Geographic Information: Literacy and Systems

I’ve been spending a good portion of my summer working on the course that I’m going to teach this fall. The library at my college offers credit courses in Information Studies which students can take as a minor – they can choose two 3000 level courses and then a 4000 level capstone course. My course is a 3000 level special topics course which I’ve called Geographic Information: Literacy and Systems.

My situation is rather peculiar. I can’t teach this course as a pure GIS course, since it’s an information studies class and not geography or earth sciences. Beyond that, my college does not have a geography department, and earth sciences are not an individual department but are combined with other natural and physical sciences. With the exception of a regional geography class offered by the anthropology department, my college doesn’t offer geography instruction. So even if I could teach a pure GIS class, it’s unlikely that any of the students would have any foundational geographic knowledge.

I also can’t teach the course as a “library” class where I’m training people to be map or GIS librarians, because that isn’t the point of the info studies minor. The minor is meant to introduce students to the foundational principles of information – what is information, how do we search for it, organize it, what is its context in society, etc. I also could not teach the course as a basic software class, as that isn’t really appropriate for a college course. In short, I couldn’t find a model that I could follow, as what I’m doing falls outside these traditional realms.

So I decided to build the course around the concept of geographic information where I’ll cover some foundational geography,cartography, and GIS from an information science perspective that encompasses:  organization, search and retrieval, data processing, and assessment and analysis of GI. I’ve divided the class into four units that cover geographic information and fundamental geography, maps as information objects, and two units of GIS. In the first GIS unit we’ll cover the theoretical aspects and the basics of using the software with datasets that I’ll provide. In the second unit we’ll deal with the nitty gritty of actually searching for and processing freely available GIS data. In the last couple of weeks I’ll spend some time on web mapping and on geographic analysis and research.

Many of the concepts that I’ll be teaching are things that I never formally learned in a college course, such as a discussion of the kinds of administrative and statistical divisions that exist in the world, why they exist, and how data is collected for them. The second GIS unit on data processing is something that I feel is never adequately covered in GIS classes, but is essential for doing just about anything in GIS. I think this is also poignant in information studies, as it involves a discussion of the difference between data and information and how you can turn one into the other.

I’ve decided to use all open source software. Since these are undergraduate students who probably won’t be entering a geography related field, and we are a commuter campus where students have to make special trips to get to computer labs, I didn’t see any logic in using ArcGIS. With the open source software they can use it anywhere and there will be a better chance that they’ll use it after the course is over (and after they graduate). I’ve opted to go with QGIS as it covers all the bases I need. I liked gvSIG but had too many problems with the map layout – I might be able to cut my way through them, but can sophomore business and english majors? QGIS is also more thoroughly documented (in english), which is important since this is an introductory class.

I’m using Krygier and Woods Making Maps as my textbook, along with a few chapters here and there from other texts. I have looked to the pages Krygier’s created for his courses for guidance, and like the stream of consciousness style he used for writing his notes. I’ll post an annotated reading list later.

Since I’m breaking molds, I’ve also decided not to use Blackboard to organize the whole course and am using a blog and various other bits and pieces of software for creating assignments, organizing the roster, etc. If you’re interested you can follow along on my course blog – (only students can register). Classes start on August 31st…

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