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Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Look at Esri's SpatiaLABS GIS Lab Projects

Esri announced the new DVD product ahead of this week's Association of American Geographers event in New York City. Per the press release:
SpatiaLABS from Esri Press are independent computer lab activities that introduce, enhance, and reinforce spatial reasoning and analytic skills that apply to a variety of disciplines. Students working with SpatiaLABS use mapping technology and visualization tools, including Esri's ArcGIS software, to solve real-world problems.
There are more than 50 labs on the DVD assigned to three different levels. Documents (intro material, cookbook instructions, bibliography) are delivered in Word format and can be edited as needed. From looking at the the sample labs (provided on the Esri Press website in online magazine format) the data for the labs are available free, online and on the DVD. The advanced level lab required access to Business Analyst Online. Educators are encouraged to host the DVD materials on a central server for students access.

The topics range from watersheds, to air pollution, to urbanization to natural hazards to disease outbreaks, with several clumped in the business and forestry areas. It's not clear from the press release or the website who Esri asked to write/contribute the lessons, but I suspect those details are on the DVD.

The offering is a service rather than a product and priced per year, per campus, per $25,000 of an Esri Educational Site License (if there is one). The cost is $500 per year, per campus, per $25k of site license for those with one or $500 for those without one.  New labs will be added annually for  institutions with a current license of SpatiaLABS.

My Take

I would like to see learning objectives for each lesson. These need not be linked to specific curricula or the GTCM, but would certainly help educators select lessons to fit specific courses.

I'd like to see a forum for feedback and suggestions for each lab. That may be in the works. I did see a tweet from an Esri Ed staffer asking for feedback on the product.

I'm curious how users of other software products might use these resources. It think it'd be valuable to ask advanced students to tackle one of these projects using a "new to them" GIS platform.

I'm curious if the $500 price tag will stick. It's seems like too much work to extract this small fee from schools already paying for a site license. On the other hand, if the writers are not Esri staffers and these fees encourage and pay for contributors continued enhancement of the existing projects and efforts to write new ones, I'm all for it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Competition Conundrum: Essay or Poster?

I read about two GIS/geography competitions recently. One is hosted by the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, URISA. It has undergrad/grad students submit papers and community college/certificate students submit posters. The other is from the Royal Geographical Society and has older students submit essays (which can include graphics) and younger ones submit map or diagrams.

Why? Why are the four year degree folks and older students expected to write and the two year/certificate folks and younger students expected to create graphics? Could they all write essays? Sure. Could they all create graphics? Sure. So, why the dividing line?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

What We Can Learn from the AAG Geography Matters Video Contest

The Association of American Geographers (AAG) ran a contest in preparation of its 2012 meeting next week in New York City.
The Association of American Geographers organized its "Geography Matters" video competition in preparation for the 2012 Annual Meeting in New York, New York, February 24-28, 2012. We were looking for videos that highlighted the difference that geography has made in: your life, your career, your community, the world, etc. Entrants were told that videos submitted would be used to enlighten others on the importance that geography has in our world today.
So far as I can tell there was a three minute limit. All eleven videos submitted are available on YouTube. I saw a tweet today that indicated the AAG announced the winners. First place got a free registration to the meeting, a year membership in AAG and $250.

I was interested in the videos as tools for educators, knowing full well that was not explicitly stated in the contest rules. Still, the idea that the videos "would be used to enlighten others on the importance that geography has in our world today" certainly speaks to teachers and learners. The top three submissions focused on different themes and had different production values. They all brought a smile to my face.

Kieran O'Mahony took top honors with "Geography Matters: Today More than Ever." The slickly produced video with professional sounding narration and original music contrasted beautiful landscapes with the manmade world. The thesis was that in our busy man-made lives, indoor environments, and electronic communications, we need to return to the outdoors, to the landscape, to calm our nerves and feed our souls.

Chris S. Renschler's "UB NOW: Geography Help Haiti Recovery" took second place and detailed how the University at Buffalo participated with partners across the globe on damage assessment after the Haiti earthquake. The documentary style video included comments from faculty and students on both the technology and the personal experience of helping others.

Tyler Depke's third place video, "Why do we eat what we eat?" was the most informal of the three. Depke stood at a river's edge and discussed how the geologic/geomorphic history of a landscape impacts how it looks and how it can be used today. In particular, he mentioned how soil type, moisture and other properties, developed over time might enable a vineyard in one area but not another. It was an interesting mini lecture but I'm not sure it really answered the question in the title of the video.

This contest provides some insight into how geographers explain what they do and why it matters. How could these videos be better in the sense of "enlightening others on the importance that geography has?" 

My sense is we geographers need to work on our storytelling. Stories engage people. What geographer is not happy to tell the story of John Snow and cholera? What a great story! Did you notice how the concerns about Apple's factory workers conditions in China came to a head in recent weeks? I think it had a great deal to do with great storytelling on This American Life. Have you watched any TED Talks? They are almost universally engaging - even the very sciencey ones - because they tell stories. To take a more geographic example, did you watch the four part Geospatial Revolution series from WPSU? I'd argue its discussion of geospatial technology was compelling, even to those in the field, because of both the stories selected and how they were told. (I worked on the project as an advisor but give 100% of the storytelling credit to the WPSU staff.)
Now, having said all that, I know telling stories is hard. But, but we need to keep at it, if we want to convince the world that what we do is important. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Going One Better on Google's University Mapping Contest

Last week Google announced its latest crowdsourced mapping effort, a contest for teams at U.S. and Canadian colleges to map their schools via Google Map Maker. The contest looks at edits made to Map Maker during the contest time frame, as well as moderation of others' edits. The wining team (up to four people per team) will take home $5000 in prizes each (tablets, t-shirts, stickers, etc.).

It's all good - more students involved in mapping, better data for Google's own maps, etc. Moreover, it's just great Google can fund, promote, and adjudicate such a contest, something for which grassroots efforts may not have the staff or resources.

I've had an idea for some time, one that outdoes Google's efforts on many levels. It hits some of the same goals - student involvement in mapping, better data, etc. It's not even a contest. It's a course. The title, overview and objectives below are just a quick pitch, but I think they get the idea across.

Title: Introduction to Geodata and GIS Using OpenStreetMap

Course Overview: There is no better way to understand the nature of geospatial data than by creating and using them. In this course students will learn and use a variety of tools to enhance OpenStreetMap, a free worldwide map. In doing so, they will begin to understand the complexities of these data and the processes required to collect and maintain them. They'll also explore other open and not so open datasets, data and software licensing, and the idea of geodata being fit for purpose.


At the successful completion of this course, students should be able to:
  • Collect, input, and edit geospatial data for the OpenStreetMap database via a variety of tools
  • Identify key issues regarding geospatial data quality, appropriateness of use, and workflows to ensure data integrity
  • Evaluate the value of OpenStreetMap and other worldwide datasets, APIs, data collection processes and licenses for use in geospatial solutions  
I imagine courses like this at four year and community colleges, even in high schools, worldwide. Such courses could be both an intro for those who might go on in the field and the one course in geo for those who do not. 

Even as students are learning about the nature of data, they'd be continuing to enhance OpenStreetMap, a map the whole world can use (in contrast to Google-owned Google Maps data created in the contest described above). If a residential school runs the course multiple times per year it might cover campus one semester, town the next, look at one feature type the next, do a neighboring town the next, support an emergency response effort on the other side of the world the next. And, imagine the potential coverage if this course is taught online! There's plenty of geography and thematic layers to go around!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

There's Nothing New Under the Sun: Not Even Khan Academy

There's a great post at the Mathalicious blog about how Khan Academy is taking over the psyche of many in and outside the education world. Many think it's "the" answer to the education challenge in the U.S. and around the world. But the truth is, as the author explains, it's the same type of teaching that's been done for decades, just via free videos. And, the free part may be its biggest limiter: it's free, so it might be determined to be "good enough" and restrict educators from seeing something better.

The author (and I) are not haters of Khan Academy (KA). I'm a fan, but see KA's short informal video lessons as part of a new vision for teaching and engagement. I agree that the KA lessons do teach, for example, the concept of slope, the same way my parents and I saw it taught. I don't think we need to toss that method out, but rather, use it as one way to introduce the key ideas. For some students that x,y axis, rise over run idea will make sense. But what about those for whom it does not?

The Mathalicious post got me thinking about how we teach geography and GIS. Was I taught geography the same way my professors and their professors taught them? I suspect the lecture, assignments, and tests, were quite similar. Do I teach my students the same way? I've certainly drawn on my teachers ideas, exercises and visions. But, I've been lucky enough to have quite a bit of freedom to determine the goals of my courses and the lessons and assignment in which my students participate to achieve those goals. In the era of online teaching I have something my teachers did not: the Web. I and my students have all of the resources of the Web and I try to take full advantage of those. I also have all of the resources shared by other educators (on the Web!) about engagement techniques. I far prefer my role online as "guide on the side" over "sage on the sage." Moreover, my students do, too.

I wonder if GIS is taught the same way it was when I learned ARC/INFO in 1992? This was at ESRI HQ. The three day course involved segments which included a short lecture with slides, then having students in pairs trying hard to key in command line text to follow the "recipe" in our workbook. At the end of the three days we were expected to do a project. My partner (from Danish Hydro, I still remember!) and I did not complete the project and I was left with quite a headache. Now, of course, the command line interface would include WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointer) so that part would be easier. But is the teaching itself be any different? (Esri cited some new techniques in 2010, but I've not heard any more on this effort.)

The biggest challenge educators may have in enhancing today's efforts is separating our vision of teaching from past visions. One of my instructional designers (thanks Khusro) was always prodding me to redefine any rules to better fit the goals of the course. "Just because every other course has assignments due on Tuesday night does not mean your class must." And so, we set a schedule for my graduate students such that assignments were due Fridays, Sundays and Tuesdays each week. Yikes! And yet, it worked!

We need to be brave and take chances and find what's new and what works, under the sun. And then, we need to share those best practices.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Two Questions for Tuesday

Two geographic questions plagued me on Monday.

The most recent On the Media (from National Public Radio) is all about Facebook and its upcoming initial public offering (IPO). One of the experts, who wrote about the company, refers to the company in the context of a country. She calls it "Facebookistan." Here's a challenge for geographers of all ages: In how many ways is Facebook like a country? In how many ways is it different? I think that'd make a great essay question!

The other question relates to a tweet I saw Monday morning. Here's the full text of it.
City launches new #GIS that uses #ESRI web #map s and apps: ow.ly/8TCh8 via @emtpej
The original tweet, and this version, are from individuals involved in EMS. The odd thing about these messages?  The lack of a city name/location. Does it matter which city? Apparently not. Why not? Are all cities about the same to those of us in the business? I find that lack of location of the city, when discussing its use of location technology both ironic and a bit meta. The city, by the way, is Southland, Michigan. Maybe the authors could not easily determine that in the article in Hometown Life. That online paper does not make "which hometown" it's talking about very clear.

Monday, February 6, 2012

DiBiase Speaks Truth to Power on GIS and Education

Do you want some straight talk on GIS in education? How about these quotes from Matt Artz's interview with Esri's Director of Education, David DiBiase? (Disclosure: I worked for Matt at Esri and David at Penn State.)
What is the mission of Esri’s Education Team?
David: The overarching objective of Esri’s Education Team is to cultivate the next generation of ArcGIS users and Esri customers. ...By his [Jack Dangermond's] reckoning, the education market accounts for 40% of Esri users.

As the Education Team begins its third decade of operation, how are changes in geospatial technology changing the way GIS will be taught?
All of this progress and diversity, which a recent public media project dubbed “the geospatial revolution,” has made it both easier and harder to teach with and about GIS.  Easier because the tools are better and more accessible; harder because the diversity and rapid evolution of the tools makes it harder for educators to keep up.
Would you say that GIS has been an easy tool for educators to adopt?
David: No. ...Expanding access to real GIS software is one obstacle we can do something about.

How much of this is about GIS or other geospatial technologies, vs. the more basic goal of teaching spatial thinking skills?
David: As the National Research Council report Learning to Think Spatially points out, our professional-grade tools are not particularly well suited to teaching and learning with, as opposed to about, GIS.
You'll want to read the complete responses for full context. It's gratifying to see the leading GIS software vendor, with some 40% of its users in the education market, clearly stating its vested interest in creating new customers, the challenges in gaining adoption and the technology's limited role (to date) in teaching spatial thinking. While Esri has "won" the war by getting its software into many schools, the smaller and perhaps more difficult battles are still to come. Esri, with all those schools using its software should be among those tackling the next big challenges and questions including:
  • How can GIS use in schools help in student's knowledge of geography and its principles? Did you see the mixed results on the last Assessment of Academic Progress in Geography (All Points Blog)?
  • Can GIS help keep students, especially secondary students, in school? There are recent stirrings from the president suggesting all states up the age until which students must attend school to 18 (NY Times).
  • Can GIS use in secondary schools help students get jobs? That's clearly a focus in junior and community colleges.
  • Can GIS help students develop critical thinking skills required for higher learning?
  • Can GIS help get federal funding for geography education in the United States either via a STEM focus or some other way? Geography education enhancement is still unfunded. (Speak Up for Geography)
I'm looking forward in the coming months and years to hearing more about GIS' impact on education in these less sexy and sometimes harder to measure areas.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

ShareMap.Org: CC Mapping for Wikipedia and Beyond

Last week Jakub Kaniewski, co-founder of ShareMap.org contacted me about the site. He described it as a "free Web GIS mapping engine focused mainly on two things - Wikipedia and Education."

I can certainly see a focus on Wikipedia; there is quite a bit of discussion on how to create a map for that site. There's also, I'm pleased to report, quite a bit of attention paid to the licensing of the maps created. The data used is all either public domain (PD) or Creative Commons (CC) and includes OpenStreetMap, World Wind and Natural Earth. There are also background map options from Yahoo and Bing. Check out the gallery for some of the publicly shared maps.

There are map creation and labeling tools, so that you can "draw on" the maps. There are tools to export the vector data to KML or SVG and the like. What's missing, I think, for use in education here in the United States, is the ability to bring in one's own data. That might be in a shapefile, KML or spreadsheet. That, in my mind, is what educators want students at all levels to be able to do. That's why Google Fusion Tables and Esri's ArcGIS Online is so attractive to educators. 

It's interesting to note that the site is hosted in Poland and uses as its base of comparison the U.S. CIA World Factbook maps. From the FAQ:

What kind of map can be made with ShareMap.org?In simple w – in every place where you use CIA fact book and want to customize it consider using ShareMap maps. It has two advantages over CIA maps – SVG format and easy customization.
Jakob is looking for feedback on the app from users and educators. I hope you can help him out.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Visiting the "Geography Gods" Blog

Who would name their blog and Twitter account "Geography Gods"? Two high school students who got the top mark ("5") on the AP Human Geography Exam last spring. Congratulations to the budding geographers for the academic achievement.

What is the Geography Gods website?

The tag lines are two:
  • Unbiased Current Events and Geography 
  • Dedicated to bringing you global news and events
The second is tough. The first is even tougher, as About.com's Matt Rosenberg observed in a tweet. 

The site dates back to Sept 2011 and has several dozen posts. Many describe current events and some take on travel related issues, like how safe Mexico is for tourists. Others are a bit further afield, such as Barry Bonds' challenges. There isn't a specific focus on geography as a factor in describing events or topics, though to be fair, that is not among the stated goals. Articles have some quotes (for example, from the New York Times), but no links to online sources. I think that would be a great addition.

Articles are by the blog owners and a number of other named writers (who I'm guessing are classmates, no bios are provided for them). Sadly, the comments are about 95% spam; a few from friends and family are very supportive. It might be time to explore a spam filtering solution.

I think it'd be great if geographers and educators offer suggestions to make the website more valuable. It's exciting to see such initiatives from the next generation of geographers.