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Monday, December 21, 2015

2015: Where is GIS Education in the Top EdTech Trends?

Every year Audrey Watters ends the year with a set of posts covering the last 12 months' edtech trends. I read the ones posted up until Dec 18 and here ponder where GIS education fits. 

The Politics of Education Technology

Common Core, the election, Arne Duncan stepping down, paying for college .... most of these are of little concern to GIS educators.

The federal government's interest in geography and edtech (where GIS falls) are of concern. Geography graduated up in the latest education bill (Every Student Succeeds Act) in that it's now considered part of a well balanced breakfast, I mean education. That to me says there's still quite a lot of advocacy and grant writing at the state level needed for any measurable changes in the coming years.

The federal government continues to be very excited about edtech and ConnectED is at the heart of it. Watters describes ConnectED as a program
in which ed-tech companies push their products into schools. In June, the White House boasted about the initiative, saying it’s “on track to achieve its goal of connecting students to tools they need for 21st century learning.” It’s 2015 and we’re “on track” to move towards “21st century learning.”
Even at free, it's tough to push products and their educational use into K-12 schools. And, I think we are still learning how to use technology for teaching and learning. My sense is the most successful companies in edtech are not doing the teaching but rather the management and communication around teaching - companies that offer learning management systems, companies that offer e-mail sending tools for teachers. The ones that offer truly innovative technology around learning are few and far between in my opinion. I wrote about just two on this blog since it started: Motion Math and ST-Math.

Standardized Testing

Since geography is but a part of a well rounded education, required tests boil down to just one: the National Assessment of Educational Progress. As a country, we are making little progress say the 2014 results.
Image by Josh Davis, under CC-BY-ND.

The other big test in our space, the AP Human Geography Exam may soon have a companion, an AP GIS&T Exam. The AAG put together individuals to develop a proposal.  Ideally, the existence of such a course could prompted expanded interest in the topics at the high school level.

I wonder if schools might start offering GIS&T educator  programs as Elmhurst did for AP Human Geography. I'm not sure how that's going; I've not heard much about it since the launch.

Geography testing in the UK got some good press this year. A Guardian editorial noted the value of a geography A-level as key to degrees and good jobs.

The other standardized tests in our space come from GISCI, Esri, ASPRS, and USGIF. While not in the traditional education space, they do impact what's taught in K-12 and university courses, so its valuable for educators to be aware of them.

The Employability Narrative

The narrative in question suggests that the aims of K-16 education involve getting students jobs. I do believe every single post-secondary program I've looked at that teaches GIS or geospatial technology cites the Department of Labor estimates of the growing demand for workers in this space. I suspect those data are what prompted American Sentinel University to get into, and then quickly out of, the GIS space.

Part of employability in general and in geospatial in particular, I continue to read, is the ability to code. I noted, as Watters does too, that in Australia requirements for history and geography in K-12 were dropped to add in coding.

Programs and the students considering spending money on geospatial degrees and certificates should take a look at whether coding is required for a credential. If it is not, take it anyway (see this recent Reddit/r/GIS thread)! I believe the toughest course for many in the Penn State MGIS program is programming. That said,  I'm happy to know so many graduates have experience learning a language and exploring computational thinking whether they go on to be programmers or not.

While I distinguish between education and training, some GIS programs are leaning so hard on the latter that the former is disappearing. Here's an example from a school in Canada teaching using open source software.
By offering a program of this kind, Langara College Continuing Studies will continue its tradition of offering diversity in its learning opportunities and of teaching skills that are of high value to industry. Since traditional GIS tools are sold using very expensive per-seat licensing models, grads will have highly marketable skills.
Unlike other GIS programs in B.C., it does not concentrate on GIS implementation, science, programming, or enterprise-level management. The focus is on teaching the skills related to understanding and using GIS to create cost-effective, professional-quality results.
Credits and Credentialing

Watters notes "credential creep," a trend toward employers demanding more degrees and certificates for positions than in the past did not require quite so many. While I've not read too many GIS job ads of late, my sense from the discussion groups I follow is that for many positions a bachelors plus a GIS certificate may no longer be enough for a "good" job. More often a GIS masters or GIS experience with a masters in another field is the key combination.

What does that mean for credentials that capture smaller bits of expertise such as certificates that do not require a bachelors degree, associates degrees, badges and individual or concentration certificates from MOOCs? My fear is that while all of these are geared toward those beginning in the field or those from disadvantaged educational backgrounds, they fall short of serving those groups. Statistics on MOOCs covering all areas show they serve a disproportionate number of people with degrees. I fear badges may follow suit. There is a Geobadge for attending an OGC Technical Committee Meeting. I think one for giving a paper at URISA conference would be more appropriate! To be fair, there are beginner OSM badges and ones for games like GeoPlunge.

As I've suggested elsewhere, the long list of different credentials related to geospatial (degrees, certificates, badges, certifications) from schools, professional organizations (USGIF, GISCI) and companies (Esri, Safe) confuses students and hiring managers. That may be why going to back to something simple, a college/university degree, remains at the core of hiring in many areas. As someone with a liberal arts education, who believes in them, that warms my heart.

The Collapse of For-Profit Higher Education (Or Not)

Watters argues that while for-profit colleges had a rough time in 2015, the industry is morphing to serve the latest hot job, programmer, via programming bootcamps. I have not seen GIS bootcamps pop up ... yet, but there are for-profit players working to grab student dollars in our space.

The one for-profit offering degrees in GIS, American Sentinel University, shut down its programs in 2015.  For-profit Unmanned Vehicle University continues on despite the passing of its founder. Its latest statements to the media (August press release) include suggestions that drone pilots need more training than the FAA might require. Convincing the FAA of that fact could send students to it doors.

I suspect there are currently record numbers of for-fee online GIS (training) courses at online course sites like Lynda.com (25 courses, now owned by LinkedIn), PluralSight (3 courses) and the geo-focused DiscoverSpatial (30 courses).

Beyond the MOOC

Have MOOCs achieved their potential? That's the final topic Watters asks in her long essay on MOOCs. She concludes that from an education perspective MOOCs have not fulfilled these promises:
that MOOCs will democratize education, that MOOCs will be free, that MOOCs will decrease the cost of college, that MOOCs will improve universities’ brand (and enrollment).
From the perspective of the geospatial technology space I'd argue the goals of MOOCs were, and are, quite different. At a session at the Esri Education GIS Conference some years ago we agreed the main goal of MOOCs was marketing. And, as I suggested last week, when MOOCs measured up and were considered valuable marketing, they were repeated. Others that were less successful were shut down or morphed into for-free courses.

All that said, I continue to be surprised that only Esri, among the geo vendors, has jumped on the MOOCs as marketing bandwagon. Google did one back in 2013, but that was "one and done." Other GIS software vendors offer free accounts, free trial or free software, tutorials and resources but don't go that extra mile to offer a MOOC.

I think that these companies fail to recognize that marketing is relationship building. And, a course (classroom, online or MOOC) involves a relationship. The instructor becomes the face of the relationship at first, but later that can/will/should grow into a relationship with the organization behind him or her. (Hooray for Vanderbilt, a university I have a relationship with only because I took one its MOOCs.)

While I found that at least one of Esri's MOOC did not create a great relationship for me, many other students in that same course report learning a lot and loving the course. If that's true, I suspect they've created or strengthened their relationship with Esri.

The Compulsion for Data

Big data is hot in education. Not only can organizations see who signs up for and completes a course, they can, with the right tools, track who watched which videos and got #4 on quiz two wrong in the Python course. Ideally, all this data will lead to better teaching and learning.

In the geospatial teaching and learning space data are few.
  • How's Esri's ConnectED program going? I had to contact Esri and its partner in mentoring, the AAG for numbers. The representative from the latter noted fuzziness in the data. 
  • Is either organization looking at impacts of this edtech "intervention" (or perhaps just one set of interventions, the GeoInquiries) in one more more classes or schools? I don't know.
  • How are K-12 students doing in geographic concepts? The NAEP test is the best we get. 
  • How about data on geospatial MOOCs? Penn State and other faculty share their data (Penn State, Elmhurst, Pace) but such papers and article are few and far between. 
  • How about spatial thinking for kids? I saw one article cross my feed last week. 
  • What about the uptake of FOSS4G in education? I found some old data
We need both more research and more data! I hope NCGE, AAG, National Geographic, Geo for All, and the state alliances can gear up to gather and share data important to their work. It might prove particularly valuable as many of prepare to lobby for the U.S. federal government dollars to grow geography, and perhaps GIS education.