, we must teach them how to learn. I think ditching the textbook might be a good first step in some situations.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Are We Listening?

In 2007 Steve Walker ran the Philadelphia Marathon. He's a well-known podcaster, the host of Phedipeddations, a podcast about running. Throughout the podcast he referred to the major river that runs through the city, the Schuylkill. He pronounced the river's name as "shy-kill." The rest of the world pronounces it "schoo-kill." It grated on me as I listened intently to his story. How could a well-educated, tech savvy fellow from western Massachusetts not have heard of that river?

In the past months I've kept up listening to "A Very Spatial Podcast," a weekly discussion of GIS/geography topics by three academics. A few weeks back the trio discussed how a Virginia Tech geography class interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi via Skype. The pronunciation of the name did not match my expectation. More recently, that podcast discussed the newly launched Pleiades satellite. Had I not know of the news already, I'm sure I would not have deciphered the name.

It's interesting that all of these "challenging to pronounce" terms are loosely related to geography. The Sckuylkill is a river. Suu Kyi is an activist from Burma. The Pleiades is the name of the "Seven Sisters" star cluster. The satellite project was named after it.

Why did all of these very smart people mispronounce these terms? I have a guess. These are very mobile and Web savvy folks; all of them speak of their smartphones on their podcasts. I suspect they get most of their news and have many of their conversations via the typed word, either on those devices or others. So, it's possible in prepping for the Philadelphia Marathon, Mr. Walker never had to hear or speak the term "Schuylkill." Similarly, while the folks from Very Spatial may have read about Suu Kyi and Pleiades, it's possible they never heard about them.

Is is possible we are not "learning" via audio as much as we once did? I know of the Schuylkill because my parents spoke of it due to their connection to Philadelphia. I know of Suu Kyi because the correspondents on National Public Radio (NPR) and the BBC (we hear the World Service here in Boston) say her name quite a bit. The Pleiades? One word: Cosmos. I learned all those astronomy words from Carl Sagan himself back in the 1980s.

I do hope the excitement about mobile devices does not cut us off from spoken language. I know I learn  very well by listening. That's why I like my news from the radio and enjoy spoken word podcasts on my runs and walks. Think about it: are you listening enough? Are your students?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Esri Announces Significant Upgrade to Educational Site License

On Jan 23, Esri sent an e-mail to its Educational Site License administrators which included details of "the most significant upgrade to the Esri Educational Site License Program in 20 years, at no additional cost." Why did Esri add in the new tools? "...because Esri president Jack Dangermond is committed to the success of educators at all levels who seek to cultivate the next generation of GIS users as well as a spatially literate citizenry."

What's new?

1. Addition of Esri® Community Analyst and the Business Analyst OnlineSM API to the Business Analyst Site License Add‐on, which is available at no cost upon request. (Available Jan 1)

2. Addition of ArcGIS Extensions (Available Jan 1)

ArcGIS Desktop Extensions
o ArcGIS Data Interoperability (teaching and research only)
o ArcGIS Data Reviewer

ArcGIS Mapping and Charting Solutions
o Esri Defense Mapping
o Esri Aeronautical Solution
o Esri Nautical Solution

ArcGIS Server Extensions
o ArcGIS Data Interoperability (teaching and research only)

3. Addition of Esri Data products, delivered on DVD (Anticipated availability March 1, 2012)

Esri demographic and lifestyle data (entire United States, all geographies)
o Esri Updated Demographics
o Esri Consumer Spending
o Esri TapestryTM Segmentation
o American Community Survey (ACS)
o Census 2010

4. Addition of New Products/Services ("Early 2012" - no date given)

o ArcGIS Online subscriptions
o Esri CityEngine®—Advanced

ArcGIS Online is positioned this way:
ArcGIS Online enables your faculty members to incorporate meaningful GIS use in large‐enrollment classes with minimal impact on their workload or your institution’s IT staff or infrastructure. In addition, your subscription to ArcGIS Online will allow faculty and students to publish intelligent web maps and make them widely available without requiring in‐house server infrastructure and technical expertise.
5. Revamp of web‐based Virtual Campus courseware breaking courses into 2-4 hour modules accessible via a new learning management system (LMS). (Release concurrent with ArcGIS 10.1 release)

I think that's a great idea - both for students and staff use. It may encourage instructors to seriously consider a flipped classroom model, where a module is assigned as "homework" and the "lab" is done in class. I hope Esri is thinking about how educators will be uploading their own "modules" to the LMS, to share with other educators, in the future.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Can you Compare a GIS to the Periodic Table?

Last week Joseph Kerski, @josephkerski, tweeted:
For a geography, environmental, or earth science teacher not to teach with GIS is like a chemistry teacher not using the periodic table.
This idea seems to track back to 2009, when he wrote:
One might argue that for a geography educator not to use maps is like a chemistry teacher not using the periodic table.
I am not comfortable with the first, "newer" iteration since I do not feel GIS and the periodic table are parallel. One is interactive, the other passive. I think the older version, with map in place of GIS, is a particularly apt simile.

I can't imagine a chemistry teacher who does not use the periodic table. The HUGE periodic table was the focal point of Mr. Mark's classroom. He was my 10th grade honors chem and 12th grade AP chem teacher. The first day of tenth grade he let us know that we'd have quizzes every few days in the first two weeks on the elements (name, atomic number and symbol). Then he handed each of us a blue bordered "Go Navy" cardstock periodic table, pre-punched with three holes to fit in our binders. I kept that periodic table until I finished college with a chemistry degree.

I didn't know it then, but learned later, when I studied geography in college, that the periodic table is a map. (It's a representation of structure. A structure is a set of elements and relationships between them. That's so very correct to say the periodic table is a map.) Between grade 10 and college graduation I learned that the periodic table was my grounding, "my basemap" to making sense of the properties of elements and compounds. I suppose that's why I kept that "Go Navy" one for so long.

As much as I love the idea of GIS appearing in all kinds of courses including environmental and earth science and new interactive chemistry tools appearing in all kinds of chemistry and related courses, let's not put the cart before the horse. GIS and all its analytics and cartographic tools are not valuable unless students and teachers know how to interpret the maps it creates. (What is where? Why? So what?) Similarly, an interactive periodic table (there are many of them now, online and for your favorite desktop and mobile platform!) does demand some understanding of the static version. (How are elements in the same row alike? How about the same column? What do those numbers mean?)

What I'm suggesting is that interactive tools like these demand some measure of literacy, spatial or chemical, for them to be valuable. If GIS or interactive chem tools are a more appealing way to introduce these ideas, that's fine. But, these basics must be instilled too, perhaps at the same time, and maybe, just maybe, before the interactive tools are introduced, to enable learning.

Tech in the classroom is definitely appealing (and big business!). But if students do not have the basic literacy it can be no better than static versions. I'm hopeful geographers are selling geographic literacy to environmental and earth sciences teachers along with GIS.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Geographer Looks at EdTech - Part 10 - Biz of Ed Tech

--- This post is the tenth, and last, in a ten part series examining top 2011 trends in education technology in the context of GIS and geography education. ---

The tenth theme Audrey Watters identified in her top ten list of ed tech for 2011 is the educational technology business itself. There are myriad of startups tackling all sorts of old and new problems in education. And, of course, many mainstream companies have education "arms" - including Esri and Google.

EdTech in GIS has clustered around the biggest player, Esri, though a few other packages with associated materials are available. I'm thinking of My World GIS, for example. But, with the platforms such as the Web and mobile phones for teaching and increased interest in teaching (and use) of open source software, the GIS Ed Tech market is poised for growth.

2011 saw the launch of a non-profit that's not exactly "Ed Tech" but is tapping into the updated "service focused" education model. Have a look at a piece I did on GeoContribution. I'll be keeping an eye on the newest GIS/geography Ed Tech for 2012.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Geographer Looks at EdTech - Part 9 - Open

--- This post is the ninth in a ten part series examining top 2011 trends in education technology in the context of GIS and geography education. ---

The ninth theme Audrey Watters identified in her top ten list of ed tech for 2011 is "openness." She acknowledges progress in many things "open" including openly-licensed content, open educational resources (OER), open source, and open access. She offers a great list of "open" successes, many of which are new to me, as I write in early 2012. But Watters concludes that there are still many issues with open, including its use as a primarily "marketing-y" term. "I think we’re in store for lots of conflict over what constitutes “open” — how it’s funded, how it’s labeled and licensed, who mandates “what counts.””

I agree. The term "open" has raised, and continues to raise, quite a bit of confusion in geospatial circles. I regularly run into students, faculty and well-read industry people who use the term "open source" without understanding its meaning. (Yes, there's an article in the works for Directions Magazine on just that issue!) Others tout open APIs and open standards support as if the are the same thing; they are not.

The teaching of open source software in GIS courses is still a rather new idea. The GeoTech Center went to great pains to note a session on one such course at FOSS4G. I hear very little about OER in geospatial education circles (though I confess to being rather new to them). The only institution I know of that uses the OER licensing is my previous employer/alma mater, Penn State. I'm also not aware of how/if open access (to academic content, research) impacts GIS and geography teaching. My sense is that many of the resources for undergraduate GIS courses would appear in "industry," aka public, free publications (like Directions Magazine) rather than strictly academic ones. I know that was the case for my own course readings.

The lack of action around "open" in education in GIS can be sourced to some extent to Esri. So much of the GIS industry and thus its educational component operates in a solar system surroundnig Esri that open options may not fully register with faculty.... yet. But, ss students see more demand for open source expertise and as faculty begin to see the cost and restrictions related to vendor developed curricula (see for example, Esri's plan to stop certifying trainers), I expect the demand for "open" in GIS and geographic education to increase.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Geographer Looks at EdTech - Part 8 - Questioning College

--- This post is the eighth in a ten part series examining top 2011 trends in education technology in the context of GIS and geography education. ---

The eighth theme Audrey Watters identified in her top ten list of ed tech for 2011 is what I like to call "Questioning College." It's the very valuable query from students and parents asking about the value of a college education and if it's right for any particular student. Watters points out how many have done fine without a degree (Mr. Gates, Mr. Zuckerberg to name two) and that only 29% of Americans hold four year degrees (the numbers are lower for minorities). So, this is a good a time as any to question the "traditional" college track, even if we know those with degrees make more over a lifetime than those who do not. She also points out all of the great resources for those who chose an alternative path - from Khan Academy to free learning from MIT and Stanford, among others.

I'm quick to assert college is not for everyone. My best friend, a brilliant writer and thinker, opted for a vocational path (two degrees in culinary) before returning to finish a bachelors degree, years later. After many years in culinary, she shifted gears to development (raising money), and perhaps ironically now works in that arena at Boston College. I'm a big fan of vocational programs in high schools, community colleges and in the workplace. The biggest challenge for someone at 18, 28, 48 or 58 is choosing which of these paths is right for them.

Now, what about four year college geography degrees? Many of the skills needed in today's "job market" can be acquired in other ways. The challenge can be that having those skills alone, may not be enough to get the expected job. Many of the companion skills, some of which are absolutely key to short and long term career success, have little to do with software or data skills. They are the softer skills, some of which I think, are difficult, but not impossible, to pick up outside of a formal educational program. What skills do I mean? I outlined five in a podcast/article we did at Directions: self-teaching, working in a team, self-direction, finding a mentor and communications.

And, frankly, it's that first one, self-teaching, that enables all the rest of the soft and even the hard skills, like GIS. The most valuable thing anyone can get out of any aspect of education is the ability to learn how to learn. I selected my college (Chicago) in part because at 18, I had no idea how to guide myself. By 22, I was more confident, and after grad school (where I did some rather non-conformist research on the Penn State Marching Band for my thesis) I was ready to face the world and the workplace.

Geography/GIS degrees can be a credential for a job. But how do hiring managers look upon a specific academic degrees, and/or GISP or Esri certification? Are these (or other credentials) the first pass filter for a group of job seekers? I used to believe they should be, but having been the real world, I'm less and less convinced of that all the time.

I learned the most about the value (or lack of value) of a credential from Barbara, the 50+ lady we hired in the organics lab at my consulting firm to wash our glassware. She had only a high school diploma. Managers far wiser than I knew she had the "right stuff," which included getting on with a bunch of cocky college grads ranging from 22 to 35. I know there are plenty of people like Barbara, with one or no credentials that would make great additions to the geospatial workforce.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Geographer Looks at EdTech - Part 7 - STEM

--- This post is the seventh in a ten part series examining top 2011 trends in education technology in the context of GIS and geography education. ---

The seventh theme Audrey Watters identified in her top ten list of ed tech for 2011 is the newfound focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). She details how president Obama linked Sputnik to education reform in his 2011 State of the Union address. He also proposed ARPA-ED, a new agency funded in 2012, to explore ways to educate students. She argues we need to seed interest in STEM far before college and the way to do that is via hands on learning - coding, building, making - not via standardized testing.

GIS and geography have a good history of hands on projects dating back to the early 1990s. Middle schoolers from New Hampshire taught themselves PC Arc/Info (the HORROR!) and mapped their school. They were the first group, I think, to present their work on the big stage at the Esri international User Conference in 1992 or 1993. Now GIS is in science fairs and 4-H among other places, with much of the credit for these programs going to Esri.

The problem I see with GIS and geography and the current interest in and focus on STEM education is that GIS and geography sit on the edge of social and physical sciences. So, when those who advocate for GIS (a technology) or geography (typically considered a social science) speak up, they can seem a bit wishy washy about where it sits. I raised this issue this fall when Speak Up for Geography ran a campaign to get those who believe in geography education to contact their Congresspeople and ask them to support The Geography is Fundamental Act (TGIF).

I think for right now we need to push the human side of geography/GIS to the background and run a full force offensive highlighting its importance as a STEM discipline. Frankly, geography needs to fish where the fish are.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Geographer Looks at EdTech - Part 6 - Khan Academy

--- This post is the sixth in a ten part series examining top 2011 trends in education technology in the context of GIS and geography education. ---

The sixth theme Audrey Watters identified in her top ten list of ed tech for 2011 is the rise and popularity of Khan Academy. She details the non-profit's beginnings and details its free repository of math and science videos. She goes on to note its growth to include exercises, rock star tech and education hires, more funding and all the buzz its had in the media.

Part of the buzz around Khan Academy is about how videos might be used as homework. The vision of the "flipped classroom"(IE post) involves students watching videos (or being introduced to new material in other ways) at home and then doing what used to called "homework" at school with peer and teacher support. Khan didn't invent that vision, but helped market it.

I love the ideas behind Khan Academy but am not so naive to think they will solve all our education challenges in math or other areas. I like these aspects of the Khan vision:
  • Bite-sized, homey videos that can be watched again and again
  • Open model means videos are under a Creative Commons license and Khan-used tools are open source
  • Real educators are building out an arts and history curricula
  • The flipped classroom means student have help at hand in "the doing" part of learning, not he passive part (aka the lecture)
  • Non-profit status can help limit too rapid growth and hopefully mis-use of government funding
So how do the ideas of Khan Academy relate to geography and GIS education? That was a jumping off point of my keynote at the NEARC Edu event (IE post) this year. I imagined a flipped GIS course that had no lectures. Instead, students watch videos, read tutorials, etc. at "home" and do "labs" during class. Those labs, I'd imagine would be noisy raucous places where students work together and interact, unlike the deathly quiet ones I've seen. Is the geography community ready to build its library of videos for such a vision? Do they already exist?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Geographer Looks at EdTech - Part 5 - Libraries

--- This post is the fifth in a ten part series examining top 2011 trends in education technology in the context of GIS and geography education. ---

The fifth theme Audrey Watters identified in her top ten list of ed tech for 2011 is the non-uptake of e-textbooks and the rebirth of libraries. She details how libraries are making more content available online, are become newfangled learning labs and in some geographies, Maker Labs. While she acknowledges the ongoing challenges of libraries sharing e-books, she is confident the "library as more than book repository" is long term win.

I'm with her on that vision. My mother was a librarian and she was one of the smartest people I even met. She taught me to love libraries and how to use them. I keep a close watch on my public library. We in Somerville, MA love it so much that we convinced the city to find money to keep it open for just four hours on Sundays during the winter. If you visit during that window, you'll find it packed. It's also packed after school, mostly with students banging away on the computers. Some are doing schoolwork and others are on Facebook.  The non-students are typically working on their resumes. I love the energy there and how all of the city uses it. What do I do there? Catch up on old issues of Runner's World, check out vegetarian cookbooks and find DVDs of all those HBO shows I've not yet seen.

I had a chance to help out in a local private school library this fall. The one room library was being updated with computers and a smart board. The librarian, who already teaches classes, was excited to have even more use of the space before, during and after school. If you love school libraries, I highly recommend this podcast from American Public Media.

So, where does GIS fit into libraries? Everywhere! Libraries must have altases, globes, GIS and educators to enable their use. Esri had it 100% right when it started ite Schools and Libraries group. I'm imagining K-12 students visiting their school or public library weekly to learn about all sorts of information resources and issues. GIS should be just one of them. Oh, and I want to see a parallel track of courses available weekly, open to all, at the public library.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Geographer Looks at EdTech - Part 4 - Learning Analytics

--- This post is the second in a ten part series examining top 2011 trends in education technology in the context of GIS and geography education. ---

The fourth theme Audrey Watters identified in her top ten list of ed tech for 2011 is learning analytics, that is the data about learning. She explains that in many situations learning analytics boils down to standardized tests as a measure of our failing schools. But it can also be a tool to evaluate teachers, guide student learning and sadly, a pressure to encourage cheating. Still, with the promise of these data, and the ease of capture when students use electronic devices and software, they can't be ignored.

Data capture is easier than ever. Even as I write this [in December] the American Geographic Society is running a survey of adult opinions on geography. It's built on a data platform (copyright 2006) even more ugly than the widely used Survey Monkey. The questions disappointed me so much that I chose not to share the request for others to complete the survey.

Last year at a geo edu event I got the "pitch" from a Pearson rep on its new geography text book/online package. He explained it would tell me, the instructor, how well my students did on the quizzes related to each chapter in vivid charts. I could see which multiple choice question the most students got wrong and the like. I could see which students did the assignments and which did not. The offering did not appeal to me at all.

Why? My classes (both in residence at local colleges and community college and online in a graduate program) are about geography/geographic thinking/geotechnology) AND communication. While these tools deliver rote learning evaluations, they don't help me see how the students think or express themselves. In a sense, my issue is, "I don't get to see their work!"

That said, I am most excited about using such data to find out what "works." That is, teaching one class a topic using one method and a second via another and seeing which mastered the material better. I believe using these data to hone in on techniques that work is their greatest promise. Want an example? Check out Emily Hanford's latest piece (NPR) on new methods in physics education. If you like it, I highly recommend listening to every podcast from American RadioWorks.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Geographer Looks at EdTech - Part 3 - Text Messaging

The third theme Audrey Watters identified in her top ten list of ed tech for 2011 is text messaging. She explains that since not all students will have smartphones, at least right now, text messaging is the universal mobile phone communication platform. She highlights a number of startups aiming SMS products at the education market. All of them seem to focus simply on managing communications between students, teachers and sometimes, parents.

The apps sound like a great first step in exploring the use of SMS for education. My question is what happens next, that is, how do educators best use SMS tech for actual teaching and learning? Is it in class? During school hours? Outside school hours? Is it reminders? Extra questions/challenges for homework? Extra hints for the tough problems?

How can educators embrace the very nature of the platform? I have one idea that stems from a limitation in a technology I used in my teaching. The Jing Project allows anyone to create screen capture movies with narration and share them via the cloud. It's free - with a five minute time limit per video. I adjusted my assignments to be complex, but still required students to respond within the five minute video. It was TOUGH. But, to their credit, students stripped away the irrelevant material and created tight, focused responses. SMS assignments might focus on students developing a 160 character answer to a specific question or challenge. Here's a geographic one that would be interesting: "State within an SMS if you feel the redistricting in your state has been fair or not and why."

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Geographer Looks at EdTech - Part 2 - Social Media

--- This post is the second in a ten part series examining top 2011 trends in education technology in the context of GIS and geography education. ---

The second theme Audrey Watters identified in her top ten list of ed tech for 2011 is social media. She discusses the rise of Edmodo, a growing education-only social media tool and the legal challenges teachers and students face when using worldwide social networks such as Facebook.

While there are still legal issues to be ironed out with "non ed-specific" social media, my gut feeling is that whenever possible, students should use "the real thing." That is, they should use Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, etc. - the same tools they'll use in the real world. I know that can require more energy for IT departments, legal departments and instructors, but I think its worth it in the long term.

It's worth noting that a new geospatially focused social network is launching in January. It's called GISnation and will have all sorts of membership types including one for students. I confess to having mixed feelings about this venture. While it'd be lovely to have a discipline-specific social network, many attempts at something along these lines have failed in recent years. A whole raft of sites with forums and blog consolidation have failed (see for example The GIS Forum, which shut down about Feb 2011 and has since lost its domain registration). A geospatial Reddit is still alive but pretty quiet. GIS-StackExchange is doing better but seems to have a programmer focus, rather than a more general scope. I expect the most valuable social networks for students and users of GIS will be self-forming on platforms like Twitter and Google+, which it's rumored, may have a dedicated K-12 segment in time.

On the other hand, I do expect more and more cloud based mapping sites such as ArcGIS Online and to have their own in-built social tools. Those could be most valuable for students, as long as they are guided in responsible use by educators.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Geographer Looks at EdTech - Part 1 - the iPad

--- This post is the first in a ten part series examining top 2011 trends in education technology in the context of GIS and geography education. ---

I've only been writing about GIS/geography education for a few months now, so I'm not ready to identify a top ten of any kind for the year. Thankfully, I found Audrey Watters blog Hack Education (and podcast). She's been counting down the top ed tech themes of the year. I want to visit each one for two reasons: (1) to be sure those who are "heads down" in teaching GIS/geography are aware of these themes and (2) to add in my thoughts on how GIS/geography educators might take advantage of them.

10) The Year of the iPad

Audrey Watters identified the iPad in her top ten list of ed tech for 2011. Even those on the fringes of education probably heard about how schools were buying iPads for students. More importantly, there's been significant coverage of how students of all kinds (very young, K-12, college, with disabilities, etc.) can't keep their hand off the devices! Hardware to me is simply something on which to run software, so I'm far more interested in what learners do on the iPads, than that they love them.

One of the top learning apps for iOS devices, per many observers, is called Motion Math, from a company of roughly the same name, Motion Math Games. It teaches key ideas about number lines and fractions. To learn about fractions, students move/tilt the device to "bounce" the fraction to the right location (3/5 the way, 1/2 the way, etc.) along a bar. A score of 100% moves a student to the next level. The short video below explains it far better than I can.

Now, I've never played or studied with Motion Math, but I want to! Why?
  • It's active.
  • It's focused on a very specific sets of skills related to fractions.
  • There are hints to help you learn, not just get the right answer.
  • It's not scary.
Could you teach calculus this way? Probably not. How about geography facts? How could you use the interface of the iPad to create a compelling "game" beyond the old "What country is this?" and "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?" ones from the previous generation of educational computer and video games? Most of the educational geography apps/games for mobile devices including the iPad  are simple rehashes of these older ideas. I'm looking forward to the "Motion Math of geography facts" as a first big step into iPad learning tools for geography.

But lets jump to another type of geographic learning that's possible on the iPad: geographic problem solving. Let's face it, that's what we hope geography and geographic technology learners will take away from their studies. Could the iPad teach that? Could it allow such analysis in the field, say on a street corner? Could software walk students through the steps: identify the problem, gather data, analyze data, suggest a possible answer (that's my version of the steps in geographic problem solving; here are Esri's). I can imagine some great, very free form activities that teach and allow students to practice these steps, using tools and data from, say, ArcGIS Online. Once a project is complete, the output and discussion could be shared with other students via blog, social media, etc.

I am very excited about what's possible. Are you building or have seen anything like the apps I've envisioned?