Connecting Online Is Connecting Geographers

Last year, I called the COVID-19 pandemic “the crisis of our lifetime”—one that trained “a merciless lens on the social and racial fissures that already made life difficult for so many people.” (See “Pulling Together When a Pandemic Pulls Our Lives Apart,” from the winter 2021 issue of ArcNews.) This is even truer today, as the pandemic’s impact aggravates newer, equally urgent crises around the world. These stressful events reinforce how vital it is for people to connect, especially when we’re not in the same room or even on the same continent.

Since COVID-19 transformed our lives at home, at work, and in school, the American Association of Geographers (AAG) has engaged in a broad, online service and community-building experiment for geographers and geospatial scientists. We have offered more than 100 varied learning events online—through our website—to graduate students, young geographers, aspiring leaders, and colleagues in the discipline. I’d like to share what we have learned while creating and scaling up these educational offerings for geographers around the globe.

A woman sitting at a desk, having a video call with several people while working on a map on her laptop
The American Association of Geographers (AAG) creates a supportive atmosphere by fostering face-to-face connections, especially during virtual events.

The Big Shock of 2020

In March 2020, staff members at AAG were in the final weeks of preparing for the organization’s annual meeting. Suddenly, we all went home. Housebound alone or with partners, roommates, children, and/or pets, we embarked on a new kind of office life. Our members worked and taught on-screen—often without adequate child- or other family care—while experiencing illness among ourselves and loved ones. Soon, many were burned out. This crisis was particularly acute for the medical geographers and GIS specialists who were producing a record number of COVID-19 dashboards, as well as for professors and instructors.

COVID-19 created especially challenging circumstances for students and people just starting out in their careers. In a policy brief released in July 2021, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) noted impacts from rising youth unemployment rates in virtually all OECD countries, including increased depression and anxiety (rates were 30–80 percent higher among young people than the general population in three OECD countries, including the United States). Additionally, the OECD reported declines in access to education and increased housing insecurity for young people worldwide.

At AAG, we were also worried about geography students being cut off from campus resources, facing technological barriers at home, and not being able to complete their research projects. This shock reverberated across the sciences. A study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago found that 67 percent of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research at 208 of the leading graduate science programs had to be put on hold or discontinued due to the pandemic.

These stressors fell disproportionately on women; people experiencing poverty; and members of Black, Indigenous, (and) People of Color (BIPOC) communities. According to “Geographies of the COVID-19 pandemic,” a paper published in mid-2020 in Dialogues in Human Geography, “There is an emerging consensus that low-income communities, the working class, women, people of color, and Indigenous people are being more significantly impacted by the pandemic in relation to health, working arrangements, and social and economic hardship.”

In the summer of 2020, AAG convened an all-volunteer COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force to develop diverse remedies to support our international community of thousands of geographers and spatial scientists—many of whom are graduate students and early career geographers. These remedies often focused on issues in the discipline that were present before the pandemic, including the need for racial equity, training and networking opportunities for geography department leaders, and career help. AAG and Esri partnered on one such program, Bridging the Digital Divide, to meet the equipment and technical needs of undergraduate geography students at minority-serving institutions (MSIs). Since the program’s inception, AAG has distributed more than $580,000 in funds—including member contributions and $50,000 from Esri—to 23 MSIs in the United States.

AAG also created dozens of online webinars in 2020 and 2021 to help members hone their research skills, support academic department leaders, train students in new quantitative and qualitative research methods, explore critical issues related to geography practice and geodata, and provide educational and mentoring support. These webinars—which have attracted approximately 6,000 attendees so far and are continuing throughout 2022—appeal to geographers at every stage of their careers.

While Facilitating Online Learning, We Learned Too

Did I mention that all this intense activity was carried out as AAG shifted its annual meeting from in-person to virtual, three years in a row? While AAG staff members moved thousands of sessions, keynote presentations, and networking and mentoring events online—each time in a matter of weeks—we were thinking through the profound changes coming to our field via the increase in online-based professional development. Here are just a few lessons we’ve learned.

Face-to-Face Connection Is Beneficial—Even On-Screen

During AAG’s webinar series to introduce graduate students to various research methods and helpful applications, facilitators knew that it was equally important to engender peer-to-peer connection and offer mentoring opportunities. To create this sort of supportive atmosphere, the series included writing workshops and discussions focused on confronting mental health needs in the academy. Moderators were creative in their icebreaker exercises and use of networking tools, activating everything from informal polls and in-the-moment mapping to carefully managed virtual breakout rooms that encouraged small-group and one-on-one conversation.

A map of the world showing red and green circles and red triangles with red dotted lines pointing back to the red circles
About 250 AAG members participated in a series of webinars for graduate students in 2021. This map shows the locations of 102 of those participants’ universities; whether they were doing local research (green circles) or nonlocal research (red circles); and, if they were doing nonlocal research, where that research was taking place (red triangles). (Data and map design provided by Julaiti Nilupaer, AAG.)

Taking the Whole Person into Consideration Is Vital

An all-remote learning program reinforces the importance of being aware that each participant is a whole person. When planning AAG webinars, we now ask ourselves questions such as the following:

Erasing Distance Is Valuable in So Many Ways

Since 2020, AAG’s learning opportunities have convened participants from dozens of US states and at least half a dozen other countries. We are finding that these learning opportunities are a powerful way to attract newcomers and reduce or address some of the most significant barriers to learning—namely, cost and distance. One of the most important insights we’ve gained is how teaching and learning can travel long distances and attain global scale with the blink of a cursor.

Where Do We Go Next?

After more than two years of hosting digital events and get-togethers, here is where AAG now plans to take its online learning opportunities:

One participant in an AAG workshop said, “It made me feel part of a community that is willing to exchange and share ideas and knowledge. We need more workshops like this, even beyond the pandemic!”

At AAG, we are glad to continue this work of fostering connections, aiding with professional development, and building a strong and lasting community for geographers and geospatial professionals. We hope you will join us, take part in one of our events, and explore the potential of “place” to be a collaborative and transformative meeting point, wherever you’re located.

Find out more about upcoming AAG events.

About the author

Dr. Gary Langham is the executive director of AAG. As a broadly trained scientist with more than 20 years of experience working on science-based solutions for people and the environment, he has published peer-reviewed papers on a range of topics, including climate change, biogeography, seabirds, evolution, genetics, physiology, animal behavior, and conservation. Formerly, Langham was vice president and chief scientist at the National Audubon Society, where he directed Audubon’s wide-reaching scientific initiatives and studies, including the first comprehensive analysis of the effects of future climate changes on 588 North American bird species. In 2000, Langham founded the Neotropical Grassland Conservancy to foster grassland research with grants and equipment. He completed a National Science Foundation bioinformatics postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, and received his PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University.