Enhancing Engagement in Geospatial Presentations

By Adena Schutzberg


Enhancing Engagement in Geospatial Presentations
I noted after attending Penn State’s Teaching and Learning with Technology Symposium (TLT) in March that the goal of at least some of the attendees was to find more options to engage students. Educators at all levels are looking for new ways to get students involved and actively learning, no matter what the subject matter. One elementary educator I know figured out how to use the carcass of a deer in her class curriculum on the environment. Not only did the students help bury it in the fall, but they mapped where they buried it and predicted what they would find when they dug it up in the spring. That teacher certainly went out on a limb with the project, something not every educator is ready or willing to do. She surely added to her workload: she had to get all sorts of permission from the school and then find a location to bury the deer. In the end, Audubon, which owned land nearby, was happy to host such an effort. 
The principles of engagement are working their way out of the school-based classroom, albeit slowly. This article on engagement in Esri’s GIS training classes describes a “new direction” in training. It explains how the company’s trainers now go beyond the “lecture plus labwork/homework/questions” model and include peer interaction and “fun.” The article suggests new ways to engage by having students take the lead in teaching each other, with the instructor acting as facilitator. That’s a big change for Esri’s training program; I applaud it. 
And, I want to use it as a stepping stone to argue that the geospatial community needs to incorporate engagement practices at our professional conferences, as well. Below I share some of the more engaging sessions I have attended in my last few years of conference attendance. 
(1) Address the Issue or Change the Topic
“Address the issue or change the topic” is a great way to open the floor during a plenary (or smaller) gathering. The idea is simple: the moderator allows the attendees to identify and address topics of interest with a defined (or not!) boundary. It’s not quite a free for all when there’s a solid moderator but the fast pace and large (infinite!) number of topics tends to keep everyone on their toes. I’ve felt far more energized at these sessions than many others and with careful rules (appropriate to the gathering), everyone should feel welcome to contribute. NSGIC offered such sessions in the past and they were effective. We also used that technique in meetings I attended years ago with the leadership of the American Kitefliers Association.
(2) Critique
Amber Reynolds of AECOM offered a session at the MidAmerica GIS Consortium Symposium 2010 that was essentially a group activity in online map criticism. (I was invited to give the closing keynote and provided a “Takeaway” article on the event.) The attendees could suggest their own or any public mapping site for group input/suggestions. The group pointed out interface challenges, cartography challenges, and offered ideas on how to simplify and clarify the app’s objectives. The input was valuable and respectful, with a bit of humor. Reynolds told me later she’d held such sessions many times before with positive results. I wondered why this brilliant, engaging idea hadn’t spread across the GIS conference landscape. It was such a great way to learn about interface design! And, it was fun! I liked the idea so much that I “borrowed” it for my online courses at Penn State. We critiqued sites as a class and on several occasions shared our conclusions with the map publishers.
(3) Want to Present About Teaching? Maybe Just Teach!
I truly enjoyed last fall’s GIS Educators Day, part of the Northeast Arc Users Group Conference held in Newport, Rhode Island. I noted in my recap that in some cases it would be far better to actually teach a lesson than to talk about teaching that lesson. Why? Because many of us learn to teach exclusively by watching our teachers! I’m sure if you did an analysis of my teaching, it’s a blend of Mrs. Pettochelli (first grade), Mr. Marks and Ms. Hession (high school), Mrs. Comoroff, Mr. Meyer and Mr. Faust (college), and Profs. Gould, Downs and Simkins (grad school), among others. But since then, have I seen anyone teach? Not really. 
Why not simply bring the lesson that illustrates the point you want to make at an education conference and teach it just as you might in the classroom (or virtual classroom)? I’ll be doing that at the Esri EdUC this year. Those who attend will hopefully learn both about the content and how I’ve chosen to engage the students with that content. And, yes, I want educators to draw on (okay, steal) both my content and engagement ideas, just as I have drawn on those of my teachers. 
What We are Doing Instead
What I see in the geospatial conference agendas are attempts to fit “the hot new presentation trends” into the old format. The most popular one these days? Lightning Talks/Ignite Sessions. I feel sure that the decision to add these five (or so)-minute talks with automatic advance slidedecks to URISA and GITA and Esri UC was made in good faith by organizers. But do the talks engage the audience? Bring in new presenters? New topics? New energy? I’m sorry to report that for me the answer is generally no.
Two other presentation trends, the use of Presentation Zen tactics (very short intro here) and the online tool Prezi, get a lot of attention on Twitter. Both aim to relieve the stupor that falls on a crowd watching a traditional PowerPoint slideshow. I agree there are some quite poor uses (and users) of PowerPoint, but I’m not sure the Zen paradigm and Prezi technology can really change anything until presenters consider engagement. I find some overly Zen presentations (especially when done as lightning talks) overwhelming; I simply can’t keep up. I have yet to see a Prezi presentation that knocked my socks off, but then I’ve seen so few at the events I’ve attended. 
The conclusion I draw from these trends, all aimed at enhanced engagement, is that no form, vision or technology alone can ensure engagement. In fact, I think it’s the reverse: engaging speakers are engaging whether they have no slides, PowerPoint, Prezi or live animals at their side.
A Way Forward
What will help presenters (and educators) think outside the box when it comes to engagement?  Work backwards. I heard this several times at TLT from attendees and my colleagues in the certificate program and master’s in GIS programs at Penn State. 
Start with the objectives of the presentation (lesson) and work backwards to find the way to get the audience (students) to that point. Take the time to test a few ways to get there: via stories, via pictures, via demos, via examples. Which way is best for you? For your topic? What should you do to get your point across in a way that works for you? I can’t give you specifics because the best engagement strategy for you and your topic depends on both you and your topic. The best tips I can give are these:
  1. Watch/listen to presenters of all kinds (online videos like TedTalks and podcasts like those from The Moth, are great resources) and pick out techniques that get you involved. Can you borrow any? 
  2. Set aside time to determine the goal of the presentation and the best way to achieve it. Doing that the day or even a week before rarely results in a good presentation for me. You cannot start early enough to produce a truly great presentation.
  3. Practice. Talk to your computer, your roommate, your colleagues. I like to present to myself in the mirror. Am I excited? Engaging? Boring? Revise and try again. How many times? Once I have the format determined, I rehearse a presentation five to seven times during the week before I do it for real. That gives me a level of confidence that allows me to really enjoy sharing my ideas on the big day.
Now, I know not everyone has the personality to try something that’s “out there.” I also know some conference organizers (and some academic institutions) do not allow such experimentation. I think we have quite a ways to go in engaging one another with our conference presentations. I challenge you to test out some of these ideas or other engagement techniques with the attendees at the next presentation you make.

Published Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Written by Adena Schutzberg

Published in


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