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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Very Spatial Day At Montessori

Last week I was a "special guest" of five year old twins Max and Theo at their suburban Boston Montessori school. Their mother has been explaining the how and why of their "work" through this, their first year.

As I spent time with each boy and they selected, then showed me each "work," I found myself drawn to the spatial aspects of the activities.

Theo first chose to write his brother a letter. He took out the paper and explained to me the four lines that guided his printing: the sky line (cloud), the plane line (airplane), the grass line (grass) and the worm line (worm). At the far left of each group of four lines there were indeed tiny icons to identify the lines. He spoke aloud how to craft each letter. "You start at the sky line, then go to the grass line..."

This was all new to me but his teacher later explained it was part of a writing method. She used a specific name, but I see it on the Web as Fundations. Here's a graphic if this is new to you, too. A quick Internet search suggests I'm way behind the times and many, many schools are using at least some of the ideas of this approach. It all seemed so natural to Theo, this idea of putting a grid on the paper and using it to guide his letters. I'm sure he had no idea the spatial literacy skills he was building!

When I joined Max he was doing a puzzle of sorts. He had 16 or so colored blocks. He was arranging them to match a picture on a card. I'm not sure if he or I started to refer to the picture as a "map," but we both used that term as we worked. When unsure of what to do next, he started to say, "It's time to look at the map!" And, when he became frustrated and could not form the four blue triangles into a diamond as the map illustrated, I tried to help. "Are all three sides of the triangle the same length?" We decided two were the same, but on was longer. "Which side, a long one or short one, touches the yellow block?" It took a while but we did finally get it using both the map and our own language to describe the blocks and how they were arranged. Like his brother, I'm sure Max had no idea of the spatial literacy skills he was building.

I do hope they get to practice and use them for many more years of their education.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Exercise: CityMaps "Novel" Map Symbology

The screen shot below is from a website/app called CityMaps. This is part of New York City.

There is more to the website/app than the map - it also collects and shares social media (tweets, etc.) and deals associated with the businesses. Have a look at the CityMaps website, or just this bit above and ponder:
  1. Is this map compelling? Why?
  2. When would you use this type of map vs. say Google Maps?
  3. What do you think the goal of this type of mapping is?
  4. What might you change (in the types of data, symbology, etc.) to meet that goal better?
  5. Is this map fair to "mom and pop" businesses?
  6. What data layer(s) are "left out" of the map to make the map more effective?
I found this article in Co.DESIGN helpful in thinking about this map. For now the website and app are live for NYC, San Francisco and Austin. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Response: Geography is About Memorizing Capitals

Elmhurst College's "Quick Studies" blog offers a very nicely written article on the crisis in geography. It's titled "Off the Map." The author, Andrew Santella, includes data from the NAEP study, bemoans limited geographic literacy, and points to budget cuts as evidence of the situation. He even elicits the classic and still current understanding of what geography is from Elmhurst associate professor Rich Schultz from the department of geography and geosciences: "Ask people what they think geography is about and they’ll talk about memorizing state capitals."

Such articles are important, especially if they offer some hope for enhancing the situation. The positive news in this post is Schultz and a colleague's effort to tie geospatial technology to science in a new course for non-majors. I'm excited to learn more about that.

In the mean time, we need to start telling new stories about geography. We need stories that can help distance geography (pun intended) from the state capitals comment above and what was once called the "capes and bays" visions of the discipline. So, what stories do we tell?

We can all tell the John Snow cholera story. But we need more like it. We need simple to tell, simple to understand stories that define what our discipline is, how it works and why it matters in memorable, bite-sized pieces. I'm sorry if this sounds a bit like marketing, but in all honesty, geography needs marketing.

I am a geographer with two degrees in the subject. I only know that one story. What are the other stories should we be telling? What stories do you tell to explain what geography is? Should they be part of our communal storytelling? Please share them in the comments.

- HT to @josephkerski 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Social Mapping in the Classroom

The Huffington Post offered up what it called an infographic titled "'Community': A Map Of All The Dates, Sex, Hookups, Sexual Harassment And Other Intimate Relationships" to celebrate the return of the TV show "Community." The show, which I do not watch, is about a community college and the wacky people there. Really, like any good comedy, it's about how those wacky people connect. Thus it makes sense to build such a map.

What I like about this map is the non-standard types of connections defined. There are some adult ones, but there are other intriguing G-rated ones including "sang mall karaoke with" and "delivered a baby." Different colored lines connecting pairs of people distinguish the 12 different kinds of connections. I have to believe the types of connections selected for the map are particularly relevant for this TV show. If I chose to map, say Law and Order SVU, I'd have 12 different types of connections. I wonder what they would be?

Which brings me to a mapping exercise about which I'm daydreaming. Depending on the student population/subject/topic students might map the connections of their classmates or the characters in a book or those in a movie or TV show. The assignment might go something like this:

1) Select a group of people to map;  a group of people you know well (from school, from a book, tv, movies, sports, your family, etc.)

2) Define the key types of connections within this group. They might be familial (sister/brother), interest based (both play baseball) or silly (both have fallen into the pond). Make sure some are geographic (they ride the same bus, live nearby, attend the same church).

3) Assign each type of connection a different color/symbol and map out the connections.


1) Count how many times each type of connection is represented.

2) Which type(s) of connection do you think is/are the most important? Is it the most common one? Why or why not?

3) Are some people more connected than others? Why?

4) How would you create categories of "connectedness?" How many categories would there be? What would you call the categories?

5) Can you draw any conclusions about the more connected people? The people with fewer connections?

6) Are geographic connections correlated with other types of connections? Which types of connections seem to "go together?" Why do you think that is?

Lesson Objectives:

1) understand and use the definition of a map: a representation of a set of elements and connections between them

2) define and evaluate the various types of connections between people, including geographic ones

3) identify connections that might be correlated ("go together")

Monday, March 19, 2012

Spatial and STEM: Can we add some geography?

Jonathan Wai wrote about spatial intelligence in Psychology Today. His article was titled Why We Don't Value Spatial Intelligence. He doesn't explicitly answer the question but does point out that as a society we don't test for spatial ability and hence miss the chance to grow it in our students. Those who do have it, research suggest, can do great things in physics and engineering.

He concludes:
We need to learn to value these beautiful minds.

We need to identify them. We need to provide a tailored education for them. And we need to place the tools in their hands so that they can help invent our future.
Tom Baker addressed this topic at the Esri GIS Education Community blog. His post is titled STEM Education's Critical Dependence on GIS. He cites the National Research Council's Learning to Think Spatially document from 2006 that suggests GIS is a tool for learning to think spatially.

I have to point out that there's a bit of a disconnect here. Wai speak about spatial intelligence as about 3D visualization and "in your head" processing. He ties it to physicists and engineers. That makes me think immediately of Tim O'Reilly and the Maker Movement.

While the NRC report starts out with Watson and Crick and their discovery or visualization of the double helix structure of DNA, I think most people can't or won't or don't connect that type of hard science to geography and geospatial technology. As someone who studied chemistry, I'd use the visualization of the benzene ring as a spatial thinking example.

What's missing? One or more great stories of well-known geospatial scientists that solved a real world problem with spatial thinking. We as a community know they are out there, but those stories are not told as frequently as the well-known ones above. I just heard a great story from my former colleague at Esri Boston, Peter Girard, now CTO at AppGeo. He explained how he used some high level math to solve a complex bounding area problem for a spatial index needed for a client.

The trick is we need to identify these stories and tell them. That's how Watson and Crick's double helix got famous. That's how Kekulé's benzene ring got famous. What are our geospatial stories? How do we make them part of everyone's education the way these two stories currently are?

What story do we tell? John Snow and cholera. What other real life, true stories of spatial thinking do we as geographers have to tell? Once we get that book of short stories written (has it  been written?), we can make a better case for both spatial literacy education for the next generation, and the great things they can do with those skills in their jobs in later life.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Making Sense of Certificates, Certification and Badges: A Hiring Manager's Guide

You might have seen image posted on SlashGeo.

 It prompted the Twitter conversation below.

I don't  believe the writer who posted the certificate misrepresented how one can complete a (free) Esri course and receive such a certificate. And, I'm not sure if Mr. Fee was really confused about the difference between a certificate of completion and Esri's formal, test-based Associate and Professional Certifications

But the interchange does highlight how a potential employer, especially one not conversant in the GIS/Esri/Education lingo regarding GIS recognition, might be. Employers would need to know about certificates of completion (like the one above, saying a course was completed), industry certifications (GISP, ASPRS), educational institutions' certificate programs (Penn State Post Baccalaureate Certificate), and vendor certifications (Esri's Certification program).

Free Education, Badges and other Credentials

And, now of course, we have a whole new set of credentials that may make their way to GIS: badges (for example from Mozilla or Khan Academy) and letters from instructors for those who participate in massive online classes (for example, the Stanford AI class). All of these (mostly free) learning and credential collecting opportunities tend to have as part of their mission making "education available to all." Khan Academy basically adds the term "world class" to that to define its mission statement. I can find no fault with efforts to bring education to all.

There are many issues to be resolved with badges and other credentials; I want to set that aside for right now and focus on these free learning opportunities. Who are they for? Ideally, they are for anyone who wants to learn something "new." Audrey Watters (my favorite edtech writer/podcaster) is currently taking a massive online Python course. Among her fellow students? Those who program in Python for a living! Moreover, she reports that in the course forums there wasn't quite the respect for "newbie" questions as she might hope. Why are working professionals taking the course? I can only guess, but fear one reason might be to gain the credential at the end. It's a way, as the SlashGeo poster put it, to "help you pimp your resume." 

Advice for Hiring Managers

Pity the overworked hiring manager who gets a pile of resumes and has to navigate all these certificates, certifications and badges! What is he or she to do? Ask a lot of questions. 

If the applicant hasn't provided a reference to explain the nature of credential (say a link to the GISCI website), the employer should ask about it either in a phone or personal interview. Ask the applicant who granted the credential, what is means, what was required to attain it and why they pursued it. 

That last one is key and can reveal a lot about the applicant. I'd love to hear an applicant who took one of Esri's free three hour classes explain they did so because they were taking a university course that included the topic and didn't quite understand the key points. I'd love to hear that an applicant was working on a project (for work, school, or on their own) and needed to know how to do that specific thing to complete it. Other answers, such as "I don't know," "I don't remember," or "to pad my resume" would not be as promising.

As more and new types of credentials appear on resumes, hiring managers, the consumers of those documents, have to dig deeper to tease out their value. Alternatively, they could ignore the credentials and administer a test or assignment to see if the applicant has the skills.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On Demand Learning

Why On Demand Learning?

One of my winter "chores" to tackle before spring was re-taping the handlebars on my road bike (LeMond Reno for those who care). As the weather got nicer I knew time was running out. The last time I needed to re-tape I cheated and had the guy at the shop do it, along with some other maintenance. This time, it was my turn. Several riders with more experience than I told me the same thing: watch some videos on YouTube and you'll be fine.

So, the afternoon before I planned to do the work I viewed four or five videos and read a few blog posts on the topic. I made sure to read the post from local legend Sheldon Brown. The videos had some contradictory thoughts, but the basics were the same. When in doubt, I'd go with Sheldon's way, I decided. The good news is: mission accomplished! My bike is set for its maiden ride of 2012, which should be any day now.

I want to contrast this "on demand" learning from typical classroom learning. I had a job to do that had to get done. I was motivated. And, as I'm finding more and more, the educational tools I needed were right at my finger tips. I just needed to find the authoritative ones and pick my way through the contradictions. In school, or in a GIS class, that kind of motivation is rarely available. Mostly, students are learning to do fractions so they can do fractions. In a GIS course students learn to create a buffer, to, well, create a buffer.

This is a great time in the evolution of education to embrace, at least in part, some amount of "On Demand Learning." I say that for a few reasons. First off, the concept of project-based or experiential learning is widely accepted and second, the learning resources are out there. Thirdly, and most important for the long term, learning how to learn with tools available (Web, library, fellow students, etc.) is a skill of life long learners.

Examples of On Demand Learning in Geography/Geospatial Education

Below are three examples of how an educator might include "on demand" learning within a geography or GIS course.

1) Project-based work - As individuals or teams tackle their chosen course or capstone project, there are multiple opportunities to learn new pieces of software, new programming languages or techniques or work with new data types. One aspect of the project may be to not only document that new software, a new language or new data was used but also to detail how the student/team learned of it and how to use it.

In one lesson I taught, the first assignment was "teach yourself this piece of software." The second one was "explain in 250 words how you did that and reflect on if it was successful." This assignment was as much about seeking out videos, tutorials and authoritative sources as it was about assessing one's own learning preferences.

2) Flipped classroom - If tomorrow's GIS lab is about linear referenced (dynamic segmentation), have the students learn on their own what it is, how it works, and the key vocabulary. Instead of assigning specific sections of a textbook or a well-known video, have them seek them out. The next day a quick quiz can assess what they learned and a discussion of which resources were most valuable might ensue, before tackling the lab itself.

3) Create the learning resource - There's no better way to master a concept then to teach it to someone else. Pair up students in the class and if they get stuck on a concept or procedure, have them ask their partner for help. The partner then must create a learning resource for their partner that is also a graded assignment for the course. (It might not be completed in real time, but over a week or longer.) It might be a video, a workflow diagram, or a short article. These can be collected for use by the current class, future classes and other students around the world.


In these times students need to be great users of on demand learning and the next generation of creators of future resources. By the way, I also used YouTube and other online learning resources in recent months to learn to snowshoe and make homemade yoghurt. I used it to diagnose a problem with my clarient. I was most proud to tell my repairman exactly which spring was broken, something I usually depend on him to both find and fix.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Teachable Moment: Personal Space, The Homeless and Wifi

This promotion may sounds like a hoax, but apparently, it's not. This from ReadWriteWeb:
South By Southwest 2012 can be summarized thusly: An impossibly-named marketing company called Bartle Bogle Hegarty is doing a little human science experiment called Homeless Hotspots. It gives out 4G hotspots to homeless people along with a promotional t-shirt. The shirt doesn't say, "I have a 4G hotspot." It says, "I am a 4G hotspot."
You can guess what happens next. You pay these homeless, human hotspots whatever you like, and then I guess you sit next to them and check your email and whatnot. The digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall.
Now, there are lots of ethical, moral, dignity and other issues around this story and I invite you to consider them. What I want to do is consider the geography of this experiment/business effort. Those behind it suggest its akin to homeless people selling a newspaper they create. In my city the paper is called Spare Change and deals with, among other things, homeless issues. Among the goals of that enterprise and the hotspots is a common goal: getting passersby to interact with the homeless. Said another way, it's a way to make the invisible, visible. That's sort of ironic since the product (ok service) is itself invisible.

While buying a paper takes a few seconds, paying for and using a hotspot takes longer. It means hanging around the human hotspot while you check e-mail or do a blog post or whatever. It means sharing a few minutes with, and getting a sense of a day in the life of,  your host. This business transaction enables that interaction, just as buying a copy of Spare Change does. These transactions are not scary because they are in public places and, I know from our Spare Change sellers, they must abide by certain rules including being courteous.

While it raises larger issues, I think it's a valuable question to ask how these hotspot wielding folks, identified by their t-shirts, changes the geography of homelessness.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Phd Candidate Argues Against ArcGIS

Konrad M. Lawson is a PhD candidate in East Asian History. I'd never had learned of him had he not written about open source QGIS at his blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education. (Thanks to Gary Price for pointing me to the piece.) Lawson's post is titled Introduction to QGIS thought in fact it's more of a statement of "what I as a humanities researcher want from GIS."

What does he want? Software that

1) is inexpensive and easy to learn and use - ArcGIS fails in his opinion on both counts
2) will make cool maps - analysis is nice but beyond his needs
3) will allow the maps to look the way he likes
4) will allow maps to be created for use in presentations and publications

He goes on to explain that learning QGIS was as painful as learning ArcGIS but the former is free and runs on many platforms. Further, he notes that he would not like to be tied to a school for access to Esri software in the future. Lawson concedes that Google Maps/Earth can do some his required tasks but include busy basemaps which limit the value of the final products.

He concludes:
With a little time investment, I believe that becoming comfortable in an open source GIS environment like QGIS can go a long way for those of us in the humanities. Increasingly, prepared layers of geographic information, or at least tables of easily geocoded data can be found downloaded from various locations online. Being able to take any of that data and project it on a map for use in a classroom setting or in our publications, even without employing more advanced analysis does not require more than a few hours of investment in a GIS education.
I think the article is an honest description of the type of mapmaking many people want to do. I agree that ArcGIS may not be the right tool for them.

The commenters are quick to note that ArcGIS is far more user-friendly now than in the past. They fail to mention the new $100 Home Use Version nor ArcGIS Online, both of which might be helpful to Lawson and those in his shoes.

This article paints a picture of the current state of GIS with but two players: Esri on one side and open source on the other. The former is seen as expensive and complicated, while the latter is seen as free and complicated.

I can't fault Lawson for this vision, for I believe this is what he sees. I can fault us, the geospatial community, for either not providing him the tools he needs and/or not communicating to him that those tools exist.

Monday, March 5, 2012

GIS Edu News Analysis: Esri Grants; Digital Quest Teams with NPCLPSCS (Who?)

On Feb 28 Esri announced some grant awards to educators at colleges and universities via a press release.
Esri has awarded five grants to select university and college faculty members to create exemplary higher education course materials and implementations of ArcGIS Online. Grantees receive $10,000 (US) each, as well as assistance from curriculum development specialists on Esri's education solutions team.
I didn't recall any public call for proposals. Esri confirmed this was invited competition.
Esri’s education team invited proposals from select educators that we know are doing innovative work that could be enhanced by the ArcGIS Online platform. The team then reviewed the submitted proposals and awarded grants to the top 5 proposals.
The selected proposals include courses/exercises for pre-service teachers, business majors, general education and an exploration of ArcGIS Online use in a large land grant university. That last one is of particular interest to me (having studied at a land grant school). I wonder how the "land grant" aspect makes these schools different, in terms of GIS use, from other large public institutions? Perhaps that's the question to be explored.

The grantees are expected to share their preliminary work at the Esri Ed UC and to actually use the resources in teaching during the 2012-2013 academic year. It's unclear if other Esri and even non-Esri users will have access to these materials. The materials could become part of Esri's SpatiaLABS, which I discussed two weeks ago, I suppose.

One takeaway from this announcement is that if you want to be included in these sorts of education grants, it behooves you to let Esri know about your work! Do not be shy about marketing yourself, your work and your school to Esri!

The same day, Digital Quest announced a partnership with the National Partnership for Careers in Law, Public Safety, Corrections and Security (NPCLPSCS) via a press release. I've never heard of this Partnership before, but it dates back to 1999 when it was established with funding from the Dept. of Justice. The Partnership mission:
To build and support career development programs and systems that ensure seamless transitions by linking and integrating secondary and post secondary education, professional certifications, and organizational recruitment, employment, training and retention systems. 
The secondary/post secondary career-focused space is exactly where Digital Quest's previous geospatial education materials and certification have been directed. It's my understanding that Digital Quest will try to offer its packages of materials to schools already offering courses in the areas of interest to the Partnership. While Digital Quest's footprint is small and mostly regional, it's clearly blazing its own trail in the industry-specific geospatial career focused education and training market.