ArcWatch: GIS News, Views, and Insights

December 2010

Fast Facts about Esri Training

  • Training Centers: 55 in the United States (View a map of the locations. International distributors also offer GIS software courses. Learn more.)
  • Instructor-led courses offered: 58
  • Students trained annually: 12,000-15,000
  • Most popular courses: ArcGIS Desktop I: Getting Started with GIS; ArcGIS Desktop II: Tools and Functionality; ArcGIS Desktop III: GIS Workflows and Analysis; Introduction to ArcGIS Server; and Building Geodatabases
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Esri Charts a New Direction in Training

Students Will Notice a Greater Emphasis on Interactive Learning and Less Focus on Lecturing

By Carla Wheeler
Esri Writer

Before they started lessons on symbolizing data and creating map layouts, Dave Donley and Delores Fillingame cracked open their fortune cookies.

illustration, see enlargement
Esri instructors ask for feedback from the students.

Instructor Mark Stewart gave the cookies to his students as he welcomed them to ArcGIS Desktop II: Tools and Functionality, one of 35 instructor led-geographic information system (GIS) courses Esri offers for the new ArcGIS 10 software release. He asked everyone to introduce themselves and read their fortunes aloud, instructing them to add "with ArcGIS" to the end of the sayings.

"Nothing is impossible with ArcGIS," Fillingame said. "Love and you shall be loved with ArcGIS," said Donley. Laughter filled the classroom at the Esri Learning Center in Redlands, California, as other students chimed in: "Eat chocolate and have a sweet life with ArcGIS"; "Your smile has great charm with ArcGIS"; and, perhaps most appropriate, "A lesson well learned is never forgotten with ArcGIS."

Esri wants students to learn GIS well and never forget what they've learned. That's why Esri Training, which develops and delivers the company's software classes, recently adopted a new course design and training delivery style that stresses interactive, peer-to-peer learning; real-world GIS skills; and, yes, even having fun.

Goodbye to formal lectures. Hello to lessons that focus on essential theories, concepts, and skills and stimulate students to speak up and share their GIS knowledge.

"We want learning to be fun, easy, and applicable," explained Esri national instructor manager Krista Page in discussing why the new training approach was adopted. "Research on adult learning shows that students retain more when they are actively involved in the learning experience. So now we've expanded the interactive component."

Students Take On New Role

Until now, Esri instructors typically taught in a traditional style. They would lecture for up to 45 minutes, give a demonstration, then assign a hands-on software exercise. Students usually worked solo.

Instructors did most of the talking; the class listened. Today, however, the students take on a greater role, answering questions and contributing ideas. The instructors act as facilitators, encouraging the class to think and talk about the GIS concepts, tools, and skills they're learning. By helping the students understand how this new information relates to their jobs and letting them bring their experience to the table, the instructors will help their class better relate the material to what they already know. "Every adult comes to class with a certain level of experience, and being able to share what you already know and build on that-that's a big deal," Page said.

The new course design and delivery style incorporates

Students like this diverse mix of activities, said Page. "The more senses you use, the more likely you are to learn and retain, she said. "Previously, there would have been a lot of listening. Now there's listening; there's talking; there's writing; and after an activity, there's a summary of takeaways from the lesson."

Group activities have been added to the instructional milieu. "There's a greater focus on student-to-student interaction," Page said. "When you pair people up and they start learning from each other and sharing their experiences, the knowledge transfer increases."

Stewart, who began teaching at Esri 14 years ago, noted that combining short interactive lectures, small group and hands-on exercises, brainteasers, and demonstrations keeps people's minds alert and learning. "You are causing the brain to shift gears," he said.

Adults in general have short attention spans, said Page, adding that when she listens to a lecture that drags, she starts to mentally compile a grocery list or think about e-mails accumulating in her computer's in-box. "By engaging students and interacting with them in a variety of ways, you help students learn more," she said. "They'll also retain more. And more importantly, they will be able to quickly adapt and apply what they have learned when they get back to their jobs on Monday morning."

A New Teaching Style

Each of Stewart's ArcGIS Desktop II lectures lasted about 15 or 20 minutes. He drew people into a conversation by gently working questions into the lesson. During an interview after class, he said he never likes to put anyone on the spot, so he usually poses questions to the entire group. "We want to challenge students and keep the learning environment a safe and comfortable place."

During one lesson, Stewart broke the class up into small groups based on the rows where they sat. Then he handed out several maps and asked the students to study them. Generating interest was a map of the Gulf of Mexico after the oil spill that displayed various layers of data, including where debilitated turtles and injured marine animals were found. "What would you guys do with this map?" Stewart asked.

"It would give you an idea of where to focus your rehabilitation efforts," a student said. "It would help you be able to find out which specific industries were affected by the spill," said Donley. More ideas followed, fast and furious.

This is the type of conversation instructors hope to stimulate using the new course design and delivery style.

Donley, a fire captain and GIS manager for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire) assigned to Riverside County, said Stewart's class was fun and inclusive, drawing on the experience of GIS professionals.

"Instead of it being a lecture, there are more questions and answers," Donley said during a break. "He throws [a topic] out there and lets you speak up. We have almost as much input as he did."

Fillingame, who uses GIS to map gas lines and other utilities for the U.S. Navy in San Diego, said she enjoyed the interactive aspects of the class. "It was a lot more fun than sitting and listening to a lecture," she said. "You got to hear what other people thought-their experiences. And Mark is a crack-up. He made it fun with the bit with the fortune cookies."

Though handing out fortune cookies in the online classroom isn't possible-yet-students can laugh using emoticons. Instructors can also host small group activities in virtual breakout rooms, including writing on group whiteboards, chatting, and polling. Students can interact with each other and the instructor during the virtual lectures, demonstrations, and exercises. Instructors can even peer into students' computers to monitor progress during individual exercises or to check in on groups and facilitate discussion.

Instructor Colin Childs, who teaches in the online classroom, said he now e-mails students in advance to find out a bit about their experience level using GIS software. That way he can, to a certain extent, tailor what he teaches toward the individuals in the group. "You want to fill in the gaps of what they don't know," Childs said.

Adult Learning Principles in Action

How did this new course design and delivery come about?

Page said it wasn't driven by negative student feedback. "Our former course design had served us well, but we think we have something better," she said.

Esri Training wanted to put what educators call "adult learning principles" to work in the classroom. According to these principles, adults learn best when they contribute ideas in class and when they feel the coursework is relevant.

"Adults need to be motivated, Page said. They want to know, 'What's in it for me?' 'What am I going to get out of this?' 'How is it going to apply to my job?' 'How is it going to help me on Monday morning when I get back to work?'"

workbook cover
The new workbook includes exercises based on real-world scenarios.

Course materials were also revamped to make the lessons and exercises more applicable to the jobs they do using Esri software. That's why a new workbook includes more real-world scenarios. For example, the ArcGIS Desktop II workbook includes an exercise where students build an address locator to geocode addresses in the city of Palm Springs, California. In another exercise, they get to analyze soil data for Jefferson and Orleans parishes in Louisiana.

The new workbook, which replaces the two separate lecture and exercise books students formerly received, contains supporting information related to all the concepts, topics, and exercises in each lesson. There's ample room provided for student note taking. "We refer to it as a workbook because learners will actually work in it while taking their course," said Patty McGray, Esri's director of customer education.

Page said the scenarios and the clear, step-by-step exercises in the new workbook make the courses more interesting and useful than ever before. "You're motivated. You understand why you are learning this. You start to see these real examples of how this plays into the world and how to bring it into your organization. And after you get back to work, you are ready to go. You've learned some valuable skills that you can put into practice right away. That makes you more successful with our software. And that's what we are in it for."

Donley and Fillingame both said Stewart helped build a sense of camaraderie in class and kept everybody interested and energized as they learned about the new features in ArcGIS Desktop 10, Esri's new software release.

Donley said he noticed that, unlike before, there was no more teaching straight from the book. "His teaching method tends to draw information out of students and builds on it," he said. "Somebody is thinking forward."

Though the class was enjoyable, the lessons were still very challenging, according to Fillingame. "It was hard," she said with a smile. "I was exhausted when I got back to the hotel. But it was fun."

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