What were your goals for using Spark?
My teaching philosophy is to have students learn as much as possible by doing, so each assignment, while starting out from what they have learned in lectures and tutorials, takes them a little deeper into uncharted territory. They can also choose their own geographical and topical areas of focus for each assignment, which means they will have questions that I can't anticipate with a set compilation of resources or readings. Toward the end of the semester, they develop a final project, and again the diversity of interests requires an equally complex array of data sources and analysis strategies (e.g., three topics from this semester - the impacts of global warming on communities in Florida; brownfield redevelopment in the Boston region; policy options for making suburbs more "green" in terms of energy use).
This process requires a very flexible platform for supporting the students and giving them guidance. I need a 24/7 support system for them so that questions don't have to wait until class time, but I also want to respond in such a way that the entire class benefits, rather than a single student. I want an organized way to post new tips, data sources, interesting example applications and research as the students develop their particular interests. And since I can't be expert in all their areas, I want a way through which they could also post information, so it is important to have it be a collaborative approach. I want to be able to control the overall design, with quick access by the students to the numerous types of resources. Given all the work we put into it (as teacher and student), I also want to have the platform be available to all my classes and to others at the university with similar interests, and to build over time, rather than coming down at the end of a semester. Finally, I have a very deep respect for students' privacy rights, but at the same time I want to give them a venue to share their work with others, so I needed a platform in which they could submit their work but which allowed them to individually control who could view it.
I set my first goal to be the creation of a wiki that contained links to a wide variety of spatial data sources, together with some comments and directions for use as needed. These reflected the interests of students and faculty at Tufts as I was coming to understand those interests (I was new to the university). The wiki made perfect sense as a format because it is collaborative (others can add data sources), very easy to update, and can develop over time. And I like that you can check the history of edits, restore previous versions, etc.
I then wanted to use it as an online course resource space that could be shared between my classes. So I created two course pages with a shared set of resources between them for Spring Semester 2007. That worked out very well. I had all the tools I needed literally at my fingertips and could point students to this section or that as needed. .But I wasn't happy with the design, so in Fall 2007 I created a new look and feel but the same concept - a shared set of resources for a variety of classes. And since I also consult with students and faculty across the university, it became a very useful support tool for that as well.
More recently, I also created a faculty wiki for the Urban and Environmental Policy Department, to post materials for our meetings and committee work, as well as interesting readings. We're making extensive use of it, particularly in our efforts to review and enhance our curriculum.
Spark was fairly easy to use at a basic level, and when actually creating content, has a very similar look and feel to regular word processing software. I clicked around a lot to see what different buttons and links did. As I wanted to do more, I used the online manual quite a lot. I looked around at what others were doing. And when I got really stuck, I contacted UIT with questions and realized that I probably should have contacted them first thing off.
What impact did using Spark have on your goals?
For me, Spark provides a single resource base, my own mini library if you will, for supporting students in my classes as well as students and faculty I work with in my UIT GIS consultant role. It has built over time, and as questions or topics or problems arise, I can respond to them once (by posting a tip sheet, data source, tutorial, etc.) and then have that permanently available. You could do this with a regular web site, but the wiki is much, much easier to update and maintain than a web site, plus it provides for collaboration and for managing that collaboration, also very easily.
There are some frustrating design constraints when using the wiki program available through Spark. It isn't as flexible as having your own web site particularly regarding design, but the gains far outweigh the constraints in that regard. And in fact, having a kind of consistent design across wikis will probably be helpful to users.
The other disappointment I've had is that I haven't been able to get students to add to it as much as I would like them to. They are using it now for submitting assignments, but in terms of other resource additions they have been pretty quiet, and the vast majority of materials are ones that I have posted. I haven't spent time really showing them how to use it, however, nor encouraged them other than through an e-mail here and there. They may think that whatever they have found, say a data source or example application, isn't of interest to others, or they may not feel sure about how to add information.
How do you hope to use Spark in the future?
For teaching purposes, I would like to try several things:
- Create short screen videos that would show how to do certain operations in GIS, including running analytical models.
- Possibly incorporate a discussion forum of some sort
- Have a finished student work section that would be permanent to show the best work from each class
- Ideally, the GIS teaching resource site would be collaborative between faculty teaching GIS here at Tufts
For university GIS support purposes, I would like to integrate wikis in with the Tufts GIS Center web site to make it a little more seamless. That is, there would be a collaborative portion of the GIS main web site, both for project summaries / tips / data / tutorials, but also for GIS management purposes.
We are also going to establish a wiki as a collaborative space for faculty who teach GIS and support staff from universities across the eastern Massachusetts region. A professor at Boston University recently got a group of us all together to discuss collaboration. An online site was deemed critical, and because Tufts already had the tools in place, we are setting it up here. The purpose of the wiki is to share teaching resources, case studies and project ideas, events updates, data sources, and contact/program information.