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Monday, February 25, 2013

Early Feedback on Geo-MOOC

On Feb 21 Penn State announced it would be working with Coursera to offer Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs). Among the first five courses is what I and others believe is the first planned geography/mapping related MOOC, Maps and the Geospatial Revolution. As is typical of the whole MOOC movement, there was a lot of excitement and response, even though the course is barely outlined and won't be live for its five week run until July of this year.

Here are some of the responses, all from industry insiders, that gave me pause.

‏@RIGEA1 wrote:
Want to learn #GIS but not sure where to start? This free MOOC "Maps & the Geospatial Revolution" is for you!
The course webpage uses the term geographic information system just once; it certainly does not promise that students will learn GIS. It does say they will make maps.

@SkipCody wrote:
I am excited to attend! ...
Both the intro video and webpage text make clear this course is not for geogeeks. The webpage includes: "If you're already a Geospatial Guru, then you might find this work a bit basic, in which case I hope you'll consider taking the online courses that we offer at Penn State." The tweet author is a "Product Manager for a SaaS GIS Company."

Some MOOCs have been overrun by "experts," making me wonder about the experience of the real newbies. See for example stats shared here in section titled "students" describing a machine language MOOC at Stanford.
Among 14,045 students in the Machine Learning course who responded to a demographic survey, half were professionals who currently held jobs in the tech industry. The largest chunk, 41 percent, said they were professionals currently working in the software industry; another 9 percent said they were professionals working in non-software areas of the computing and information technology industries.
Of course, when a course is free, it's hard to dissuade interest, and I'm not sure any company, educational institution or instructor would want to do so. Hopefully this sort of interest by experts will die down as the MOOC concept is more familiar to all.

@jodygarnett wrote:
... better cover open source?
While I'm sure it's possible to run a five week course that uses, or covers, open source GIS, I don't believe that's the goal for this very first Geo-MOOC.

@SS_Rebelious wrote:
finally a GIS course! But unfortunately ESRI's software will be used(((
The course will use ArcGIS Online. Could it use something else? Sure. Will it really matter what software the students use for a five week course if the goal is exploring mapping and geospatial technology and making a map? As an educator, I think not. Equally importantly, I think think Penn State pushing ArcGIS Online in this way is a good thing.

All of these comments are from people inside the geospatial industry. What will be far more interesting will be the comments from students outside geography and GIS after they take the course.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Do you want to use online GIS with your students?

The title comes from a tweet from an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher. The whole tweet reads:
Do you want to use online GIS with your students? @EsriCanada has extensive resources. http://bit.ly/VvLiQ4 Start with Map My Community.
While I think the goal is to point out the valuable resources at the website, I'm more interested in the question posed, ideally to educators, "Do you want to use online GIS with your students?" The tweeter used to teach geography and finds GIS and GPS interesting, so the question seems quite natural.

And yet that question causes me some discomfort. While I'm a fan of GIS and GPS, as an educator, I've been trained to lay out, or learn of, existing educational objectives (what the students will learn to do) before determining the form of the course or the tools to be used.

I recall a similar discomfort when meeting one of the geography textbook publishers at a conference. He assured me his text was the best for my World Regional Geography course at the community college. The problem was, in my version of that course, there was no text, just an atlas.

While I'm hopeful more and more students will be able to take a dedicated geography course in their K-16 experience, I believe most will only "run into" geography and its related technology in small "injections" along the way. John Caris at Smith College and  Sharron Macklin at Williams College take that approach in their small liberal arts colleges. David DiBiase, of Esri presented a vision for that sort of "injection" at in a presi titled Spatial Thinking Across the Curriculum at the Specialist Meeting on Spatial Thinking Across the Curriculum, Santa Barbara CA, December 10-11, 2012. I think as geographers we need to think about a geography curriculum that addresses both those taking a dedicated course or degree, and one that injects key ideas across a broader liberal arts or engineering program.

How would I rephrase the question for the latter vision? Here's a starting point:

Do you want to ...
  • practice critical thinking
  • develop spatial literacy skills
  • explore visual communications
  • evaluate Web data resources
  • learn to use Web services
  • consider epidemiological spread of disease
with your students?

The answer? Then you might want to consider teaching with GIS!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Obama's STEM High School Vision and Geospatial

The education idea that caught my eye from last week's State of the Union address had to do with expanding options in high school to infuse more Science, Technology, Education and Math (STEM) and grant students an entry credential into that workforce. The discussion was short and sweet:
Let’s also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job. At schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering.
The vision is of a competitive grant opportunity.
We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.
Few details were provided so I was pleased my local NPR station's OnPoint radio show got some experts to flesh out the models mentioned in the speech.

I learned that in Germany, once in such a program, really an apprenticeship, students work alongside mentors some four days a week, with just one day in school learning the underlying background to the tasks done at work.

I also learned that at P-tech students are not delivered a curriculum geared specifically for skill to be performed at IBM, but rather learn soft skills (working together, presentation skills, project work and the like) while completing a rather standard sounding associates degree. That program is six years (freshman to senior +2) but students begin college work typically in their sophomore year. Moreover, each one has a mentor from IBM for the duration. The program is only in its second year, so it's unclear how it will play out. The offer from IBM: P-Tech students will be first in line for entry level jobs, but are certainly not guaranteed them.

Could the president's program, as it matures, be another way to grow all those missing geospatial professionals we will need? (See for example the latest National Research Council report.) Will this radically change the role community colleges are playing now as providers of two year geospatial degrees? What about all those private schools offering certificates?

Will the GeoTech Center's GTCM now be used to build high school curricula? Will these programs be as horizontal as P-Tech seems to be or be more focused, creating workers who can walk into a specific job at Northrop Grumman or NGA? How will the GeoTech Center, USGIF, GITA, URISA and MAPPS contribute to this vision? Will they be matchmakers for the three required partners (high school, college, employer)? How will online education play into these new programs?

There are many questions and few answers, but this program seems like the next money train for geospatial education and training and we need the best players in our community to step up to the challenge.