I have had several great opportunities to teach at the university level beginning with acting as an undergraduate teaching assistant for an archaeological field school to today and my current position as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geology and Geography at UNC Pembroke. In addition to undergraduate classroom instruction, I have also taught graduate, online, lab, and field courses.
I have also had significant experience in informal outreach efforts. The role of education continues to change and the efforts placed in informal education today will likely continue to have a growing impact on the classroom of tomorrow.
With the rapid growth in access to information through digital and mobile platforms, it has become paramount that we must make context an even greater focus of instruction to ground relevant information. While digital platforms, from laptops to cell phones, provide access to a wealth of information, if there is a lack of core proficiency and recall of general and disciplinary concepts, there may not be a context for found information, no matter how accessible it is (Morville, 2005). However, core knowledge of a discipline, paired with proficiency in information literacy and/or digital literacy, allows learners to take their core knowledge and readily, and appropriately, build new knowledge from available information. I believe that various aspects of information literacy should be infused throughout my classes in order to build experiences that place course content in a relatable and real-world context.
The focus of my approach towards context is to infuse information literacy across various course levels and has been three-fold: 1) I believe students can use information and data as a lens through which to connect to related course content, 2) I believe in providing students an applied, hands-on experience that strengthens their connection with course content, and 3) I believe students should have the ability to build on their own experience with technologies and data to generate and share their own information. I have found from years of experience that, while today’s students have grown up with technology, they do not enter universities with a uniform level of information literacy. Even though digital literacy and information literacy have significant overlap in today’s classroom, they are often taught as different “ways of knowing” in separate classes, if taught at all (Ash et al., 2015). Providing students with experiences in which they can apply both information literacy and digital literacy in the same context, whether implicitly or explicitly, allows them to begin to weave these ways of understanding together.
I believe that interactive maps act as a sharper lens through which to connect to the regions and locations discussed in larger general education classes such as World Regional Geography. Experiential learning has long been a key to generating a stronger connection to content. Technologies and media are now often used to provide the experiential aspect. In introductory Geography courses such as World Regions, maps have traditionally been used to provide students a reference of locations since it is generally not viable to go to the places discussed in a course. The advent of Google Maps and the subsequent growth of online map technologies has allowed students to go beyond looking at a location on a flat page to be able to interact with the locations by zooming in and out of maps, clicking to bring up additional details, and even to look at locations in 3D on-screen (Esri, 2020; Google, 2020). The ability to interact with the information and to bring up additional data yields an immersive experience that allows students to build their own understanding and stories of space and place beyond that of the initial view that they are presented with (Figure 1).
I believe that students can use hands-on experiences to connect directly with course content. In mid-level classes, such as Cultural Geography, it is possible to build on the context of location and students can be introduced to disciplinary methods such as participant observation, interviews, landscape description, and map creation through access to tools and technologies to aid them as they begin collecting and interacting with data (Battersby and Remington, 2013). Creating information and data through observation or interaction is core not only in Geography, but for all students and the ability to present the information and data both visually and textually is equally as important to all disciplines. Where, in World Regional Geography, students focus primarily on reading and exploring information provided through maps, in mid-level courses such as Cultural Geography students begin to create their own maps as a visual representation of their information (Figure 2). By setting spatial concepts within a broader context and by having students apply their gained knowledge it is easier for students to understand that “spatial awareness” goes beyond the boundaries and capitals of Social Studies tests to extend to the spatial attributes and interactions between people and the world around them.
I believe when students have the ability to build on their previous experience to generate their own information, they can see the potential that the methods and techniques they learned can be applied beyond the classroom. Upper level classes that are focused on majors or minors can take advantage of smaller class sizes to conduct field experiences to collect data using digital technologies. Finally, we see a level of technology, the smart phone, that most of our ‘digital natives’ do have experience with. The joining of field experiences with technologies can immerse students in a local issue or create a hypothetical plan that gives them the direct experience of generating data with which to build information as they would in many Geography related jobs. For example, technical courses, such as GIS or Remote Sensing, are driven by a student’s experience with data and technologies. These courses are often the most direct in building on experience with technology and concepts from previous courses. The geospatial tools used offer a concrete example of how spatial awareness can be implemented and support a broad range of disciplines, not just Geography, both in the classroom and beyond. Providing students with a hands-on experience with geospatial technologies such as capturing locations using mobile apps on their phone to create or extend a map of campus, displaying the collected features on a simple webmap, and conducting analyses on the collected data as it pertains to an on-going question impresses ideas more readily than through a lecture alone (Figure 3).
These examples of students using data and geospatial technologies, a part of digital literacy, to better understand course content and context, part of information literacy, only touch on the opportunities that modern students have if they take advantage of the ability to utilize technology to extend their experience. Most of our students do not arrive in the classroom with knowledge of how to use much more than the social media apps on their smartphone, but they will still be expected to be proficient and digitally literate when they begin to apply for jobs in most disciplines. I believe it is our duty and responsibility to provide students with the opportunity to build these skills, not only to help increase their digital literacy, but to grow their information literacy. While content will always be an important objective in the classroom, understanding context and being able to connect the ever more accessible information and data to the question or problem you are trying to address only grows in importance in our modern always-online world. The simple ability to ground students’ search, acquisition, and creation of information within a specific context can provide them with skills that they will be able to build on as they enter their chosen field.
Ash, J., Kitchin, R., and Leszczynski, A. (2015). Digital turn, digital geography? Programmable City Working Paper 17. Maynooth University. http://ssrn.com/abstract=2674257
Battersby, S. E. & Remington, K. C. (2013). Story Maps in the Classroom. ArcUser, 16(2), 60-65. http://media.esri.com/publications/arcuser/0313/arcuser61/arcuser61.pdf
Esri. (2020) ArcGIS Online. https://www.arcgis.com/home/index.html
Google. (2020) Google Maps. https://www.google.com/maps
Morville, P. (2005). Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become. O’Reilly Media