Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Transformations: Managing and Supporting GIS in Higher Educational Contexts

Latest issue of Transformations is entitled 'Managing and Supporting GIS in Higher Educational Contexts'.

via: GIS4LIB.

This issue presents seven separate case studies providing an overview of GIS in higher education, with a focus on growing GIS programs at smaller liberal art colleges. While my current university (UTA) is neither small nor strictly liberal arts and has a long-standing GIS program, I first learned GIS as Government Information Librarian at Texas A&M International University which is exactly the type of college this article focuses on. My first professional paper, co-wrote with Dr. Kimberly Folse, demonstrated how cooperation between social science faculty and a library's GIS services can work to integrate GIS into curriculum. Here is the article: Faculty and their Institutional Librarians: Developing Labor Capital by Using GIS to Teach Social Science

I want to take the time here to first comment upon this issue and then to describe what I see as the differences between starting up a new GIS program at a smaller college and maintaining an established GIS program at a larger university.

First a bit about NITLE, who published Transformations. I was previously unaware of NITLE, "a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting liberal education."
"We provide opportunities for teachers in liberal arts contexts to create transformative learning experiences for and with their students by deploying emerging technologies in innovative, effective, and sustainable ways."
NITLE has a program called Latitude which provides geospatial resources and workshops for the liberal arts. NITLE also maintains an active listserv.

OK, now the issue of Transformations. As I wrote above, these case studies focus on starting and growing GIS programs at smaller liberal arts universities. This is a great and wonderful thing as GIS is extremely exciting in these disciplines.

The first article, written by Jon Caris of Smith College, makes a nice distinction between "teaching with GIS" and "teaching GIS". Smith College's new GIS program began teaching with GIS and is now evolved into teaching GIS itself. This transition took 5 years.

Another article of note is the last article, written by Mary Ann Cunningham and Meg Stewart of Vassar College. Their experience working with GIS at Vassar, as described in this article, are so very similar to my role and aspirations here at UTA. The first thing that struck home was their statement in the introduction that "colleges often expect GIS instructors simultaneously to teach courses and labs, manage labs, and build user communities on campus." This here is my job in a nutshell, but you have to add in there collection development and metadata creation. Mary Ann and Meg point out that these expectations are stressful. Yes sir. The last section of their article, on the importance of institutional support, was fantastic. They discussed the difficulties in starting up a college-wide GIS program. After discussing the responsibilities of their GIS lab manager, they state that "the lab manager helps maintain the sanity and happiness of the teaching faculty." Wow, wow, wow. Thank you, thank you for writing these words. This is the situation here as well.

The last article I will comment on is the sole librarian author, Jeremy Donald, from Trinity University, right here in the lone star. The article first points out a lack of use in library-sponsored GIS services. Now, I'm going to put myself out on a limb here and criticize those libraries. I firmly believe that an active and enthusiastic librarian involved with GIS should have little difficulty generating interest in GIS. As long as the librarian made him/herself competent in the technology, there should be no problems at all with interest. Period. Anyway, Jeremy points out the ties between information literacy and GIS. This "has been the cornerstone of the push toward making GIS-based learning objects a part of the Trinity University curriculum." Fantastic. This is why our GIS program is within the Information Literacy Program Area of our library. Jeremy then writes about campus-wide GIS efforts, including how to "handle datasets and GIS files." I like the way the article points out how "providing access to and proper handling of datasets and GIS files are natural advantages of a library-based support model." No arguments from me.

Now I want to take a few moments to discuss the differences between providing GIS services at smaller liberal arts colleges and at larger universities, perhaps with established GIS programs. Neither is easier than the other, but I see the difference as degrees of complexity. Working at TAMIU (small liberal arts college), my mission with GIS was fairly straight-forward. Learn as much as I could and promote as much I could, while balancing my other library duties. Very similar to Jeremy Donald's article. When I would learn something new, I would share it with others at the college and in such a way I was able to continuously increase and improve GIS services with extremely limited resources. TIGER, Census 2000 (which was newer then) and other freely available datasets were wonderful for both me and the small but growing number of users. In terms of complexity, dems were the good ol' days. However, when I started working here specifically as GIS Librarian, I walked smack into a whole new and more complex dynamic. All of a sudden, I need to provide assistance to GIS students, many of them using complex geospatial modeling for theses and dissertations. Their data needs were also much more complex. We actually have a budget for GIS datasets, and so I had to find the best datasets available for their research, which is a lot harder than finding whatever was freely available. Whole ton of new responsibilities. Whole ton of new students needing to use GIS in ways I had never before imagined. Single biggest struggle I had to overcome when I came here was to earn respect. Not just for me specifically, but more for the library. A lot of preconceived notions about libraries and the type of services that they provide had to be overcome. Plus, learning GIS? Of course. Development in the geospatial technology field is growing so fast that anyone seeking to keep on top of it has charged themselves with a relentless task. Promotion? It can never slow down a drop. I view outreach as potential learning opportunities both for me and our users. I do not want to miss either of these types of opportunity. Of course, with more knowledge and skill comes more potential which makes things ever so much more complex. But I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Wow, did someone actually read this far down?? I'm done writing. My wife will get upset if I don't get off the computer now, so I'll call it a day. What I really wanted to say here was that I enjoyed this issue of Transformations immensely.

1 comment:

Diana Stuart Sinton said...

Thanks for the kind words. I'm in charge of NITLE's Latitude initiative and edited this issue of Transformations. We specifically solicited articles that focused on the challenges (and related success stories) of building GIS capacity on a campus. One of the areas that particularly interests me are the newly developing academic positions that cross traditional boundaries, like the hybrid tech staff/lecturer one at Tufts. I think we'll be seeing more of that in the future.
I'd be happy to talk with anyone about what we do. Our workshops are open to faculty from outside of our regular network too. Diana