Providing teacher trainings in GIS to support integration into K-12 classrooms

Collins, L., & Mitchell, J. T. (2019). Teacher training in GIS: what is needed for long-term success?. International Research In Geographical And Environmental Education, 28, 118 - 135.

Over the past 15 years, the use of geographic information system (GIS) technology for planning, management, and decision-making has grown exponentially. GIS has a wide variety of applications across various disciplines and many educators are being encouraged to integrate GIS into their curricula. Research indicates that using GIS in K-12 classrooms can be a powerful way to engage students and build critical spatial thinking and analytical skills. However, despite these benefits and the growing availability of easy-to-use and free GIS resources, relatively few K-12 teachers use GIS in their classrooms. Past studies indicate that software complexity, limited access to data and resources, and insufficient planning time pose significant challenges to teachers interested in using GIS in their classrooms. This study investigated the role that teacher trainings can play in supporting the integration of GIS in K-12 classrooms. Specifically, the researchers explored which elements of teacher trainings can facilitate regular and sustained use of GIS.

This study took place from the summer of 2015 to the summer of 2016 and was offered to teachers as a long-term GIS professional development opportunity. Five university faculty (three from a geography department and two from an education department) served as instructors and mentors during the workshop. A total of 18 teachers from two rural school districts participated in the study, though only eight of these teachers finished the full year of professional development. The teachers ranged in teaching experience from 3-31 years and taught various subjects. During the summer of 2015, all 18 teachers participated in a week-long, intensive GIS workshop where they learned about and practiced using ArcGIS Online, which is a simplified online GIS platform. Additionally, with the assistance of the instructors and mentors, each teacher redesigned one of their own lesson plans to incorporate GIS.

Throughout the 2015-2016 school year, the participating teachers integrated their new materials into the classroom. The five workshop instructors periodically visited the teachers to observe and to answer questions, offer suggestions, and provide guidance. Additionally, the researchers used four methods to collect information about the teachers' experiences throughout the year.

Attitudinal survey: Researchers surveyed teachers at the beginning and end of the year-long GIS training to measure changes in their attitudes about using GIS in the classroom.
Daily assessments: During both week-long, intensive summer workshops, the teachers were asked to provide daily anonymous feedback on the sessions and on their confidence in teaching the new material.
SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) assessment: After implementing their GIS lesson, teachers conducted a SWOT assessment with their students to gauge the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats associated with the GIS lesson.
Interviews: One and a half years following the year-long training, five teachers agreed to complete an interview with researchers to explore how they had continued to integrate GIS into their lessons.

During the summer of 2016, eight of the original teachers participated in another week-long workshop to debrief their experiences over the course of the year, refine their original GIS lesson and/or create another, and learn about new GIS advancements. Of the eight teachers who completed the entire year-long training, only five completed the interviews. The researchers analyzed the surveys and assessments using statistics and the interviews to find common themes.

Overall, the year-long training ultimately did not achieve its goal of motivating sustained use of GIS in classrooms. While participant teachers' attitudes towards GIS improved and students were highly engaged in GIS lessons, teachers found that the creation of GIS lessons was too time consuming, which resulted in a lack of sustained use in the classroom. Only two of the teachers continued to use the GIS lesson plan they had created during the summer workshop, and none of the teachers had created a new GIS lesson plan. Further, none of the teachers used any GIS analysis functions in their lessons.

Attitudinal survey: From the outset, all participants acknowledged the value and usefulness of geography and its applications in other disciplines. Before starting the year-long training, participants indicated that they appreciated maps and charts for their ability to convey complex information. Participants also considered themselves spatial thinkers and believed that spatial thinking was important across all disciplines. Upon completing the year-long training, participants indicated that they felt greater confidence using technology in the classroom, teaching with maps, and navigating spatial issues with students.

Daily assessments: Results indicated that the week-long summer workshops boosted participants' self-confidence to integrate GIS into their lessons. Though participants reported initially feeling overwhelmed by all the technical information being presented, they indicated that access to expert support and freedom to explore the software helped them feel more comfortable with the material. Participants reported that they valued the trainings for giving them the requisite tools to implement GIS lessons and for enhancing their overall teaching abilities. During the both trainings, participants particularly valued opportunities to work on their GIS lesson plans and to collaborate and brainstorm with other teachers.

SWOT assessment: Teacher-led SWOT assessments indicated numerous strengths of GIS lessons. These lessons were highly engaging, they encouraged students to practice spatial thinking skills, they enabled teachers to make interdisciplinary connections, and they fostered student independence. The SWOT assessments also highlighted weaknesses. Integrating GIS into lessons was time consuming, and teachers faced technological issues during implementation. Additionally, teachers found it difficult to design age-appropriate GIS lessons for kindergarteners, to integrate GIS into math classes, and to keep students on task with conceptually difficult material. Opportunities included using maps to excite students about learning, integrating GIS into different types of lessons, and building students' GIS skills so that they could create and analyze their own maps and data. Threats to integrating GIS into curricula included limited time to create and implement GIS lesson plans, limited technology access, and lack of confidence teaching students how to use GIS.

Interviews: When asked about potential barriers to implementing GIS lessons, all five teachers indicated that they had school administrators who were very supportive of integrating GIS into classrooms and that their students had access to the necessary technology. In terms of their experiences with the professional development, all five teachers indicated that the trainings were useful and that they felt fully supported in terms of resources and guidance. The teachers highly valued the opportunity to develop a GIS lesson plan with the guidance of experts and feedback from peers. They indicated that the most important elements of the training were opportunities to practice using GIS and follow-up from the organizers.

This study was limited in scope. The same study conducted in a different location with a different set of teachers or larger sample size would likely yield different results. This study was also limited by its data collection methods. These self-report methods may have encouraged participants to respond in misleading or inaccurate ways to appear more favorable to the researchers. Additionally, the year-long training did not ultimately achieve its goal of motivating sustained use of GIS in classrooms. Thus, it can offer only limited insight into how trainings can effectively motivate teachers to integrate GIS into their classrooms.

The researchers recommend that teacher education programs introduce GIS and its applications to all pre-service teachers, to provide future teachers with the necessary tools to integrate GIS successfully in their classroom. While professional development opportunities for in-service teachers are useful, the researchers indicate that earlier exposure to GIS and its classroom applications is critical. The researchers also recommend on-going mentorship for teachers. The results of this study and previous studies indicate that creating one lesson plan (even with guidance and support) is insufficient to motivate sustained integration of GIS in classrooms. The researchers recommend including GIS in academic standards so that teachers are mandated to use GIS. Lastly, integrating GIS trainings into other educational fields, such as EE, can help practitioners learn accessible ways to integrate GIS into programming.

The Bottom Line

<p>This study investigated whether a professional development program for teachers could support the integration of GIS in K-12 classrooms. The training was bookended by two week-long GIS workshops, which included a full year of expert guidance. Overall, the year-long training did not ultimately achieve its goal of motivating sustained use of GIS in classrooms. The researchers found that although teachers valued the opportunity to develop a GIS lesson plan with expert guidance and the on-going support to implement GIS lesson plans, teachers failed to sustain or expand their use of GIS in their classrooms because of time constraints and difficulties with technology. The researchers recommend that teacher education programs introduce GIS and its applications to all pre-service teachers and that academic standards include GIS.</p>

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