Notes & Ideas: Paperless, Wireless, Inkless Mapping

by Meg E. Stewart

Originally Published September 25th, 2006

By now most in academia know of GIS, especially those reading an online journal discussing digital technologies in the liberal arts. GIS, or geographic information systems, is mapping on computers. GIS is visualization of geographic data, whether it be from one layer showing demographics taken in the recent census, to many layers that provide information on the surface of the earth (such as soil, topography, or infrastructure), below the surface (the geology), and above the surface (air quality or temperature, for example). GIS is used for analyzing geospatial relationships. One can look at those many layers and make spatial analyses across and between the variables.

As Nora Newcomb argues in The Chronicle of Higher Education[1], spatial literacy is an important ingredient of a holistic education; however, ways of instilling spatial thinking into the curriculum through effective technologies remain unclear. GIS would seem to be a successful tool for increasing spatial literacy in our students, and Newcomb agrees. It can also be argued that another effective tool for nurturing spatial awareness is the use of tablet PCs combined with GIS software.

Tablet PCs are essentially notebook computers that can be written on with a stylus or pen. The tablet’s stylus acts as the mouse and the user makes notes and drawings using the natural and comfortable method of writing with a pen. See Figure 1.











Figure 1. Tablet PC

There is no need to use a keyboard, though tablets usually come with them. The hard drives and processors are comparable to those of laptop and desktop computers. When GIS software is loaded on a tablet PC, the added versatility that a tablet affords, allowing users to make maps from any physical location, creates a mobile mapping teaching environment. In mobile mapping, the tablet’s pen is used to draw in features, or digitize, on a map. Lines, such as faults or bedding contacts or a stream, and polygons, like tree stands, impervious surfaces, or urban survey regions, are easily drawn into the mapping software and immediately entered into the GIS database. Figure 2, below, shows GIS software on a Tablet PC.










Figure 2. Tablet PC with GIS software

Adding a standard USB-connected Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, the mobile mapping package is complete. GPS locations are entered directly into the tablet PC and the GIS software, so downloading of waypoints from a handheld is not required. Taking students into the field loaded with data on mobile computers increases their geospatial awareness, their geospatial reasoning, and their geospatial literacy.

Many classes typically have a field component. In anthropology, geology, environmental studies, geography, urban studies, chemistry, biology, and others, class field trips and data collection are routine and are expected by our students. Exploring educational experiences that occur at multiple spatial and temporal scales is how Armstrong and Bennett argue for the use of mobile mapping in geographic education. They outline a process that includes bridging the classroom, the library and the internet to enhance teaching and learning. This argument can be made for all classes in which a spatial context is integral, especially in classes with a field component.

One goal in creating and encouraging the use of mobile mapping resources is to unite students’ love for fieldwork with GIS capabilities. Mobile mapping brings geospatial data into the classroom in new ways. Normally GIS data are restricted to the GIS lab, where the specialized software and large data sets are installed. With portable yet powerful tablet PCs, students can map, visualize, and discuss countless social and environmental parameters and variables in any classroom. On field trips using mobile mapping, students show an increased awareness of the relationship between proximate and contextual factors in explaining environmental phenomena. For example, they discuss upstream factors that affect stream conditions at their feet. The ability to visualize surrounding conditions (such as climate, census, or historical variables) at multiple scales—while at a site—helps students to quickly understand the process of explaining phenomena geographically.

Mobile mapping addresses two fundamental teaching issues. The first is helping students to see the landscape at multiple scales, and with multiple layers of geospatial data. Visualization of phenomena that cannot actually be seen because of scale or invisibility is key to understanding landscape processes. Students with a tablet PC loaded with map layers such as tax parcel data, topographic maps and high-resolution aerial photographs and with a GPS receiver attached can reasonably locate a position on the map. And while standing at that position, students can visualize what is beneath the surface. Who lives in the neighborhood? What are the recent air quality indicators? Is there a sandwich shop nearby? Discovering these answers is dependent upon what data are given to the students before they go out. Ideally, they will have access to wireless internet and they can truly have the world at their fingertips.

The second teaching issue is that tablet PCs ease field data collection, allowing students to input data directly onto a computer, thus significantly improving the scientific method. For example, field-based mapping and GIS technologies allow for the discovery of patterns while still in the field, not just in the laboratory. If one must wait to view mapped data until one gets back to the computer lab, many hours of sample collection and field time will be lost. Here, too, when students are enabled to communicate findings wirelessly, they can map as a team, share data in real-time and redirect their field sampling efforts and locations, if need be.

Many campuses are going or have gone wireless, including ours. In a wire-free environment, discussion and lectures can go out of the classroom and into the departmental lounge, across campus, or to meetings off-campus. Students can access county planning reports or journal articles to examine while mapping. The addition of access to the library and the internet augments and enriches students’ learning experience.

Mobile mapping is not limited to use on a tablet PC. Some institutions are teaching with Personal Digital Assistants (like iPaqs and Palms) and GIS software to great effect (for example, Ball State UniversityPenn State UniversityOccidental College, and San Diego State University. Still others are using tablet PCs for teaching field-based classes (for example, Northern Arizona UniversityUniversity of Michigan and my institution, Vassar College). The small screen on the PDA, a significantly smaller hard drive and smaller computing power all limit the effectiveness of handhelds for the purpose of true mobile mapping and understanding the geospatial context of a problem. In all cases of PDA use for mapping referred to above, students and faculty must come back to a stationary or secondary computer lab to analyze their data. When using a tablet PC for mapping, there is excellent continuity and efficiency when students can continue working on the same map projects and data files after returning from fieldwork. Because the tablets run all standard statistical and spreadsheet software, in addition to the GIS and GPS software, there is no need to transfer data when moving from field to office to classroom. The higher cost of tablet PCs is probably a limiting factor in their adoption as mapping tools on campuses (tablets currently cost around $1,500 compared to about $500 for a PDA). However, as tablets come down in price, their use and incorporation into the curriculum becomes more appealing and, in fact, inevitable.

Google Earth and other browser-based mapping utilities have increased our geospatial awareness. Most of us have tinkered with it by flying into our hometowns, our favorite vacation spots, or the Eiffel Tower in 3D. We are acquiring spatial literacy and geospatial awareness when we use Google Earth and Wayfaring and World Wind. So, too, are our students when using mobile mapping. Students learning with tablet PCs, GIS software and relevant data see things on the computer that they do not see on the ground while in the field. Likewise, they see things in the field that are obscured in map view looking at the computer screen. This knowledge of space and scale strengthens student’s spatial literacy. Taking the students outside to visualize at both scales allows for deeper understanding of context and geospatial relationships.

And finally, as with any new classroom technology, if a faculty member does not feel comfortable with it, it will not get used. As Jo Ellen Parker states in her essay “What’s so ‘Liberal’ About Higher Ed?,” “Faculty and deans complain that there isn’t enough time for faculty to keep up with technology.” At Vassar we are encouraging adoption of mobile mapping in classes where the professor has no prior experience with the GIS software by promoting on-campus workshops. Parker also discusses the shortage of instructional technologists’ time; to address this, we are encouraging support staff who may be in a position to support classes using mobile mapping to become regular users of tablet PCs and GIS software.

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We will know if this approach is successful after the coming academic year, when we plan to integrate mobile mapping into at least four new courses outside of the regular user base of mobile mapping.
[1] Newcombe, Nora S. 2006, “A plea for spatial literacy,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. v. 52, issue 26, p. B20. This article is available on-line for subscribers only at