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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

NEARC GIS Educators Day 2014: Throw out the Book!

NEARC GIS Educators Day, held this past Sunday, included about 60 educators from New England and beyond. Pennsylvania and Virginia were represented, too! We met up in Groton, CT before the official New England Arc User Group meeting.

The theme of the day, for me, was “Throw out the book!” Peggy Minnis who teaches a desktop GIS MOOC (based on ArcGIS desktop) noted that while her students can purchase “the book,” most do not. It’s not clear if cost or simply not liking books is the reason, but most choose to learn GIS via her videos. She built her course exercises on Census data, so those are not from any book, either!

Stace Maples (@mapninja) is the GIS guy at Yale. He spoke about the value of familiarity with programming. His point, and his challenge to us (and our students) is to learn enough about GIS and programming to hack things together to use GIS. When it comes to learning how to program, he cautioned, don’t run through a full programming course/book staring with “Hello World.” Instead, go directly to examples of code “like” what you hope to do and start messing around with them. With just a “familiarity” with programming general, you can do quite a lot. The coolest thing he showed us was hacked together; Photogrammer, is a map uniting images from the “largest photography project ever sponsored by the federal government.”

Peter August, at the University of Rhode Island, doesn’t use a book for his GIS lab. His students watch his short videos as homework, have a quiz on them when they come to class, and then spend class time working on GIS exercises. He flipped his class before he even knew that’s what it’s called! He noted the challenge of making and remaking the videos either because of slip ups or changing software versions. Over time, it seems, he’s found a method that works; he doesn’t even edit his videos (yet). I asked if he’d ever use anyone else’s videos for his course. The answer: no. Why? His course is his version of GIS, with examples and exercises specific to Rhode Island.

I also, perhaps inadvertently, suggested educators throw out the book. I offered some “tips” on finding and using GIS education resources. None of them involved books, but nearly all involved authentic learning and having the educator “make the content their own.” 

I’m encouraged to hear so many educators are creating and using their own content. But, to be fair, the ones at this event are the go getters and risk takers. And, most have some years invested in GIS and GIS education. They are selecting datasets and crafting exercises that appeal to their students, the style of learning (for example, inquiry-based at Essex Tech), and what they feel are the key ideas and skills to be mastered. 

Educators new to GIS (and there were a few in attendance) can’t do that. They are the market for books, courses, exercises, and videos that others produce. The real trick, I think, is getting these beginners up to speed quickly, so they too can “throw out the book.”