At this conference I witnessed real GIS analysis in the cloud for the first time. Esri has made an effort to put some of its most popular and useful analysis tools into the cloud. This is the model Esri is encouraging educators to use.
What does this mean?
What Esri is doing with ArcGIS Online is bringing full GIS, with analysis, to the cloud, and to the students. This means no software to install and no IT guy from whom to get approval. This means processing on a server (not local). This means simpler interface (Web-based). This means simpler access to data (datasets preloaded and findable in the cloud). So, the major hurdles of software access, complex GUI, high powered PC, and data converting are all removed from the teaching and learning experience. All that is needed is the browser.
Overall, I think ArcGIS Online has the potential to revolutionize mapping in education.
Tools for Prettifying Maps
Two things struck me at the conference. The maps I was looking at all week - whether a collection displayed as a map gallery, a Web mapping application or a story map - looked great. This is a big deal. We all love the pretty Stamen basemaps (am I right?). During that week, I was looking at maps from Esri that were beautiful. That’s exciting and transformative. These were maps worth sharing, not just data being presented online. I know that this will make students happy, because when they create a map, they will then be excited to share it. While this may seem like a small deal, this is a huge deal.
These are also things that I want to bring back to Skidmore College and implement. I would love to have a map gallery highlighting student interactive maps. I have already begun exploring the use of story maps in the classroom and for campus initiatives (here’s our simple graffiti prototype). Getting ArcGIS Online into our GIS class is essential, but I think it is just the beginning. With analysis in the cloud and elegant online map output, I think it will grow quickly on campus, especially as we ramp up some of our on-campus outreach to departments.
So, to sum it up, I think these attractive maps will go a long way in helping to spread the “map love” on campus, and in education.
Getting started with mapping in education
I spent a lot of time reflecting about teaching professional development during the week of the conference. After all, it was a conference on how to teach teachers GIS. Something I have always thought about is meeting people where they are, and starting simple. For instance, if you start too high up the pyramid (see the Instructional Uses of GIS graphic below), you may lose people who don’t have some of the basics. Here is a great graphic they used to illustrate this for teaching GIS.
We used this graphic all week as a framework for reflection as we did different teaching and learning activities. It was very useful for gaining awareness of why and how we were doing what we were doing. Instructors prompted, “What level of the pyramid are you working in now?” and we would respond. I really liked this aspect of the workshop.
Related to this concept I must tell a quick story. First of all, I am so thankful for meeting many of the wonderful Geographic Alliance coordinators at this institute. It was so refreshing to see this commitment to geography education by truly inspirational individuals. In reflecting on my interactions with these folks, I investigated some great entry level mapping resources. I found the National Geographic MapMaker Interactive a great entry level tool for inspiring geographic exploration and simple maps. Additionally, I thought that Fieldscope was a fascinating citizen science project.
Finally, I learned more about mapping directly from Microsoft Excel. This was called Esri Maps for Office. This feature of ArcGIS Online allows you to go from tabular data in Excel to an interactive map in PowerPoint in very little time. I was impressed with this tool, and this might be a good GIS-lite application for those faculty and students with heavy Excel experience.
So, to summarize, I became aware of entry level mapping tools that show great promise, and could be excellent for beginning students, teachers or faculty.
So, what is my main takeaway? Cloud mapping for education is here, and the maps look great. Think about how you teach, and don’t be afraid to scaffold with some of the great National Geographic mapping resources and Esri Maps for Office.
Another version of this article appeared at Alex Chaucer’s Blog.