Teaching geospatial today…

mapandglassesI have had a chance to crash a few classes this semester both out of town and here on campus and I have used this as an opportunity to rethink what I would want students to walk away from one of my classes with. The plans for the intro to GIS, advanced undergrad GIS, and graduate level geovisualization class I taught this year began with an existing syllabus and PowerPoint decks that I had from when I previously taught these classes, but VerySpatial, PlanetGeospatial, and Twitter have changed my perspective since I first taught the undergrad classes. As a first time lecturer in the undergrad classes (aka my first preps) I grabbed everything I had access to from when I took the class, liberally used the PPT the publishers provide for the text to build my own PPT decks, and generally stuck to what was in the book. Sure, after 2005 I added a lecture on neogeo, Google/MS/Yahoo/…, and generally tried to give current examples related to various topics, but the content was basically the same a decade ago.

This time around I (we in some cases where Sue and I are co-lecturing) are trying to change it up a bit. Instead of talking about spatial data types from a series of slides that the students could just as easily read as opposed to listening to me read in an intro class, I tried to bring the PPT deck to a level of Zen to 1) allow the students to see examples of the concepts I was discussing, 2) get them to think about what I was saying instead of scribbling down what was on the PPT slides while zoning me out, and 3) to prompt myself to drop the zombie-slide-reading approach that is so easy to fall into with classrooms filled with technology. If nothing else, I want the students to realize that knowing the ups and downs of vector and raster is actually WAY COOL (or is it just me?) and that it is the doorway to a really exciting tool/technology/method/… that can be used to look at almost anything/any domain area.

In the advanced GIS class, when it was time to talk about accessing spatial data, I couched it not in the ‘here is where you go to find some data and they are all wonderful and good’, but in terms of ‘if you were creating data access’ how do the existing federal, state and local interfaces match up with your expectations, and how might your expectations not be appropriate for various data types and within the current discussions on SDI’s in the US, EU, etc. Oh and don’t forget there is a whole new area of data that may be even more exciting with User Generated Content and Web 2.0 influenced data portals.

The grad class on geovisualization is of course the easiest to approach differently since it is the first time we are teaching it as a stand alone class and the topic is one that forces you to look at the changes in the discipline and industry. It is a way to push for a broader view from traditional GIS toward geospatial technologies by including ideas like the Digital Cities initiatives and the overall push toward capturing infrastructure data.

I know we aren’t the only ones trying to balance GIS concepts with the reality of where GIS and geospatial technologies in general are heading, but it is a great feeling when you leave a classroom and you have found a good mix of basic concepts while keeping it relevant and meaningful. Teaching GIS has always been more about the concepts than memorizing the software buttons for me, but this year I find myself thinking it is about teaching students to be literate and well versed in the concepts for each level of the classes and at least familiar with the context that they will be heading into after they leave the classroom.

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Jesse is Instructor in Geography and a PhD candidate in Geography focusing on the integration of phenomenology and geospatial technologies to study prehistoric cultural landscape. He is a GIS Professional and Registered Professional Archaeologist and holds an MA in Geography and a BS in Anthropology with a concentration in archaeology.