Thursday, July 26, 2012

Esri Ed UC: PowerPoint Rules!


I saw a lot PowerPoint at the Esri Education User Conference (Ed UC) held this past week in San Diego. It was at the heart of nearly every session, save perhaps the one-on-one interviews in the two plenaries on Saturday and Sunday. And, to be fair, presenters were pretty much required to use PowerPoint (or at least were asked to submit one).

One comment struck me as I sat through yet another valuable but rather un-engaging session on Tuesday. The presenter shared that he was using the same slides he used in class.

That got me thinking. Do these educators teach the same way in school that they present at Ed UC? I can’t believe that’s the case for educators who spoke about inquiry, problem or project based learning. But I fear some use the same “sage on the stage” PowerPoint lecture format I spent ten or 15 hours watching this past week with their students.

That leads me to envision the conference I wish I could attend. I want to see presenters (specifically those who don’t use PowerPoint) teach. I don’t want them to tell me about how they teach, I want them to teach me and other attendees the same way they do in the classroom or online or informally.

Off the top of my head I thought of three sessions where active learning might have been especially effective.

  • I wonder if Megan Patent-Nygren could have squeezed even a mini-version of her inquiry-based learning (one of the most memorable presentations I saw) into an actual activity we the attendees could do. She told us about it, but I wanted to “do it.” 
  • I wonder if Eileen Johnson, who spoke about using model builder in her project based learning courses, could have had us try just a bit of what her students do. Maybe she could have asked small groups to develop a way to explain the complex models to non-GIS stakeholders. 
  • I wonder if Tom Baker, could have use a different tactic than a big group discussion about possible ways Esri could help those involved in geographic education research at the research SIG meeting. Perhaps small groups could have developed and vetted ideas, sharing just their favorite with the whole group.

Why are we not modeling the move to active, participatory, group, problem, project and inquiry based learning going on in classrooms across the world at our conference?

I did try to execute this once at NEARC Educator’s Day. It didn’t work out very well in part because 20 minutes is not enough time to do even part of lesson. I want to suggest one way we might attempt this sort of session at EdUC or other events like the NEARC Ed Day. Organizers could set aside a few of the 75 minutes sessions and invite master teachers to teach their favorite or their most innovative GIS or geography lessons. Some might need a computer lab, but others might not. Would you want to attend those sessions? I would!

Every educator with whom I’ve shared this idea responded, “I’d attend!” Why? I can answer for myself only. The last time I saw another instructor teach (outside of a conference GIS lab session or a formal training class) was in 1988, the year I completed my Masters at Penn State. I’ll be honest, I need some new material! To be clear, I don’t need new things to teach, I need to steal new techniques, approaches, etc. And, I want to steal them from the best educators in the geography/GIS space.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My First Edu UnConference

I attended EdCamp BLC this past Monday at the Park Plaza Boston. It was set up to precede the official Building Learning Communities event starting later in the week. I think about 89 registrants were noted, but about 60 people seemed to be around most of the day.

We got to know one another by playing "musical chairs." We circulated around the large round tables until the music stopped, then we sat (or stood) at the closest table and introduced ourselves. After a few rounds you got a feel for who was there, even if you didn't actually meet everyone. I seemed to be the only geographer and the only college educator in attendance.

An unconference is organized by the attendees pretty much when they appear at the venue. Those who had topics they wanted to explore wrote titles and their Twitter handles on large sticky notes and stuck them to the wall in the main session room to form an agenda. You can see the empty grid here. We had one big room and two smaller rooms to use for the day. After about 15 minutes the grid was full of about 16 sessions (some rooms included two sessions at a time). We basically had two blocks of sessions in the morning and two blocks after lunch. At 10 am we promptly headed off to our first session.

The title "You have 60 minutes to change the world, go!" intrigued me, so I went into that room. The idea was that in 60 minutes we'd come up with a measurable way to change the world. We broke into groups to brainstorm. During that time I learned that some attendees had not heard of Khan Academy and others hadn't heard of Cain's Arcade. It was a good reminder that plenty of people who are passionate about education have their hands full in their local pursuits. We all came around to the idea of addressing not a first world problem, but a second or third world one. Then one participant remembered that new sign-ups to microlending website Kiva got $25 "free" to donate to any project that they wanted. What if we could capture energy to use as much of that "free" money, along with donations, to do some good?

We honed in on projects that were nearly fully funded that addressed kids and education. After a few more moments we had a name, Flashloan, got the URL Flashloan.org, set up a webpage and put our first project over the top! (The projects are real, but are basically already funded; we are essentially funding the next set. Still, this gave us a measure of our success.) Neighboring rooms wondered why they heard cheers from our room. We started tweeting about the effort and by noon Flashloan was trending on Twitter in Boston. Pretty cool. 

I confess to being a skeptic when the whole "do something in 60 minutes" idea came up. What got me involved was the belief of my fellow participants that this was possible. Moreover, if it took a little longer than an hour, so what? I'm proud to have contributed to Flashloan. I'm still sorting out how the exercise might transfer into the classroom. My biggest takeaway, I think, was the benefit (learning) I got by dropping my cynicism at the door and diving in. Educators need to remove cynicism daily!

The next session I attended was on digital workflows, that is, how you manage your digital assets, e-mails, tweets, bookmarks, pictures, etc. The biggest challenges for educators seemed to be around images. School libraries would love to host school pictures in the cloud, but privacy issues make that impossible. No one had found a good tool to tag images with ease, either. We had a number of librarians at the conference, which was just great! Among the tools cited in the session were If This Then That and Evernote.

After lunch I attended a session on "Bring your own tool," the idea that schools not assign devices to students, but rather have them use what they already own - iPad, phone, etc. The big takeaway here was about trust.

1) Schools and educators need to trust students to use the devices responsibly.
2) Schools and educators need to trust that they can manage the technology even if they are not experts in all the different devices and software packages.

A culture that prohibits (or even limits) the devices you use the rest of the day from their use in school really makes no sense. It also makes no sense in the workplace. (See Stopblocking.org) I always felt that way about software - that students should not use special edu software, but the real thing. I never made the link over to to hardware. Now I get it.

The final session I attended was on digital storytelling. We talked about storytelling tools and the lack of tools for storyboarding. There are plenty of tools for making the videos and such, but few to help craft the story. After a while we were asked to break into groups and make a video based on our own six word stories about what we'd learned at the event.

My group chose this story: "Must get iPad, Go Shopping Now." The author fleshed out the story by explaining that she'd  sat feverishly trying to use an old slow Android tablet while watching all the iPads in use around her. We used Videolicous for our two minute story - a mix of stills and video. It was truly fun and the leader of our session even played it at the closing session!

I found myself keeping my laptop closed much of the day. I learn better, especially in these interactive, engaging and high volume electronic communications type sessions (lots of tweets, URLs, Google docs, etc.), by paying attention to the conversation. I operate very differently when I'm in a lecture/PowerPoint presentation. My laptop will likely be open and I'll be multi-tasking. I do that at the Esri User Conference. I didn't do that at EdCamp. This observation brings me back to the idea of bring your own tool. While others brought a mobile device, paper and pencil, or whatever, I brought my brain.

We wrapped up with Smackdown, two minute "ads" by attendees for (mostly free) tech or ideas that folks wanted to share. The resources suggested are detailed here courtesy of Innovative Educator. I had a great day and was most pleased to have dropped my cynicism in the first session. Otherwise, I'd have missed out on quite a lot.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

MentorLinks Builds GIS Programs at Community Colleges

The Atlantic details the MentorLinks program, one I'd never heard of, but one that has touched GIS, but more on that later.
One good model for capacity building at the sub-baccalaureate level is the MentorLinks program, administered by the American Association of Community Colleges as part of the Advancing Technological Education program, which is Congressionally mandated and funded by the National Science Foundation. The MentorLinks program isn't big or flashy, but for a relatively modest investment in a select number of STEM programs at community colleges, it appears to achieve some significant, lasting results.
Here's how it works: through a national grant competition, AACC selects a small number of community colleges for a two-year grant program. The current 2011-2013 cohort has eight grantees, bringing the grand total of grantees since the program started in 2002 to just 33. Each grantee receives a modest grant to fund program development (for the current cohort, the two-year grant total was just $20,000) along with funding for travel to attending national meetings.  
The grantees represent a range of technical education programs from across the country, and each is matched with a mentor who has knowledge and connections in the area of STEM training the grantees plan to develop, with mentors receiving a small stipend. Working closely with their mentors, faculty and staff from the colleges endeavor to establish or strengthen a specific program, often in partnership with regional and local partners in government and industry.
I dug through the archives at MentorLinks to find grantee who tackled GIS. I found one, from Lincoln Land Community College in Illinois (where else?). Search this pdf for GIS and you'll find the write up about an intro GIS course offered in 2010 and some workshops with Esri. There was a plan for a certificate program in 2011. As of today I see just that same single GIS intro course in the course catalog.

Digging deeper into the past, I learned the City College of San Francisco worked on a "GIS Across the Curriculum" project (pdf of results) while Springfield Technical Community College, MA worked on "Advancing Workforce Education in GIS" in 2005-2007 (pdf of results). Kentucky Community and Technical College System, KY tackled "Geographical Information Systems Partnership" (ppt of results) back in 2002-2004. There's a 2009 article from the Community College Times explaining how the model pairs mentors from other community colleges with those trying to build programs and well as how some mentees turned mentors joined the GeoTech Center.
These efforts seem to pre-date and create the building blocks for work done by the GeoTech Center and other players, including Esri. Do we have enough experience, documentation and insight to build a best practices document aimed at creating or growing a successful community college GIS program?

The Atlantic