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Monday, November 16, 2015

Should Educators Expect Reliable and Backward Compatible GIS Software?

"Two adult Guinea Pigs (Cavia porcellus)"
 by Sandos at Wikipedia. Licensed
under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
Matthew Wilson recapped a panel titled Geographic Education in a Modern World from the NACIS meeting held last month in Minneapolis. There are some interesting tidbits including one about expectations from GIS software providers.

Expectations from Industry

In response to the question "What is the unique responsibility of industry regarding these changes [in mapping technologies and approaches] and their impacts on higher education?" Katie Kowalsky of the University of Wisconsin Madison stated:
We need industry to help by committing to have software that is reliable for us to use for course development and will support backwards compatibility.
I think every educator can sympathize with Kowalsky's frustration with imperfect and oft changing interfaces and functions. It's frustrating to try to stay up to date and teach with the latest software release when it appears in September just as classes are starting. Online platforms change often, sometimes it seems, without notice.

Changing Software as Teaching Opportunity

I look at these situations as an opportunities. The sooner students get used to the rapid pace of software change, the better. If an educator's created "cookbook" lesson doesn't match the provided interface, why not challenge students to figure out the new tools and buttons? I'll wager they will learn far more than if they clicked the correct button, per the "recipe," and it actually worked!

That said, there is some preparatory work to put students into the right mindset for these situations. When teaching graduate students I've introduced the idea in the first "meeting" (online) that they are guinea pigs. I try to be clear that I mean that in two ways.

First off, my students are guinea pigs of my teaching plan  - it may or may not work. I'm not trying to "give myself a pass," but rather set realistic expectations on both sides. Second, in courses that use a lot of software, I make clear my students are at the mercy of the software. They are effectively testers of it, no matter how well or poorly it's been tested and vetted before reaching them. The guinea pig discussion lays a framework that says, "Don't expect everything to go perfectly to plan. Be ready to 'go around' a problem, ask for help from a peer or go online to seek answers." I realize this vision may look a bit too much like real life for some students. It may make them nervous and uncomfortable. I'm ok with that!


Will this work for less experienced students and software users, for high school and college students for example? I think so. The widespread use of "Ask three before me" in K-12 classrooms helps give students agency and take responsibility for their learning, rather than being wedded to the book or recipe. There's no reason it should be any different with regard to making sense of new or misbehaving software.