Putting Study Abroad on the Map: STEM and Open Street Map

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Many of you might remember a map that inspired you to learn about the world. What was hidden in the snow-capped Alps? How exciting to explore the immensity of the Amazon rainforest? If you were like me, looking at a map made my imagination run wild.

An online map like Google Earth is a pretty amazing entertainment for armchair travel with a vast wealth of information about places to see and things to do. For example, Google’s Streetview allows the viewer to zoom into the place at eyeball level, complete with 3D buildings in some locations.

For many of us involved with study abroad, a map is the sine qua non ingredient for students. Using maps in study abroad is a survival skill and a tool to explore and find one’s way between academic exercises, co-curricular tourism, and extra-curricular activities with friends and peers. In ways, study abroad is about getting lost and way-finding; navigating new urban spaces, negotiating new cultural terrain, getting lost in translation between languages, and figuratively finding unknown parts of ones own self.

While using maps have changed how we do many things, few people think about how we create the maps that guide us in our cars and help us plan our lives.

The power of openness is that it makes ideas work. The one rule of the legendary Bell Labs was that no one worked alone, in isolation, on projects that didn’t involve others because the managers knew that the lone genius was a myth of innovation from a bygone era. The current era of the information economy that Bell Labs helped inaugurate means that open can now take place across the world.

Google Maps are open for anyone to use for free, open for anyone to edit for free, and with an open API (application program interface) for developers to iterate on and connect to, but the data inside of Google are a corporate product that Google owns and monetizes. Open Street Map is like the Wikipedia of maps open to anyone to edit and re-edit with more specific or different information, and the data in the map is open for anyone to access, analyze and incorporate into their own systems and applications.

In Open Street Map, mappers work on teams and must cooperate to create knowledge. Done right, it requires mappers to venture into their community and learn the physical geography of a location by interpreting the textual information of a location. In teams, mappers discuss and interpret on-the-ground information in order to transform it into the digital data. Finally, if outputs include technical data analysis or computer program development, the information that Open Street Map contains can be used to make data-driven interpretations and representations that reveal ‘truth’ about a place and its context.

Open Street Map is a critical tool that governments and humanitarian organizations employ when responding to crisis events like epidemics and natural disasters. Unlike most locations of higher education, study abroad curriculum takes place in locations that are not fully built in Open Street Map.

A curriculum employing Open Street Map in a study abroad program would place the student at the intersection of knowledge and process about the human and physical geography of their location, via methods of team based projects, with learning outcomes in a STEM discipline of a growing professional job market. Also, the work students produce in Open Street Map endures in the real world to be improved upon by local entrepreneurs, future students, or to serve real needs like emergency responders delivering life-saving resources. Curriculum goals like these are where meaningful and compelling instructional design starts.

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I attended the State of the Map conference at the United Nations in New York City to learn about how new technology and geographical information systems are revolutionizing the way we look at the world.   The State of the Map conference was an example of an international affinity group that is thriving across an open platform.  People there were dedicated to global humanitarianism, governmental public service goals, or trying to monetize the technology to create business.  The common denominator was that everyone was committed to ‘openness’ as a core value that makes the world a better place.      

Institutions of higher education are creating graduate degrees and graduate certificates to train professionals to create digital maps in Open Street Maps and other applications.  As a field of higher education with its roots in location and experiential based learning, employing a relevant, demanded, and compelling tool like Open Street Map in the curriculum makes all the sense in the world. 


square_stephen-tippett-3Stephen’s background is in teaching and international education.  He currently coordinates IT services and systems at The College of Global Studies, Arcadia University and he worked for several years in Chile at the Ministry of Education and taught there at the university level.  His background is in the humanities and in pedagogy, and his interest in technology stems from the perspective that it empowers people to communicate and learn from each other.  His research and work interests include faculty led study abroad, open education resources and participatory learning, and collaborative digital networks.  You can contact Stephen on Twitter @SteveTipps or by email at tippetts01@arcadia.edu.

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