RGS IBG AC 2014 – Sessions on “GIS Education: Who Wins?”

Claire Ellul and I had the privilege of not only hosting one session, but two sessions at this year’s Royal Geographic Society IBG Annual Conference, sponsored by both the Geographic Information Science Research Group (GIScRG) and the Higher Education Research Group, that were titled “GIS Education: Who Wins?”. This is the 3rd year in a row that we’ve successfully held sessions; the first, titled “Geography in Interdisciplinary Research: Threat or Opportunity?”, focused on the scepticism and triumph in using GIS in interdisciplinary research  and the second, titled “Using GIS in Interdisciplinary Research: Natural and Social Sciences Making the Case”, looked into how those from the social sciences, disciplines that don’t traditionally use GIS, were applying it in truly innovative ways. This year, we were pleased to have presenters, who excel in education efforts in engaging people who wish to learn GIS, share their tips, tricks and experiences, and where they see future educational trends going so we can adequately address the issues and needs that are leading the expansion and diffusion of the tools and discipline.

The first session had speakers from academia and industry discussing how they’ve actively adapted their outreach efforts. Joana Barros from Birkbeck College discussed the challenges of teaching mature students, understanding where their individual goals and personal obligations, and adjusting accordingly to deliver an earnest, student-centred educational experience. Tom Argles from Open University shared what’s worked and what hasn’t when teaching via distance learning; one of the most successful tools was using gvSIG and screenshots to walk and signpost students through exercises which they were able to more closely examine at their own pace. Addy Pope from EDINA took the group through interface changes to their very widely used geoportal for downloading information, which current statistics showed results in 42 maps being downloaded a minute! Jason Sawle from ESRI UK talked about the problems Secondary School Geography teachers faced in successfully applying GIS in their classrooms and how it’s largely because of a vicious cycle of lack of access to and understanding of the traditional desktop GIS technology, and how ESRI’s ArcGIS Online hopes to address that through web browser-based technology. Prof. Nigel Walford closed out the session by sharing what he’s learned over 25 years of teaching GIS at Kingston University and how their programmes evolved; he’s been famously quoted for saying that “Using GIS software to produce maps is becoming as commonplace as using Word to write essays and Excel to create charts.” (Walford, 1999) and outlined how he sees the continuing ubiquity of geospatial technologies and the need for GIS graduates to address those needs.

The second session was more focussed on interdisciplinary efforts in teaching GIS. Patrick Rickles (myself) from the Extreme Citizen Science research group at UCL presented on the outcomes of some preliminary surveys on the importance of the Geographic Information Science & Technology (GIS&T) Body of Knowledge’s Knowledge Areas to people from various disciplines as they learned to successfully apply GIS (the most important Knowledge Areas being Geospatial Data and Cartography and Visualisation [which mirrors previous work analysing existing literature]) and the finding that people would be interested in face-to-face (over online) training, if offered, and if they had the time. Liz Jones from the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at UCL shared her experiences of teaching undergraduate civil engineers GIS and the success of embracing the ‘lazy’ teacher within by getting the students to take ownership of tasks by involving them in outlining the boundaries of problems and peer assessing work. Nicholas Tate and Claire Jarvis from the University of Leicester discussing how to move from the GIS&T Body of Knowledge to more of a Community of Practice or a VIRTUAL Community of Practice, if that works better, as they believe the learning takes place through collaborative efforts. Though it was scheduled as a more structured panel discussion, a more general discussion involving members of the audience ensued, continuing with the concept of Community of Practice and how attitudes towards and understanding of the technology need to change. Resoundingly, comments would keep coming back to understanding what the learner wants to learn, and better facilitating that, even when they may not be using the “right” terms to identify what it is they wish to do; the idea is that they’re already USING the technology (e.g. Google Maps on their smart phone), but they may not be CALLING it GIS, which may result in the need for dynamic scaffolding to aid in learning. For those pursuing professional programmes, to ensure that institutions are producing graduates that will be successful in industry, there is a need for formal GIS education efforts to expand and be “GIS+” (e.g. GIS + Archaeology, GIS + Computer Science, GIS + Petroleum Engineering, etc.). Many also agreed that efforts in teaching GIS need to be done earlier so that students are getting engaged by the tools and concepts earlier; changes specifically to the curriculum for England & Wales are helping to make this possible.

It was an honour and a privilege arranging this session and learning from all the presenters; each one, in regards to the question of GIS Education and “Who Wins?” are trying to do their best to ensure that it, as it should always be, is the student – the learner.

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