How Are Geospatial Smartness and Digital Technologies Connected?

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Welcome to part three in our series on what it means to be “geospatially smart.” In our field, being “geospatially smart” sounds like it would be a highly desirable trait that allows you to execute your job tasks effectively and efficiently, but what do those two terms mean together? Are there any objective measures of what “geospatially smart” equals, and how one achieves that status? In this short series, Directions Magazine examines the notion of “geospatial smartness,” including how the ideas are defined; how they are measured, taught, and learned; and how they intersect with geospatial technologies.

Geospatially smart people are attuned to geographical phenomena, patterns, and principles, and apply that knowledge to practices, decisions, and activities. There is no one single test for geospatial smartness, though we can describe geospatial habits of mind, and psychometric tests are useful for measuring dimensions of spatial cognition. Certain types of activities, such as playing Tetris and other spatial games, can improve how quickly and accurately we can complete simple spatial exercises, like mentally rotating abstract 3-dimensional objects on a screen. But does our brain perceive of rotating a stack of blocks the same as rotating a paper map? Amy Lobben, a professor at the University of Oregon, has used functional magnetic resonance imaging to document the “map effect,” and has found that people’s brains react differently when they mentally rotate a simple street map versus rotating a simple geometric shape. Based on activity in the brain, it appears that study participants use visual strategies alone to rotate a shape, but when confronted with a picture of a map, their motor strategies kicked in. Perhaps they were envisioning how the space around them would be changing as the image rotated.

How does this extend to the realm of digital technologies? While practice usually helps us achieve skills, does practice within digital environments improve our geospatial smartness? Like the vast majority of everything else in life, it depends. If you play action video games and also use your spatial strategies to navigate around a virtual world, you may be building up your hippocampus, the portion of your brain that controls many spatial tasks, but if you’re playing that same game and use non-spatial strategies, you may actually lose gray matter!  

If we are accomplished navigators in one virtual world, we may perform well in other unfamiliar virtual spaces, but what about the real world? Even though a quarter of the US adult population now admits to being online “constantly,” do all of the hours we waste, oops, I mean invest, in playing video games serve us well in those hours when we’re offline? Perhaps, yes, if you are visually impaired. A group of blind adolescents who were led through an audio-based version of a virtual game environment did better at developing cognitive maps of other unfamiliar but real places. However, measuring the transfer of spatial navigation skills between worlds is tricky, in part because of the different environmental cues that we have at our disposal in the real world and the artificial ones that game designers introduce.

Regardless, being able to deploy spatial strategies is a premium skill set, and, unfortunately, we begin to lose these capacities rapidly as we age. Satellite-aided navigational tools, both a savior and bane to our modern existence, are known to erode both our brains and our confidence. How does one maintain or build geospatial smartness and still enjoy the convenience that digital navigation tools can provide? Use them critically, use them with your head up and eyes forward (literally), trust your gut when it’s telling you that the dusty road with the construction barriers doesn’t seem like the right route right now, and whenever it’s not actually needed, turn it off.

Navigating with paper maps versus navigating via GPS is one technological change we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Another is the use of GIS to display, organize, and analyze spatial data. What about the connections between our use of GIS and geospatial smartness? It’s easy to make claims about the linkages but more complex to document them. In the early 2000s, the National Research Council set out to describe the connections in their seminal report, Learning to Think Spatially, Committee on Support for Thinking Spatially: The Incorporation of Geographic Information Science Across the K–12 Curriculum. The multi-disciplinary group spent years on the task, and found it an impossible one to conclude simply, as is noted in the report’s preface:

“Although the original charge to the committee appeared clear and definitive when the study proposal was approved by the National Academy of Sciences, the writing process has been a less linear path than we expected. To begin with, the committee comprised a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds: astronomy, education, geography, the geosciences, and psychology. Learning about and from each other took considerable time and effort. It became clear that the original charge had to be reshaped; we could not address that charge until spatial thinking itself had been explored and explained. Only after that was done could we focus on the second part of the title: GIS as a Support System in the K–12 Curriculum.” (NRC, 2006, Preface, p. ix).

By the end, their first recommendation summarized that:

“The committee sees GIS as exemplifying the theoretical power of a high-tech system for supporting spatial thinking and the practical design and implementation problems that must be faced in the K–12 context:

  • The power of GIS lies in its ability to support the scientific research process and to provide policy-related answers to significant real-world problems arising in a variety of disciplinary contexts.
  • The appeal of GIS lies in its direct connection to significant workforce opportunities in the information technology sector.
  • The potential of GIS lies in its ability to accommodate the full range of learners and to be adapted to a range of educational settings.
  • The practical problems of adapting GIS to the K–12 context are equally striking. As an expert-based, “industrial-strength” technology, it is, in one sense, too powerful for most K–12 needs. It is challenging and inviting, yet intimidating and difficult to learn. While the design issues can be addressed, the implementation challenges are immense. All of the essential implementation supports — for materials, logistics, instruction, curriculum, and in the community — are either weak or nonexistent.” (NRC 2006, Recommendation 1, p. 233).

Geographic information systems have undergone significant and dramatic technology changes in the 12+ years since this report was published, and many of these changes have influenced some of these identified shortcomings. A major shift to online tools and platforms has meant fewer barriers to interact with maps and wider dissemination of data, such as this around the food-energy-water nexus, and connecting with learners from diverse and non-technical fields, such as education students learning about the world through GIS.   

Knowing with certainty that usage of GIS can be linked with geospatial smartness continues to be an elusive goal. Some programs identify affective outcomes, such as whether students are excited about learning and engaged with the material, like a summer program being run by the University of Toledo in which high school students become motivated to connect with their community while using geographic data collection and mapping as the medium. Elementary school students in Illinois who partook in several weeks of GIS-based curricula not only displayed infectious enthusiasm, but also showed greater improvements with several spatial abilities and map-reading tests over students in control groups, according to lead researchers from Illinois State University. But they also acknowledge that:

“While the kinds of analysis students did in our curriculum would be impractical without GIS, curricula utilizing other technologies or pencil-paper activities, particularly geography curricula, may produce similar results. While our findings do suggest that problem-based GIS use can have a positive impact on spatial ability and map-reading and map-analysis skills, our findings do not indicate that GIS is the only (emphasis theirs) means of producing these results.” (Jadallah et al. 2017, p. 148).

That distinction between paper and digital maps is an important one that adds rich complexity to this matter. In a 2016 study in Texas, Sandra Metoyer and Robert Bednarz spent two days with high school students in several geography classes, studying central place theory, with some students randomly assigned to using digital maps while the others used paper ones. Based on pre- and post-tests, there was no significant difference in the spatial thinking skills they measured (i.e., mental rotation and 3-dimensional object visualization) between those two groups. But, the GIS&T students did show a measurably better grasp on the content itself, and those who showed the greatest GIS&T-mediated learning gains, among both girls and boys, were the group that started with the higher spatial thinking skills.

Was that confusing? Yes, it was. Unambiguously measuring “learning” is challenging because there are so many behavioral, social, and cultural variables at play. We cannot readily isolate the “treatment” of GIS&T to determine its effect; it’s not a matter of one group spending five days locked up in a room with computers and the others not, and we have no placebo to add to a study. Study samples sizes are small, teaching styles and teachers’ confidence levels vary greatly, exposure times fluctuate, and students bring their own diverse knowledge to classrooms. Replicable, reliable, reproducible, and robust measures of the effects of GIS&T usage on how we acquire and apply knowledge will be nice to have, but we’re not there yet. For one reason, GIS&T-based instruction falls in the center of the TPACK (technology, pedagogy, and content knowledge) nexus, as a digital experience that is mitigated by its technology, the content being mapped or analyzed, and the educational capacity of the teacher and the learner, whether you’re in fifth grade or 50 years old. This is why enabling learners and learning rather than overthinking course content makes sense.

Meanwhile, evidence for the roles of GIS&T in learning continues to build slowly. Some of my favorite examples come from the high school students in Virginia who have undertaken James Madison University’s Geospatial Semester program, after which they are more inclined to use geospatially-informed approaches to understand and solve problems. Currently, students in the GSS program are being compared with other non-GSS students at the same schools who are enrolled in other rigorous curricula such as Advanced Placement courses, to measure the types of neural and cognitive effects that these GIS-heavy courses may generate. Elsewhere, a new project led by psychologists and geographers at Temple University and the University of Wyoming is also underway to see how GIS-learning and usage by university students plays a role in choosing and being successful in STEM disciplines.

Perhaps in the future we’ll have more novel, clever, and effective ways to describe and measure how GIS&T usage may contribute to people becoming geospatially-smart. Maybe fifth graders who are provided with digital maps to visualize the spatial and geographic connections between earthquakes, volcanoes, and plate tectonic boundaries will have an easier time developing the habits of mind that geospatially-smart adults demonstrate, but the process is neither automatic nor instant, and it’s unhelpful for us to claim otherwise. For now, I am grateful for the good research being done, and for anyone out there who models the critical and creative geographical thinking that makes a difference. Plus, let’s hear it for paper maps!

Learn more about these ideas:

Jadallah, M., Hund, A. M., Thayn, J., Studebaker, J. G., Roman, Z. J. & Kirby, E. (2017). Integrating Geospatial Technologies in Fifth-Grade Curriculum: Impact on Spatial Ability and Map-Analysis Skills, Journal of Geography, 116:4, 139-151, DOI: 10.1080/00221341.2017.1285339

Jongwon Lee, J. & Bednarz, R. (2009). Effect of GIS Learning on Spatial Thinking, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33:2, 183-198, DOI: 10.1080/03098260802276714

Lobben, A., Lawrence, M. & Pickett, R. (2013). The Map Effect, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 104:1, 96-113, DOI: 10.1080/00045608.2013.846172

Metoyer, M. & Bednarz, R. (2016). Spatial Thinking Assists Geographic Thinking: Evidence from a Study Exploring the Effects of Geospatial Technology, Journal of Geography, 116:1, 20-33, DOI: 10.1080/00221341.2016.1175495

Paper maps article series, Directions Magazine, by Chris Wayne

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