Category Archives: higher education

University of Redlands students shining in their spatial literacy course

I want to send a shout out to all of my EDUC 616 students this weekend.  I’m grading recent assignments and I am SO PROUD of what you’ve learned over the last two months!  You guys rock!  I just need to step out of the way and let you emerging educators take over.   Really nice work.

supposedly digital native students have no real information literacy? unfortunately no surprise.

A recent study looking at the intersection of college students, librarians, and research questions.  Maybe the internet just further complicates things, but was there really a time in the past when students did know how to do this well?  Or when librarians had the magic lesson that was the effective teaching of this that somehow isn’t being done now?   I can’t recall ever really being “taught” these skills in a specific sense.  Instead they were things “learned” over years of school (mostly graduate school) and practice and then learning to (try to) teach other students?

Spatial Literacy for Educators program at the University of Redlands

It’s almost time to launch our first online cohort of students in our School of Education’s program in Spatial Literacy for Educators.   This term’s first class, EDUC 617 – GIS & Mapping as Instructional Tools – will be taught by Kristi Alvarez.  It’s the most geography and GIS focused of the four courses.  My contribution to the program, EDUC 616 – Foundations of Spatial Thinking – will be offered in Winter Term this year (starting in January 2012).   Though I am the guest speaker for the first week of Kristi’s class!  The other two courses involve curriculum development and assessment.

In July I was interviewed by Jesse Rouse of Very Spatial about the program, and you can listen here to the podcast.

Framing geo-literacy research

For the last few days I’ve been in DC, participating in the National Geographic’s Road Map to GeoLiteracy Project.   What’s geo-literacy?  Here’s how my colleague Danny Edelson defines it – understanding how the world works, how the world is connected, and how to make reasoned decisions.  He has ambitious goals, to have a large proportion of young people develop geo-literacy competencies by 2025.

Towards these efforts, I participate as a member of the Road Map’s Education Research Group. We’ve been designing the framework for organizing our research agenda questions, likely to be grouped around our abilities to formulate geographic questions, analyze spatial variability, and construct and share accounts  of our interpretations.  We do these things as we understand our world in spatial terms.  Focusing on a K-12 project is new for me, and only infrequently do I come into contact with geography’s well-crafted National Standards.   However, our agenda reaches into higher education as well, especially as teacher preparation is concerned, and this is all highly relevant and significant for our Spatial Literacy for Educator’s program.


new DH Spatial site from UVa’s Scholar’s Lab

In 2009 I participated in an NEH-funded Institute at the University of Virginia, focusing on the exploration of geospatial technologies within humanities disciplines. Last week the Institute finally launched one of its deliverables, an online venue for further discussion and support of humanities-focused GIS and mapping projects.

The mix of elements on the sites reflects both the combination of voices heard at their two part Institute: one focused more for the developers, librarians, and support staff for (large) humanities projects, and the other on faculty themselves.  Jo Guldi’s short essays on historical spatial turns evident throughout various disciplines is a nicely produced asset for the site, and I hope more discussion ensues.  Though I myself contributed one of the Step-by-Step answers, I’m uncertain about the need for this section (since there are so many other venues for such information) and I wait to see what other contributions come forth.

What I also follow with keen interest is the balance between the use of open source and commercial tools by the GIS-focused DH communities.  Geospatial OS software and applications require a certain commitment of dedicated effort and specialized knowledge, a surprisingly uncommon combination at many institutions. The use of commercial software by default requires no less effort, but most schools are more likely to have support staff knowledgeable in its use.  NITLE has recently reinvigorated its Digital Humanities initiative, but small liberal arts schools are some of the least likely to have staff with competence and confidence to use geospatial OS tools.  Go figure.

Spatial Literacy at the AAG

Last week I spent four days at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) conference in Seattle.  It’s an annual gathering for me, a chance to share what teaching and research I’m doing, network, visit with colleagues and friends, and generally reconnect with my tribe.

My colleague Jeff Howarth and I organized a session on effective approaches and best practices for teaching GIS.  Five different presenters with a range of ideas. It was standing-room only and well-received.

I attended a few sessions on gazetteers for historical GIS projects and some of the space/time projects.  And a critical cartography one that reminded me of how little patience and  interest I have for people who just like to hear themselves speak and who clearly do not care that the audience has ceased to listen.

For me the most worthwhile sessions were the series on spatial cognition, and more broadly, spatial literacy.  On Tuesday I attended a panel titled “International Research on Spatial Thinking.”  Eight people, five of them from Japan.  Finally got to hear Toru Ishikawa speak, someone whose work I’ve admired for a long time.  I’ll be making a presentation at this Spatial Thinking / GIS conference in Tokyo in September so expect to meet the group again.

On Friday there was a 4-part sequence of presentations and a panel on spatial cognition, organized by Sara Fabrikant, Scott Bell, and Sarah Battersby, among others.  Several thoughtful papers questioned the boundaries of spatial thinking, discussed spatial habits of mind, and probed into the GIS and spatial thinking connections.  The final session was a panel of which I was a member, duly honored and humbled to have been included in the group. The other panelists were Lynn Liben, Don Janelle, and Dan Montello, three people whose internationally-known research careers began during my diapers-to-elementary-school years. Gulp.

The theme was Methodology and Training in Spatial Cognition, and I’d been included for my perspective and experiences in organizing LENS.  Organizer Sara Fabrikant did a great job of keeping us on task and encouraging lively discussion with the audience, an achievement in itself given the lateness of the hour and the saturation of the brain.

AAG 2012: New York City.

GIS or Spatial Literacy in Gen Ed Courses?

A colleague of mine at Redlands is researching the idea of having one of our new or existing mapping-based courses become part of the University’s general education program.  I’ve learned that there are “Intro to GIS” courses that satisfy gen ed requirements at Dickinson, Rhodes, Wheaton, and San Diego State. In each of these cases the classes satisfy a “quantitative reasoning” requirement.

Though the quantitative reasoning category seems like a logical and straight-forward choice, I’m interested to learn of others as well.  At Redlands we have an archaeology/anthropology course called Mapping People, Mapping Places.  Students ask and answer a suite of anthropology and archaeology questions, using spatial analysis as the basis throughout.  I think it would be a great course for a gen ed category on analysis or problem-solving.  As noted in an earlier post, Harvard is also looking to integrate GIS into its gen ed courses, and I look forward to seeing the results of that.

At Redlands we’ve even gone so far as to consider having a whole category of spatial reasoning courses.  To make this viable, we’d need at least 10-15 (?) courses offered in any given semester whose content had been found to be adequately spatial.  What a lofty goal!  We’re not nearly there yet…

If anyone has examples of mapping-related courses that satisfy gen ed courses on their campuses, email me to let me know.

Update: URISA has an entire special journal issue on GIS Education (pdf) which includes an article by Tsou and Yanow specifically on GIS and General Education (pdf).   Thanks, Mark.

Crisis Mapping makes some headlines

Two stories were published today: one in the New York Times on the potential for online mapping to contribute to humanitarian relief efforts and another in The Chronicle on academic involvement in these efforts.  Reporter Marc Parry interviewed me for the 2nd story, and something I said managed to stay off the cutting room floor!  My five seconds of fame in a Chronicle article.

Today was the official end to the Standby Task Force’s contributions to the Libya mapping effort, and the UN OCHA has assumed the responsibility of the project.  It was their request that launched this deployment in the first place, and also today they published a report that addresses the Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies.  Took a quick scan through it and realized it needs a closer read when I have a more focused mind.

I am a complete newbie to the domain of crisis mapping, but learning little-by-little. The 4-week Libya deployment was both humbling and inspiring. Humbling because these contributions are so small and so tenuous in the face of true need. At times the whole system seemed so ethereal and fragile: a loose network of people around the world, relying on digital technologies such as gmail and Skype and google docs to coordinate themselves.  Inspiring because it works, and I loved being part of a team that has been doing *something* to help.

I intend to continue as a coordinating member of the SBTF’s analysis team, volunteering one map at a time.  Still working through the plans for bringing students to this too.  May Term?

spatial thinking and GIS in higher ed

My colleague and friend Joseph Kerski recently wrote about the ways in which spatial thinking may be increasingly recognized as valuable within higher education (and thanks for the call out, Joseph).  He included Harvard’s recent job announcement as evidence of increased interest in the topic, and suggested that few dedicated jobs like these exist.  I think there are actually more people filling that role on college campuses than is usually recognized, but these jobs are still uncommon.  They typically exist where GIS is being used in interdisciplinary settings, and in locales where cross-campus activities naturally take place, like libraries and offices of instructional technology. There, anyone who tries to support GIS usage and does NOT effectively communicate about spatial thinking in the process has an especially difficult time doing their job.

GIS “Specialists” on college campuses are great people (some of my best friends!) and I’m lucky to have met many of them over the years, mostly those from smaller liberal arts schools including Smith, DePauw, Carleton, Dickinson, Allegheny, Amherst, Colby, Williams, St. Lawrence, Skidmore, and dozens of others. At Redlands, we’re lucky to have multiple people participating in these efforts. Dave Smith is our GIS Specialist, based in ITS.  I modeled my own current Redlands position after Barbara Parmenter’s at Tufts, and work as a hybrid faculty/administrator.  Yes, it’s uncommon and difficult at times to bridge those worlds, but it can work.

What all of these positions have in common is that spatial thinking, whether we explicitly describe it as that or not, is central.  Yes, there’s software support. Yes, there’s data management. Yes, there’s some applied analysis. Yes, there’s map production. But if we weren’t successful at helping faculty and students gain confidence and competence at asking and answering spatial questions, it would all be for naught.  Faculty + their creative ideas + a few scattered days with Esri’s virtual campus ≠ sustainable GIS-based spatial learning.

The Harvard announcement has indeed generated a bit of discussion around the water cooler.  I’m particularly interested that they’re targeting their General Education courses, especially since I happened to write about their doing just that in a 2009 article in Journal of Geography in Higher Education (free pdf available here)!  Faculty who are curious about GIS and are hesitatingly testing the waters are sometimes reluctant to admit that they don’t know much about the spatial characteristics of their data, or that they have never (knowingly) asked spatial questions about the data before, or that they know little about how to analyze their spatial data in (statistically) valid ways.  Typically, faculty will have to be ready to try something new, and dedicate some time to it, and we all know how precious and rare our time can be.  Support staff learn to appreciate that faculty perspective and work with and around it.  How effective will a post-doc be in that role?  Can a post-doc be conversant enough about the range of topics they are likely to encounter (from biology to history to sociology to geology to political science, and beyond), or at least intellectually curious enough to engage in the conversations necessary to tease out the best GIS-based approaches?  Can someone make enough progress in two years to show a return in (learning) investment?  YES.  Especially if they’re geographers, the naturally interdisciplinary discipline!

Bottom line – there is a tremendous amount of spatially-based learning going on in many ways and in many places across campuses, it often involves GIS, schools from A to Z are doing it, and explicit attention to the value that spatial thinking brings to the activities will provide its greatest purchase in higher education.  Institutional investments in human resources are essential to making it all work.

new Spatial Literacy classes to be offered online

The University of Redlands intends to offer its new courses in spatial literacy for educators (pdf) online, maybe as early as September 2011!   We’re very excited about this program, one that we launched in 2010.   Contact me if you want to learn more about the program or its individual classes, or how to sign up!