ESRI International Users Conference, Epilogue

The greater portion of the following collection of musings came on the very first day of the Education Conference. My current position covers a diverse number of disciplines, roles, and responsibilities. My office is on the top floor of a 5-story building, on the perimeter of our office space. And I am a Team of One.

Geospatial Education in Higher Education (Geography, GIS, Remote Sensing, Geosciences – not an all-inclusive list) requires educators tap into a wide spectrum of knowledge. Educators must know how computers work, the parts of computers, from RAM, graphics cards, hard drive capacity, and processor make, model, and characteristics. Educators need to be savvy about the physical network, the routers, switches, and especially network speed.

Operating system knowledge (Windows 7/8, Mac) plus mobile OS, like Android and iOS. Plus, some database knowledge is expected, and Excel doesn’t really count. MS Access is a good starting point, but employers today would really like SQL Server, maybe MySQL, paired with knowledge of SQL. Educators need to have some programming background, Visual Basic is a good start. However, Python is mandatory, HTML is nice, and any of the .NET languages such C# is a plus. Javascript is an asset, too.

I Am ArchaeologyEducators obviously need detailed knowledge of their specialty, urban systems, demographics, watersheds, terrestrial environments, archaeology, geology, agriculture, forestry, etc.

Bearing all of that in mind, I run a one-person shop responsible for evangelizing the geospatial gospel across a campus of about 13,000 in a relatively isolated region of the United States. The ESRI Education Conference becomes an occasion to shower in a waterfall of knowledge emanating from energetic, dedicated, and motivated people who all share one common mission:

“Education is not a job, education is a mission.

Some people liken the conference to “drinking from a firehose.” I would offer the conference, at least for first time attendees, is more like a baptism in the waters of the River of Geo-Wisdom. One enters the flow with some insight that there is something more; while wrapped in the waters a transformation occurs, and upon exit the realization of one’s ignorance is fully manifest. But there is also a sort of peace because you know you aren’t alone, people are around leading you deeper into the faith. Many have blazed the trail ahead, and in the case you are on the bleeding edge, around you are people who will help you clear a path. At least in principle.

The ESRI EDUConference can be a little overwhelming to some. Make that “most.” The greatest thing about the conference is being surrounded by like-minded people. When one works in a rarefied environment, isolated by vocation, by ignorance, and by geography, being surrounded by enthusiastic people can be both infectious and inspiring.

Below, I’m revealing some thoughts, impressions, ideas and a crude “To-Do” list compiled during the first day of the conference, for the most part.

Our College of Business has made considerable efforts in implementing ArcGIS Online for Organizations and building an academic community for business highlighting GIS. More colleges and departments need to implement AGO into curricula. Students, i.e people need to be aware of the power of spatial thinking. As the self-appointed “Chief Geospatial Officer” I need to proselytize more vociferously for greater widespread adoption and use of GIS on campus.

One of our business faculty has spent considerable time building a robust business course using ESRI’s SpatialLabs as a base. Several new business labs are being planned using data from real companies, not mock companies. ESRI is helping establish a relationship.

Faculty in my department, the core of geospatial lore on campus, need to develop similar labs related to specialties. Landsat 8 is up and functioning. We could be writing labs using real and free satellite imagery. We need to develop and offer a couple online courses for academic outreach for remote sensing and GIS. We need to examine ESRI’s SpatialLabs, inspect for gaps and places we can leverage our expertise and experience, and assist in developing labs.

Is the ERP system hurting course enrollment by filtering too many students? Our ERP implementation may be hurting enrollment in a couple courses. Our ERP enrollment rules were hard-coded based on course prerequisites in the course catalog. Students cannot enroll in most GIS courses without having one or two prerequisites fulfilled. Students can request an override but how many students decide a course over-ride request is too much trouble? I have no idea. Perhaps the department needs to offer a GIS course for non-majors.

My university needs to utilize and leverage our geospatial resources in better and progressive ways. We need to offer more online apps, more online course offerings using ArcGIS Desktop Student Edition. More faculty need to use ArcGIS Online for Organizations and the associated ArcGIS Online plugin for Microsoft Office. Finally, a certificate program in GIS needs to be offered.

Faculty always needs to look at what they are teaching and why. Here are some questions which need answers. When were the last time exercises were updated? Do exercises and projects reflect tasks which are related to current research research, fundamentals, and what the business environment expects? Have the fundamentals changed?

Good booksYes, fundamentals in some disciplines do change over time. While grammar rules might change slowly, technology fundamentals change rapidly. Python, for example, was barely known three years ago. Today, Python is fundamental to many scientific disciplines as a programming language.

Are your courses and degree programs keeping pace with technologies and evolving methodologies? Are students using online data? Are students finding and using their own data? Is there online data available which prevents them from re-making the wheel? Do they need to remake the wheel, or is understanding how the wheel is remade enough? Are we asking relevant questions for today, and tomorrow? Are we providing relevant and current topics? How much time are we spending on data creation exercises versus actually using information to answer questions, find new questions, and finding answers to the next round of questions?

Do faculty really know what works? Or, are we simply aping the same motions as the faculty we learned from? Do faculty talk with employers using the technology? Do faculty maintain contacts with former students, now employees, to ensure techniques and methods continue to be relevant? Or, do we fall victim to our own hubris semester-after-semester, thinking we have all the answers and are teaching the right substance?

If you are reading this (thank you) and thinking, “People who teach literature have it so easy. They can use the same lesson tomorrow they used 15 years ago.” Actually, no they can’t. Or, more precisely, they can but what purpose are they serving? Certainly not their students. These people should be learning who to embed mapping, like StoryMaps, into their curricula. Even is not StoryMaps, graphic novels have come a long way, and thanks to international bestsellers like Persepolis, are even more academically rigorous literary efforts than most Americans might be aware. I discriminate “Americans” because Asians already hold anime and graphic novels near and dear to the their cultural hearts, whereas the same genre tends to be most popular among a niche audience in the United States. My point is, being myopic within a discipline is too easy. Graphics novels incorporate graphic art & design, literature, perhaps history, science, or some other discipline, story-telling, aim for a demographic, and geography.

One aspect of teaching is assisting people in the discovery all learning is holistic. Just because you are studying biology doesn’t mean geography is at play, as well. Or chemistry, or physics. Watch a cheetah chase down a gazelle and prove to me physics is not involved, or geography, or economics. The biology is gruesomely obvious. The others might need some explaining, but that is the point. Geography’s greatest weakness and greatest strength are the same thing: scope, breadth, the amount of knowledge required to fully study a concern.

But, I digress. Sorry 😦

I am not a big fan of listening to student feedback. Why? The majority of students simply lack experience to provide substantive feedback. Having broached the topic of “hubris” a moment ago, one might think I, too, have fallen victim to hubris. However, how can a student, ripe from high school be cognizant of the goal behind homework, an exercise, a lecture, etc.? Can they see you have created a series of exercises, each building upon the other, with deliberate flaws insinuated throughout to reflect the less-than-perfect nature of work environments, providing students with opportunities to think on their feet. Their life experience is simply too brief for their feedback to be of much value. We can improve the value of their feedback, though, by coaching them on how to provide feedback.

Worthless feedback comes in the guise of, “I had no idea what button to click. His directions missed a few steps. What was the point of the exercise? Google Earth sucks.” Students come prepared to have everything work flawlessly. Why? I have no idea. One would think they would grasp by the time August of their first college semester arrived students would understand Life is anything but easy or perfect. Yet, complaints incessantly roll in. In the days before the Interweb, directions pretty much had to be error-free. There was no YouTube, or reliable online help, or Google to search for answers so having a well-planned, well-edited exercise was vital.

I really get some students who say, “Google Earth sucks” on my course evaluations.

Today, I often say, “Do this, …, make a shapefile of, …, buffer, …, then create a relate between the attribute table and your Excel spreadsheet.” I present a rough outline of what I want. Some students will react, “Hmm. I don’t know how to do any of this. But if I google, I can find a YouTube video of someone doing precisely this. And the online help is pretty thorough. But, if I get in a bind, I can ask for help.” Boom, an independent learner.

Other students will not be so independent. “I have no idea what he just said. These directions make no sense. I asked for help and he asked me if I had read the Help files, or GTS’ed (“google that stuff”) anything. I don’t understand what he does if I have to teach myself all of this stuff.”

“GTS = google that stuff”

But, we do need to acquire information about what we do, and how we go about doing it. Such things as course organization, staying on topic, budgeting time, enthusiasm for the topic/discipline, being encouraging, and implementing technology can all be assessed. Can such online apps as “SurveyMonkey” or “PollAnywhere” being used to monitor, measure, and assess student outcomes and course objectives? If not, perhaps these tools should be adopted and used regularly in select courses.

We need to look at what we are not accessing and why. Are sources like “Patchwork Nation” or the U.S Bureau of the Census being used? Are imagery sources, like USGS/Landsat8 or the USDA aerial photography being incorporated into student projects, exercises, and research? What about APIs (application programming interface) being explored in GIS courses? Are faculty learning about Facebook, Twitter, or other social media APIs with geolocation capability?

We need to look at what we aren’t teaching, and why. Do you visually scrutinize current job opportunities? Do you attend conferences and talk to vendors and recruiters to determine what job skills are required or desired? Are you looking out other disciplines to figure out how geospatial technology is affecting them? Are you helping develop people who can think, who can learn, who can be trained?

Our university implemented a new web site and new web policy a few years ago. All of the university web pages must look the same. Now, when someone visits our web site, they only see university offices beginning with the letter “A” because that is the way the site is designed. If the office or department begins with “B” then you’ll have to work to find the link. A visitor to our web site who can navigate our landing page will then be treated to pages that look exactly the same no matter if the page is for Chemistry or Financial Aid. I personally find this appalling and ludicrous. Each page should implement university-themed template but the content should be unique, informative, and representative of the department. No one wants to visit a cookie-cutter web site where one page looks exactly like the next and content is undifferentiated between pages. Chemistry’s web page should have a frame and university logo but a visitor should be able to discriminate between Chemistry and English. Each college and department should be allowed to highlight strengths, illuminate research, identify unique and peculiar qualities, and incorporate YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter feeds.

We need a better GIS web site resource, accessible from both public and private intranet. Part of community and regional outreach should include outreach to inform and educate the local population about your discipline. Provide a warehouse of web sites to promote your discipline. Are their open source efforts which novices could use at home to learn more about a subject? Are there YouTube videos or podcasts which non-academics might find enjoyable which you could link to or promote?

From an intranet perspective, are there topics and resources which are only available to your department, college, or discipline? Do professional organizations provide online learning options for faculty, staff, and students? Discounted or free software, technical support, books, or other educational resources? Then, those should be promoted via an intranet web site.

One downfall I am more than aware of is the lack of professional development I receive, and the lack of professional development I provide. Do you have specific expertise which would benefit others? Then, you should be training others in your experience. Would a local “special interest group” help spread the word, provide input, and encourage participation and cooperation? If so, “Geospatial Online Education Group” might be a worthy venture.

What types of grants are we missing because we aren’t thinking “outside the box?” A faculty person, Stephen Borders, at Grand Valley State (MI) earned a grant to develop a mobile app for social workers. Grants have become very competitive. Therefore, grants need to be oriented towards a specific concern, like helping social workers manage cases, helping police solve crimes, or helping students plan their morning walk to campus and their classes.

Be very careful before planning on attending ESRI’s International Users Conference, and especially the Education Conference. Yes, you will be engulfed with more information than you’ll know what to do with. Yes, ideas will be planted in your noggin like rows of corn in Kansas. And, yes, you’ll be surrounded by like-minded people with skills ranging from complete neophytes to GIS Jedi Masters. It’s all good, though.

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