Friday 25 March 2016

Kindergarten Kartography

Over the years I’ve seen many changes in learning in the realm of cartography. I’m going to use this blog post to reflect on those changes and offer some thoughts on the current state of education in cartography as I see it or, more specifically, how it's become monopolized by people with very little cartographic education of their own to speak of.

Many of us in the geo or cartography business, whatever we do, can point to a love of maps in our school-age years. Struggling for motivation to do something else, I took my own love of maps to what I saw as a more serious step by taking a formal qualification when I studied it for a Bachelor’s degree. I had in mind that I wanted to be involved with maps as a career of some sort and getting an education in them was a key component to becoming proficient and, well, qualified!

My degree course was a very vocationally designed course because it had served as an entry point to the UK cartographic industry for decades. A lot of it was practical but the practical techniques were nothing without the theoretical and conceptual understanding we were taught alongside. Of course, history now shows that many of the techniques I learnt (scribing, photo-mechanical production etc) are long gone and if truth were told, the course was probably lagging behind the technology at the time as computers were replacing many functions of the cartographic process. This is a fairly typical scenario as University courses still struggle to keep pace with the rapid evolution of technology.

As I graduated, the UK cartographic industry was rapidly shrinking as GIS exploded onto the landscape. But while the technology has changed profoundly, many of those key ideas, concepts, theories and abilities to critically evaluate have changed very little. The technical and practical aspects were quite honestly the most trivial aspect of my degree. It was the thinking and the development of a cartographic mind that was the most important aspect. Of course, at the time we though just making a decent looking map would get us a good grade. Often that was the case but rarely did we really appreciate that our tutors were actually grading what was going on behind the map…not what the end product looked like. I used to use a pen and scribing tool. I have coded maps before and now I work with servers and portals and other ‘stuff’….increasing animations and 3D. Anyway, the point is, we can easily pick up new ways of doing but picking up the thinking behind the doing isn’t a trivial learning task.

So I loved maps and wanted to better understand them and how they were made. But more than that – I wanted to prepare myself for entering the workforce doing something I loved. And in deciding upon that, the logical step is to do your research and find out where and who is going to give you the best education. I was going to go to Swansea University to do their Topographic Science degree but I ended up going to Oxford Polytechnic. Like most people looking for higher education, University was a logical step. I wanted to learn from the best; people who had been there and done it and who had their own qualifications as badges of authority and experience in cartography. My tutors were internationally known and contributed to cartography in academic and industrial settings. I went to arguably the top place for budding cartographers because I wanted a high quality education and to join the pantheon of cartographers who could point to their alma mater as a badge of quality. The best I could get from masters in the area to set my career up in the best way I could.

As I entered an academic career I soon began learning how to teach and how to be a researcher. Pedagogy became a very important component of my professional life. I had learnt domain knowledge during my degree studies and the mindset of lifelong learning means that I still learn every day. I had practical ability yet the practice of cartography was already rapidly changing and I never used photomechanical production techniques in a real workplace. As an academic I probably wasn’t as practiced as I could have been (a common accusation of teachers generally) but the skills and techniques of being able to teach and lecture were vitally important. I took courses in pedagogic theory and various diplomas. Over the next 20 or so years the process of lifelong learning you acquire as a professional academic meant I kept abreast of current thinking to inform my domain knowledge, my practical abilities and changes in pedagogy. You never become a finished article either in domain knowledge or the ability to teach but knowing how to question and, importantly, to find out the bits you don’t know is important. You also learn an awful lot about people and how to help, encourage or push people to achieve their own goals. Teaching has its very own set of vitally important skills over and above the content.

So where’s this going?

Ultimately, I left academia because I was tired of the admin and bureaucracy. I really enjoyed teaching my students and helping them realize their own passion in mapping. Sometimes I’d lose some along the way because they actually weren’t that interested. Some now have very successful careers in geo and that makes me proud. Some teach…some teach cartography. I stay in touch with many of them. During my academic life I went to many conferences and I could be absolutely certain each would have a panel or a discussion on pedagogic approaches to teaching geography/cartography/GIS/whatever. The format was largely the same. Often it was the same people. The outcomes were normally the same…largely boring summaries of the need for more…better…free…blah blah blah yackity schmackity. Alongside this in the literature, debates raged about the fashion for degrees that were focused on theory to become more vocational and vice versa. The training vs teaching argument was well worn. With heavily practical disciplines like GIS (whether it was ever a discipline at all was another debate entirely) should we be teaching concepts? Should people always have to learn using ArcGIS? Was a broad spectrum of software important to know? Were courses simply driving schools for buttonology? The debates were endless but one thing that characterized them was that rarely did people start from the last end point or argument. They just started again rather than consider the wider context. Their own narrow empire was their only concern. They did one thing very well and that became their very own ivory tower – the pinnacle of knowledge and learning for others to find and believe in.

Towards the end of my time at Kingston University myself and colleagues were well travelled, often leading sessions for other lecturers and academics in the UK on how to teach GIS, or cartography, or mobile mapping fieldwork. We were seen as leading in both discipline, practice and pedagogy. We received numerous research grants for developing technical innovations. We were researching and mapping social media feeds and taking advantage of them in teaching and learning nearly 10 years ago and helping others devise their own approaches for instance.

So have things changed?

The mapping landscape has changed profoundly. New software. New companies or organisations. Free and open data and software. Everything is quicker with social media feeding an endless daily appetite for something, anything, that people consume as ‘new’ (which often isn’t but that’s also a different tale). One person does x, the next responds with y. One person colours their OpenStreetmap in one fashionable way, another makes a hand-drawn version and yet another still does some crazy psychedelic trippy animated thing. All fun in the kiddie’s sandpit but what about outside the sandpit where the real world of mapping exists; where making a version of a basemap in an arty style actually doesn’t cut it for any practical purpose?

Things haven’t really changed and so the disconnect between theory, practice and praxis widens. I’ve seen panel discussions at recent conferences that have opened up the same tired debates, just with different people ignoring what’s gone before. We’ve largely solved the pedagogic debates about training vs teaching. It’s out there (in the literature) if one cares to find it but of course it totally destroys people who want to be seen as innovators to not be seen to be carefully considering this stuff. The discussions are repetitive and say more about the naivety of the panelists rather than their depth of understanding of either their chosen domain or pedagogy. They love playing in the sandpit but the tantrums start as soon as someone wants to play more seriously.

What I have observed is that the players involved are very different to those of 10, 20, 30 and more years ago in terms of the cartographic domain. Cartography seems to have become a past-time rather than either an academic subject or a professional vocation. Many involved in making maps are doing so from a background of education in anything but cartography yet they’re found a passion for making maps. They want to be seen as makers and doers and that is sufficient. Most of this is due to the burgeoning availability of data and the internet as a powerful democratizing tool. Cartographic technology has shifted so rapidly that it’s hard to conceive of someone now wanting to take a Bachelors degree in it. It doesn’t conjure up the image of a real subject any more. It’s been demoted to what a hacker might do with a couple of spare hours and a Mac Book in Starbucks.

So what courses do people want to study to gain qualifications in? It’s pretty much anything but cartography because you can now get your cartography from the internet or from meet-ups or from anywhere but an institution which is set up to deliver education. But the craziness of this situation is that many people who now purport to be fine purveyors of map education sought expert tuition for their own non-cartographic qualifications at some point. Yet now, they’re shouting loudly about how they are now best-placed to offer cartographic training. Let’s be clear – I’m happy for anyone to offer advice and training and help in areas they have some level of knowledge or expertise in but there’s no substitute to learning from experts – people who are experienced, have deep domain knowledge and have played beyond the sand pit. The mantra of beginners for beginners doesn’t cut it. Students in a Bachelors class being taught by an intern or teaching assistant is no substitute for the Professor. They have the merit and background to support and lead learning. They can assess the quality of work against expected norms and relative work. Not everything is super cool or awesome. Some work is, frankly, awful and you’re doing people an injustice by telling them simply by taking part you are becoming proficient or an expert in either domain knowledge or practical ability. As a lecturer I was happy giving fail grades. I was also happy giving grades well into the 90% and higher range. The variation was huge. Not everyone excelled. Some had natural talent, some worked hard to achieve. Grades reflected ability and outcome. I was only able to understand how to assess and comment on quality because I knew my subject and knew how to support teaching and learning through an understanding of pedagogy. By all means go and enjoy the colouring in with computers at a local meet-up and figure out a little trick that makes a task easier – but do not be fooled into thinking this equates to expertise.

And how did this dumbing down of cartographic education and the rise of kindergarten kartography come about? Because of the admin and bureaucracy I so hated. The documents, forms and paperwork that we had to complete to get a new or revised course up and running were horrific. We had to get industrial reviews. We had to pass the work across many other academic and practitioner’s desks. We had term reviews, semester reviews, annual reviews, quinquennial reviews and validation and re-validation events at which external people would pour over ever small item of our plans to check it and assure themselves of the standards it sets. That’s how proper education works. Checking and cross-checking and review after review after review. That was how, ultimately, we could stand in front of students and know we were delivering top class content in a modern, stimulating, caring and professional environment. All of that developmental work gave assurances to the student too. When we could claim most graduates got jobs in the field on graduation we were not making vacuous statements. We knew what we were delivering was what industry and society wanted and needed. We had their buy-in. We were meeting government-set targets for qualified and able graduates. We also kept pace with developments to ensure students were at least on the curve if not as much ahead of it as we could make it. Proper education leading to proper qualifications that were the student’s license to demonstrate they had a proper qualification in the subject they studied. A subject that had an avowed intent to marry domain knowledge with practical skills; to develop knowledge and understanding; a critical and evaluative approach; and a desire for lifelong learning. But too many people have become fed up with this requirement as they search for a quick fix. Taking time to learn something is not seen as a requirement for becoming an expert. Playing the long game is no longer regarded by many as a wholesome approach to learning and by many of the current crop of people who claim to offer educational or training services they do so based on a complete lack of quality assurance that anyone can rely on.

This is why I find today’s trend for short-form online learning and meet-ups as being heralded as THE place to learn cartography so dispiriting. Many of these people seem unaware of so much both in domain knowledge and pedagogy. They’ve rarely gone through any education or training in cartography so their badges are from other disciplines yet they now claim to be the carto-educators of choice. Frankly it’s a tough job to counter that culture precisely because so many formal courses are no longer offered but it doesn’t make it right. It simply doesn’t stack up. You can’t want a qualification from one set of experts then profess to others you’re one in some other subject. MOOCs, I feel, are a special case and most people seem to avoid the reality that many are done as loss-leaders to whet people’s appetite and get them sufficiently interested to take a fee-paying version of the course. Universities do it. Corporations do it. You hardly see any reading lists any more either – the ability to use Google seems to be the only requirement for an inquisitive mind. If content isn’t already online then it’s all too often seen as irrelevant.

Of course, much of this has to do with the death of cartography in the classroom. It’s inevitable people seek education from people offering it and if the traditional arena has dried up then of course motivated individuals and groups will see a gap in the market they feel they can fill. And I am part of that problem because I’d had enough of University life and the crap that got in the way. But I also hope that reaching an audience through various blogs and by continuing to go to conferences and meetings helps others. I’m also writing a book…yes, a real, live book to support much more than the return to button-pushing that current quasi-carto-educators seem to have returned to (side-note…you know, coding is also just button pushing by a different form. I don’t care whether you change the colour of a highway using CSS, javascript or a GUI). And, of course, people love ‘free’ and so free meetups with free content led by people who don’t charge for their time and where free pizza or beer is offered as enticement are bound to be a win win. Except what many don’t seem to realize is it’s a false economy. My suggestion is do some research and ask around. If you want to know something about cartography and really want to get an education in it, seek out a professional who has a background domain and pedagogic knowledge. In the UK I’d look at UCL, City University, Leicester or Nottingham University. In the US, just go check out Penn State, University of Madison-Wisconsin or Oregon State University. Of course, others exist but I’m just picking out a few places to start. Get your qualifications from relevant experts and not from the market stall purveyors who are offering knock-off merchandise. It might look like a good deal but it’ll probably break after a week or two. Get your background in cartography and don’t see Kindergarten Kartography as a sufficient substitute.

As a final thought I do want to be absolutely clear that I'm happy for everyone to have a go at making maps as I have said numerous times before. I'm also more than happy for people to pass on tips, tricks and nuggets of advice via many different forms. I use this sort of advice and self-learning ever day to supplement what I know and to learn from others. Don't mistake this discussion as some sort of claim that no-one is allowed to utter anything about cartography unless they've put in 40 years and have multiple badges of honour. That would be absurd. There is a place for everyone to contribute to the wider realm of cartographic understanding. It's just that the balance has gone. I feel we've tipped into a dangerous area where people are getting hooked on relatively appealing and accessible fayre masquerading as quality assured content. Get hooked on the good stuff and you'll find it sustains you much further than the local sand pit.

And by the way, next time you're at a conference watching a panel discussion on the topic of Cartographic education just step back and think about whether the panelists really have the chops.

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