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Creativity, serendipity enhance CGA's pivot to online classes

  • Shannon White
    Mapping a course:  Mapping a course: Shannon White came up with a variety of ways to continue GIS classes after in-person sessions were ended by the coronavirus.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Shannon White signed up to teach a full slate-plus of courses for the COVID-19 semester of ’20.

“What a semester to have an overload, right?” she quipped.

White is a faculty member at William & Mary’s Center for Geospatial Analysis, which offers courses and training on GIS (geographic information system) technology. As with all other courses at the university, classes were interrupted by spring break. The university’s switch to virtual instruction followed.

GIS is a high-tech marriage of data science and cartography. White and other CGA faculty instill graduate and undergraduate students with the skills and understanding to use mapping and visualization techniques in projects ranging from art history to field biology.

In the first Zoom meetings with her students in her courses post-break, White reviewed what was initially planned in the semester and went over potential adaptations necessary for the new circumstances. She soon began adding a set of new, creative initiatives to fill the gaps.

Some things were seemingly simple. For instance, in all of the Introduction to GIS classes, the students switched from working on desktop computers in the CGA to using online software at their own computers. Other pivots took some more thought; serendipity played a part, as well.

“The drone class was hardest because we were going to go out and fly after spring break,” White said. “So, I had to do a complete punt on that one and figure out what we were going to do.”

The drone class is designed to provide preparation for the FAA’s UAS (un-crewed aircraft systems) Remote Pilot Certificate exam and explorations of the practical applications of the technology. The switch to virtual classes eliminated the opportunity to get hands-on experience.

White found some open-source and trial version drone-planning software that her students could use. It was a helpful learning experience, she said, but no substitute for flight.

“I told them that when we return to social-distancing classes, I’d work to get the UAS in their hands,” White said. “Even though some of them have graduated, I want them to have that hands-on experience.”

She brought in guest speakers to her drone class, as well. It was an innovation that had proved successful in her Geovisualization and Cartography class.

“That class is very discussion-based,” she said. “We do a lot of critique. We do a lot of things that are just not quite the same in an online remote environment.”

She was mulling possible approaches when she saw a tweet from cartographer John Nelson. The tweet recognized that educators were in a bit of a bind and Nelson offered himself up as a guest speaker.

“This is a cartographer that I talked about in class,” White said. “We’ve used some of his work in class. And I was like, Oh wow! OMG, as you would say in text.”

The class was just as enthusiastic and Nelson was more than willing. He met with the class via Zoom the next week.

“And it was amazing,” White said. “I hadn’t ever thought about bringing cartographers into my classroom. I always just introduced students to the cartographers through their work.”

The Nelson visit was so successful that White asked him for names of his colleagues that might be equally willing. She mined her own Twitter “following” list. She asked her students to trawl social media for possible speakers. “But don’t go overboard on the cyberstalking,” she cautioned.

The second guest presenter was Tom Patterson, a National Park Service cartographer who created the map that dominates the National Park’s Grand Canyon brochure.

She ended up with a succession of guest presenters and her students ended up with a set of new techniques and approaches. For example, Nelson started off with a spreadsheet program — not, White said, what the students expected.

“And I was thinking , ‘Where is he going with this?’” White recalled. “And he created a map inside of Excel. My students were texting me and Zoom messaging me, going ‘Oh, my gosh! I never thought about data visualization that way.’”

White even engineered a successful pivot for a project that the switch to virtual instruction had, at first glance, left in limbo. She’s a quilter, and had long thought about a student project centered around the creation of maps in fabric form.

“I was thinking about how maps are made in lots of different forms,” she said. “I thought, how cool would it be for the students to make a fabric map with a kind of a texture for somebody who is visually impaired?”

White had piloted this program in the Fall Geovisualization course. The maps the students created were put into a quilt which was intended as a poster submission for a conference this summer.

The students thought it would be cool, indeed. They selected a theme of “home.” Their fabric maps were in progress when the students went home for spring break. 

“I had all the material in the CGA,” White said. “What are we going to do?”

Once again, the answer came through Twitter. One of White’s contacts suggested Spoonflower, a firm that does custom print on demand for wallpaper, gift wrap — and fabric.

“So I took my assignment of an actual fabric map that they were going to design and sew with their hands and turned it into a fabric design,” she explained.

White tasked the students with creating an eight-by-eight, which is a test swatch size for Spoonflower. She sent them to the company website to review the specifications necessary to market a designed map in fabric format.

White provided them the option to open an account or simply submit their design with permission for her to print through Spoonflower. Registration with Spoonflower allows them to market their designs.

“I said that I couldn’t force them to sell their fabric maps on Spoonflower,” White said. “But as a faculty member, I want to give you the opportunity to do it. And I was amazed by what some of them created.”

White said she will be purchasing a swatch of each student’s design. The spring semester COVID-19 adapted fabric maps will become the backing of the quilt started by the Fall semester students. White and her students agreed to submit their work for an international GIS conference, as an alternative to an academic map poster.