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Monday, April 30, 2012

Eighth Graders Tell Teachers How to be Engaging

Go read this great post on the Edutopia Blog. An eighth grade teacher asked her students to tell her how to be engaging. The responses to Heather Wolpert-Gawron are quite profound. She helpfully assigned them to ten topic areas that I suspect will sound familiar to educators of all stripes.

1. Working with their peers
2. Working with technology
3. Connecting the real world to the work we do/project-based learning
4. Clearly love what you do.
5. Get me out of my seat!
6. Bring in visuals
7. Student choice
8. Understand your clients -- the kids
9. Mix it up!
10. Be human

I wanted to share some thoughts on and implementations of some of these ideas from my years of teaching geography and GIS both in the classroom and online. First off, I want to share something I learned very early on: if an education methodology works with young people, it will work with adults. You might change the terms, depth and exercises the adults do, but solid methodology can span the ages.

I used to be involved with a Women in Science and Engineering program up at Salem State College. It was for middle school girls and each instructor had about 20 girls for about 45 minutes. The goal was to complete a hands on experience that introduced the girls to what we women scientists "do." I usually had three 15 minute activities. One was explaining how GPS worked. After my "song and dance" I'd point out the the four satellites we had in the classroom (they were always up near the ceiling). Each one had a piece of yarn indicating how far away it was from the GPS receiver. Four girls would each take a piece of yarn and figure out the one place they all must meet. That must be the location of the GPS receiver! Who ever was sitting in the chair at that location found a prize underneath it. (Typically, I taped an "I Love Geography" pencil under the chair.) I've used the same activity with adults. I'm not sure which group enjoys it more.

Now, on to the ten topics from the article.

1. Working with their peers

I'm a big fan of a loud classroom. Talking is thinking and talking to peers on the topic at hand is thinking together. Whether the goal is to come to consensus on an issue (Is global warming for real?) or to create something new (A commercial to encourage better care of our watershed) the process of discussion is sometimes more valuable than the final product. I think so much of these discussions that I taught a seminar online, I found technology that let my students talk to one another. They really got to know one another and they worked on their oral presentation techniques. I was especially proud of my "English as a second language" student who went from writing down and reading her comments to speaking off the cuff.

3. Connecting the real world to the work we do/project-based learning

Connecting work to the real world can be so rewarding for students. While the epitome of GIS project work is to "do a project" in the community or for a local agency or non-profit, there are other ways to connect to the larger world. I taught a lesson on user interface design. (Note: too few GIS people ever even get one lesson on this!!!) Once the students learned some basic concepts, I turned them loose on actual mapping websites. Which websites? Sites their owners/developers/hosts wanted critiqued. I found them by posting a note on my magazine's blog (with permission). We could only tackle three of the six requests that came in. I'm pleased my students allowed me to share their audio conversations with the submitters. Some owners/developers/hosts made changes to their mapping websites the very day they received the feedback. I let my students know they were changing the world even as they learned the material. I was pretty jazzed, too.

7. Student choice

Student choice can be a challenge. With too much freedom, some students are overwhelmed. With too little, they can't find something to match their interests and needs. I like to give different kinds of freedom in different kinds of assignments. Sometimes students are free to pick a topic within a broad GIS application area such as "resource management" or "health GIS." Other times I give them choices on how to present their work via a paper, a video or another way. 

10. Be human

The "be human" suggestion is a good one. The tag line is "have a little fun yourself." And, the opposite is true. Be prepared to goof up in a variety of ways. Among my goof ups:

  • The link is bad.
  • The instructions to download the software didn't work. 
  • I gave overly critical feedback to a student. 

I was pleased I learned early that it's ok to say "I'm sorry" to students. That's both being human and giving students a real world experience. People, both teachers and students, goof up. Educators  need top model good behavior when we do.

How do you embody these engagement areas in your geography or GIS classes or projects?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Help! How do I use iPads to Teach AP Human Geography?

I saw the same plea, from the same individual, on two different social media sites in the last few days. First I read:
Moving to a new school that just received tons of iPads for their students. I am totally unfamiliar with them or how to use them in a AP Human Geo class. Any tips? Will ESRI's web based ArcViewer work or the download? I don't recall any issues from Portland last summer with Mac v PC. Help!
Then I read:
moving to a new school that will have new iPads for students and am totally unfamiliar with them. Anyone have a guide for use in the High School Geography classroom? Will ESRI web and downloads work? Apps for ed and geo?
I applaud the instructor for reaching out to others for input and wish him well in his new school. His query, to which I've seen no public responses, raises even more questions about the use of the iPad for education in general and for geography education in particular.
  • If there are iPads, must instructors use them?
  • How do instructors without an iPad prepare themselves to use them in class? Do they buy their own?
  • Are there specific resources for using iPads in any K-12 subjects? AP subjects?
  • Would educational content vendors want to develop a curriculum for a single hardware platform?
  • Are there "tips sites" for using iPads in education? Would tips for elementary school students necessarily translate to high school? College?
  • Does Esri offer tips/special content for using iPads in schools?
  • Where do geography/high school/iPad/AP instructors go for help in curriculum development?
  • Who would build a guide for high school geography with an iPad? NCGE? Private companies?
  • Who will find and curate educational iPad apps for geography? (I have yet to find any worth mentioning...)
  • Isn't an iPad, at one level, "just" a computer? How different is it from using a laptop or desktop in the classroom? Or at home?
  • Can/should instructors "port" their "old" paper or computer-based lessons to the iPad? Would there necessarily be a benefit?
It's still early in the iPad education revolution, so it's not surprising there are still so many questions and so few answers.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Why I Tossed Your Admission Application

Why I Tossed Your ...

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a great article last week titled Why I Tossed Your Résumé. It's valuable and you should read it if you are circulating resumes. I want to offer similar advice for those applying to graduate programs in geography. I applied to a handful back in the day (1986) and have read hundreds of applicants in recent years. The similarities to applying for a job can not be overemphasized.

The documents you share as you apply typically include a number of forms and/or a resume and/or some kind of personal essay stating why you are pursing an advanced degree or a similar topic. For me, that essay holds far more weight than the forms you fill out, the awards you list or the jobs you've held. Why? Because it gives me a snapshot of how you communicate in writing when "on your best behavior." Ideally, you've taken the time to outline, write, and re-write this important document. What do I expect to find?

Building a Great Essay

A great application essay:
  • answers the question and includes supporting details from your life/work/education
  • communicates clearly, in your own words, the technical work you've done or the military positions you've held, to a reader who many not be an expert in that area
  • shows pride in accomplishments and/or indicates what you learned from a mis-steps
  • highlight any oddities in the forms/resumes
  • details work you undertook due to passion/interest/sense of contribution/opportunity to learn - and not necessarily for a paycheck
  • has impeccable capitalization and grammar
I realize these may seem a bit vague, so let me flesh them out with examples.

Answer the Question

I have read essays that simply did not answer the question posed! I can't speak for every reviewer. but I'm looking for a thesis statement in that first paragraph. "I am applying to the University of Northern South Dakota at Hoople's Graduate Geography Program  in order to...." The rest of the essay should support that point.

Write in Plain English

While those reading your essay are indeed in the same broad field you are discussing, we don't necessarily have your exact experience. If you are describing your work in hyperspectral analysis, it's good practice to include a sentence or two in plain language to insure you and reviewer are on the same page. It's also a great indicator of your ability to communicate without jargon or acronyms! If you are coming from a military deployment, be aware that not everyone speaks "military." My sense is if you are passionate about an area, you've had plenty of experience explaining it to Mom and Dad and the fellow you sat next to on the plane. Use that language in your essay. I stress this in part because one application I read copied a description of his military position directly from a .mil website - without quotes or a citation. I could not pass along that application for further review.

Be Appropriately Proud of Achievements

Everyone has had to work hard to achieve in academia or the workforce. Pick out one of those situations that relates back to your thesis statement and tell that story. It might be about how you taught yourself just enough Java to automate a complex process. It might be about how to rallied your team to get all those maps done by the 5 pm Fedex pickup. It might be how you found a workflow that enabled your customer/client to get the right map product faster and cheaper. You can also illustrate a misstep and what you learned from it and applied that learning later in your career.

Clarify Oddities

The essay may be the only place you have to explain what readers might find as oddities in your other documents. In a job interview, you might be called upon to explain a gap in your employment, during which you did not work or go to school. In a graduate application it might be the fact that you already have multiple degrees. When an applicant already has two Masters degrees or two PhDs I wonder if they simply like being in school! Such an applicant needs to work extra hard to convince me they are worthy of of a seat in our program.

Show Passion via Action

I'm on the look out for action. What type? The type that fills in this blank: "I am so passionate about geography/GIS/Web mapping/statistical analysis that I _____________." I'm not necessarily looking for a longterm low/no-pay commitment like "I joined the Peace Corps to teach geography in a developing country." I'm looking for a situation where the applicant used existing skills or learned new ones to solve a problem of interest. The example I always use (so don't go out and do this!) is: "I made a map of all the baseball field in town for the Little League website so the parents could find them." I recently spoke with some folks who indicated that a longterm commitment to a project like OpenStreetMap or an open source project would be similarly impressive. In short, walk the walk, don't just talk the talk!

Proofread and Grammar Check

Finally, yes, you need to write the essay in full grammatically correct sentences. Use "its" and "it's" correctly. Get the names and capitalizations of companies and product name correct in your resume and essay. I had a student mis-spell "post-baccalaureate certificate" in his essay. He was in fact documenting that he possessed such a certificate!

Final Thoughts

Many geography and GIS graduate programs use only an electronically delivered application to select the next cohort of graduate students. There may be no face to face or phone interview. You need to convey all the key qualities you have in those digital forms and essay. I hope these suggestions help you do so!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The State of the Flipped Classroom

I really love the idea of the "Flipped Classroom," where "lecture" is consumed at home and "homework" is done in class with the teacher at hand. It's one way to remove the "sage on the stage" and make the teacher the "guide on the side."

A Washington Post interview with Jonathan Bergmann, a chemistry teacher who has flipped his class and became a "flipped class" expert with a new book on the topic, highlights two key "lessons learned." One relates to the nature of the "lecture" consumed at home and the other to what subjects are most suited to flipping.

In most discussions of the flipped classroom the "homework," that is the "lecture" part of the learning, is described as "watching videos." But as Bergmann points out, video is not the only option.
They don’t need to watch my video. You just need to learn the material. Students need multiple ways to access content. A kid would say, “Hello, Mr. Bergmann, do I have to watch the video? Can I read the textbook instead?” We said, “You can learn it any way you like.”
Now that's a huge idea: The flipped classroom can give students multiple ways to learn the same material. How many ways can you learn to tape your bike's handlebars on the Web? I found videos (real life ones and animations), articles, step by step photo essays... The same is true for academic topics including how to multiply fractions! Bergmann explains that the teacher curates these, some of which may his or her own content, to provide a variety of options. Students can try one or more with the goal of understanding the topic well enough to try their hands at it the next day in class. I suspect this model has an added bonus: each student begins to learn about how he or she learns best! Via audio, video, text, interactive activities... That's very valuable! I'd even have older students periodically write essays reflecting on how they learn "best."

The article also addresses one question I've had for some time: Can every academic subject be flipped successfully? I'm thinking about teaching geography and GIS in this model. Says Bergmann:
We started it with the hard sciences, physics and math. It works for foreign language. But we’ve got some amazing teachers speaking at our conference who are English teachers. I always thought that would be harder, but they love it. I haven’t seen a whole lot of social studies and history, but there is a movement amongst them.
My hunch is any subject can be flipped but... you need detailed course objectives, a bevy of curated "lecture" options and engaging in-class problem sets/challenges/activities. I want to see a college level GIS course that had this homework assignment:

1) teach yourself what kriging is and how it works (I'd have college students do their own curation of content!)
2) state what resource you used to learn about the topic and explain how you found and selected it

Once the students arrived prepared for "Lab," they'd then tackle a kriging challenge with their peers and the instructor at their sides. I'd want to take that class. I'd even want to teach it!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Siemens Wall-sized Airport Touch EduGames

Last week I was passing through the C terminal of Ronald Reagan Airport in DC. I was stopped in my tracks by a full sized wall display of a city map. Two children maybe 4 and 8 were routing electric cars into a parking lot to charge. They did this by dragging a route the car should travel to one of the open spaces. The cars then started to flash to show they were charging. The goal, best I could tell, was to get as many cars charged up and out of the lot before time ran out. The kids were having a blast and the adults enjoyed the graphics and challenges the kids had finding a safe route to an empty space.

A second game, involved a high rise office building. I actually got to read the directions for a brief moment while Mom explained them to the youngsters. The goal was to lower carbon emissions by lowering the temperature in rooms that were too warm, raising the temperature in rooms that were too cool and turning off lights when rooms had no occupants. Warm rooms got red, cold ones blue. And, you had to be careful not to turn the lights out while someone was still working in an office. If you did, they'd pipe up, "I'm still in here!" You made these changes by touching the rooms that needed adjustment. A thermometer-type display on the left kept track of the building's current emissions, rising and falling as changes were made. I got a kick out of the younger child needing a boost to touch rooms on the upper floors. She seemed to enjoy that part, too!

The game/advertisement was put together by Siemens. Its logo was up on top, but barely visible. Well done! Can we maybe build the game I want to see at the airport? The one where you spin and adjust the carry-on bags to fit the most into the overhead bin? It think that'd be a great "touch style" game for the kids and Mom and Dad!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Which Comes First in EdTech: Ed or Tech?

Don Boyes, who teaches GIS at the University of Toronto, wrote a thoughtful post last week about his current work preparing to move one of his face to face GIS classes to an online format. He addresses the key areas he needs to explore: content, pedagogy and technology. It's the last one that interests me. Boyes writes:
Teaching GIS in general, and certainly online, requires more than a passing familiarity with a host of technologies.  I have been thinking about the software I use, or might use for my online course.  Just off the top of my head, the list includes: PowerPoint; Adobe Photoshop, Captivate, Presenter, Premiere, and Connect; Blackboard; and Citrix XenApp.  I also have to understand issues concerning bandwidth, mobile devices, podcasting, open learning, etc.  As a technophile/early adopter, I love learning about all these things, but it takes a lot of time.  For every technologic tool or solution, I have to be mindful of the actual benefits for improving communication, teaching, and learning and judge whether the invested time will be worth it.
I am pleased Boyes has such a long list of tech tools in mind. And, I'm pleased he's aware that it's possible to get swept up in the tech and perhaps lose site of the goal, that is, learning.

That brings me to the question in the title: In the development of a course (residential or online), which should come first: the full syllabus with course and lesson objectives or the tech that will enable to objectives?

In an ideal world, educators would have the luxury of paid time to consider the content and pedagogy and develop a course. Then and only then, they'd have the resources (skilled instructional designers, hardware, funds, time to test implementations, etc.) to weave in the appropriate technology. I'm sure I'm not the first to notice it rarely works quite that way.

Still, I think it's valuable to try to work that way, especially now when education technology tools are exploding. Why?
  • While the tool you may want may not be available when you begin to develop the course, it might be in beta by the time you start to select technology. And, if technology literacy goals are among of the course, why not consider new or beta offerings? Students can learn a lot from how software is tested and input collected. Moreover, you can often use such products for free as part of a beta program or the like.
  • You can't possibly keep up with both educational technologies and your discipline. Don't try; rely on others to help identify and select appropriate technology. 
  • It's so easy to get swept away by new sexy software and hardware. Just consider the big rush to the iPad when most of the research on its impact on learning is still anecdotal. Hold tight to your educational objectives; don't be swayed by flashiness. 
Education technology is supposed to enhance learning. Thus, by definition, an educator must know what is to be taught and learned before such tools are selected. Be sure Ed comes first when considered EdTech.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Blurring the Map to Find Patterns

Somewhere along the line in my geography education I learned how to blur the map. The idea is that by blurring the details of the graphic, patterns will emerge. Somehow we humans can do this on demand when the map is close, like on a computer screen. In other cases we can just take a few steps back to blur the details.

I don’t think about this skill too often any more; I think it’s become automatic. That said, I returned to the concept this past weekend while running in the woods in Georgia. I’d traveled there to tackle a 50 km (31 mile) run. Most of my running is done on the roads in and around Boston; I’m still rather inexperienced when it comes to trail run navigation and simply staying upright on the changing surfaces.

The course was marked with tiny flags on the ground, white chalk arrows and most helpful in the woods, pink survey tape tied to branches, poles, and fences at about shoulder height. I considered one section of the course “bushwacking” because it was quite difficult to see any trail. I ran with a small group on my first loop through this area. We carefully sought out each new piece of pink tape and stopped frequently when it did not appear. The vegetation was thick with brambles and the ground cover included a mix of leaves, rocks and roots. I enjoyed the “hide and seek” aspect of that section on that first loop, but didn’t feel I ran it as well as I might have.

When I returned to the “bushwacking” area the second time, I was alone. I realized if I tried to find the big picture, that is, the general trend of the trail ahead, I could find each new marker more quickly. Further, focusing on finding the “line” of the trail distracted me from looking down at my feet and worrying about falling. I ran lighter and more confidently. My mantra was “see the trail, be the trail.” It was a lot like “blurring the map” to see that big picture. I felt I ran that section far better using this method.

On the second loop, I also began to get inside the race director’s head about how he laid out the course. If there’s a choice between up, down or flat, the course goes up or down, never flat. If there’s an edge, you run along it. We ran along edges of forests that abutted meadows and property lines marked with rebar. A corollary of the edge principle relates to linear features: If there’s a linear feature, you run along it. We traveled along barbed wire fences, creeks and climbed up a gravel road for probably a mile and a half  to the local water tower.

I developed a decent amount of intuition, which pleased me. I tested it regularly when the next pink ribbon was no where to be found. I’d head in what I thought would be the right direction and more often than not found the missing ribbon on the ground or well hidden by spring leaves. Only a few markers were actually missing, testament to our out of the way course shared by private land owners in the area.

While I’m sure I could have learned about these spatial tactics of trail running from books and other runners, it was sure fun learning it on the trail.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Response: What can you do with geography?

Google posted the video below titled "What can you do with geography?" on March 28. The goal was to honor and inspire this year's competitors in the National Geography Bee and to promote geography. It's a thoughtful gesture, with snazzy Google Earth zooming, references to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and images of treks up Mount Everest.

I'm sorry to have to say this but the video is not memorable, nor does not answer the question posed. The question was: What can you do with geography? The answer to that is a story. The answer is a specific situation, with real people, that highlights how geography matters. The video suggests geography is good and important, but in a very broad sense. Those are nice ideas and feelings, but they are not memorable nor impactful, at least not to me.

Do great news networks talk in broad, sweeping generalizations? No. They introduce you to real peopel, with real stories, to help drive home the larger issue. The recent TV production, Frozen Planet (which I have not seen) seems to hone in on specific animals, their specific stories, to drive home grander messages. NPR health stories often include a named individual who is facing a medical or insurance issue to "put a face" on a larger topic. It's both easier to follow the information and more memorable.

As I've noted before, the classic geography story is John Snow and cholera. It's both easy to follow and memorable. So, again, I beg those supporting geography to tell stories, rather than speak in broad, forgettable swaths. I'm still looking to collect more stories like that of John Snow.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Geography Matters at the University of Phoenix

Like many, I'm not sure what to make of the University of Phoenix. Thankfully, American Public Media is doing a full hour documentary on it and provided a preview in its weekly education podcast. (I highly recommend these weekly podcasts on education; they are just great.) Several things surprised me but I want to comment on the geographical aspect of Phoenix's campuses. Apparently, Phoenix was the first, back in the 1970's to start locating its campuses just off major highways. It provides huge parking lots for an "easy in, easy out" experience for busy students. Students seem to love it, especially compared the usual parking crunch at lovely quadrangle filled schools.

And, Phoenix markets it accessibility. The webpage with a nationwide map of campuses states:
If you prefer face to face interaction, there’s a good chance we have a campus location near you. In fact, we have locations within 10 miles of 87 million Americans.
I checked the locations in Massachusetts. One is indeed within 10 miles of me (crow flies) just south of Boston.
To better serve you, we’ve moved into a new location within a three-minute drive of South Shore Plaza. We’re conveniently located off of Interstate 93 North and South, Route 3, Route 1 and Route 28 North and South.
The Central Massachusetts Learning Center in Westborough is where business and MBA students go. It's right off Routes 495 and 9.

At one time it made sense to put the main campus of a state school in the center of the state; that's why Penn State is where it is. Today, however, what Phoenix is doing geographically is clearly working.