Mapping Space: Introducing Geographical Information Systems in Indian School Classrooms

Anu Joy

This proposal explores the potential of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) as an instructional tool that can support authentic inquiry practices in school classrooms. GIS can be used as a pedagogic tool in school classrooms that can help children conduct systematic investigations on their familiar everyday world and create databases on regional specificities in collaboration with their peers, teachers and experts of various disciplines. One of the larger goals of this proposal is to develop research-based content and innovative pedagogies for multidisciplinary teaching-learning in schools that take into account the nature of the learner, of the learning process and of the subject matter. The paper reflect briefly the current status of technology-enabled learning in Indian school classrooms and suggest actions to implement GIS as an instructional tool as part of the regular Indian school curriculum.

Authentic inquiry as a context for creative teaching and learning

Authentic inquiry[1] plays an important role in creative learning. This proposal explores the potential of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) as a pedagogic tool to guide authentic inquiry practices in Indian school classrooms. GIS can be used to map and represent a complex environment by examining its multiple aspects and tracking several entities in it at the same time. It can function as a motivational and optimal tool for learning of multiple disciplines. Also the process of map making can guide children through iconic, enactive and symbolic modes of learning, which according to Bruner (1966), are significant aspects of a learning process.

In the context of a school classroom, authentic inquiry practices provide scope for children to ask questions and actively construct meaning in collaboration with their peers and teachers through the process of solving problems of their complex everyday world, find new problem solving methods and formulate conclusions based on the results of inquiry (Roth and Roychoudhury 1993; Krajcik et al. 1994). Such an inquiry process can instill in the learner a set of cognitive, meta-cognitive and process skills such as conceptual understanding, problem solving, reasoning, analyzing, visualizing, modifying, inferring, deducting, creating, incorporating existing knowledge into the new inquiry, communicating the findings, and eventually arriving at one’s own learning (Schwartz et al. 2004).

In this proposal the term ‘authentic inquiry’ denotes the multiple approaches that can be used by teachers and children in a classroom to solve a problem and reach a finding. The goal is to develop an effective framework and pedagogic method for conducting the inquiry process in a classroom and for understanding the nature of learning that happens. In doing so, it is hoped that the outcome of this project can offer methods to show how authentic inquiry can contribute to educational theory and practice, while also demonstrating how it can be an effective way to approach teaching and learning in a classroom.

Geographical Information Systems: A pedagogic tool for conducting authentic inquiry practices in school classrooms

Geographical Information Systems can be used as an educational tool to explore a broad range of spatial questions in school classrooms and support teaching and learning in an inquiry mode (Wanner and Kerski 1999; Lemberg and Stoltman 2001; Demirci 2008). GIS has the potential to integrate a vast variety of information into its geo spatial visualization. The process of creating maps and databases of the familiar everyday world can enhance children’s understanding of geographical locations, their sense of space and entities in that space, direction, visuo-spatial thinking, observational and cartographic skills. It can also help children build a connection with nature and with their own localities and the entities therein. This can motivate children to take the initiative in conserving their local environment by appreciating the kinds of resources available (physical, historical and cultural) and how their own practices, usage and interventions can create an impact on the environment.

Despite this potential as well as the availability of computers in schools and free GIS software, the use of modern day tools and techniques such as GIS is practically absent in Indian school classrooms. GIS has now become an integral part of geography education in countries like the USA, Canada and some European countries, and has a significant impact on secondary education (Hagevik 2011; Incekara, 2010; Kerski 2003). The Indian school curriculum in the subject area of Social Studies includes map reading (world map, political maps, geo-physical maps, etc.), but little attention is paid to the process of creating maps. The concepts, techniques and methods of map making are not part of children’s regular school curriculum, and this necessitates the design and evolution of a pedagogy and content for introducing tools of map making into school learning.

The questions and aims

The key questions addressed in this proposal are: How can we make the learners in a classroom more like a group of investigators engaged in exploring the local histories, geography, climate, environment, cultural specificities, socio-economic realties, biodiversity, agro-ecological characteristics, settlement patterns, land and water usage etc.? How can children collaborate with teachers and practitioners to acquire the fundamental concepts and skills of a discipline while exploring their familiar everyday world? How can we incorporate GIS-based teaching-learning (linked with remote sensing and other online data repositories) into the Indian school curriculum?

The basic premise of this proposal is that guiding children through an authentic inquiry process in school will equip them with the powerful tools of a discipline–concepts, skills, and methods–that will deepen their learning and understanding of disciplines (Kuhn et al. 2000; Gardner and Mansilla 1999; Bransford, Brown and Cocking 1999). It will instill in children the higher-order thinking, skills and abilities that will help them perceive and solve problems of the complex everyday world with the categories and tools offered by the disciplines (Schauble 1996; Zimmerman 2000). Such a disciplinary engagement with the world will help children to become expert problem solvers and creative learners. This proposal is also informed by the view that learning is an active and complex process, where each child is unique and has to be treated in accordance to her/his uniqueness, cognitive abilities, and pace of learning (Bruner 1977; Wood 1979). Children can learn more effectively when they take more responsibility towards the aim of a learning task.

Thus the proposal aims to:

  1. Design instructional strategies and content that provides opportunities for children to conduct authentic inquiry practices in school classrooms that support them to solve problems of familiar everyday world in creative ways; also that provides scope for acquiring skills and meaningful learning of concepts of multiple disciplines in an integrated and holistic manner.
  2. Involve children in small-scale research projects in collaboration with teachers and subject experts, and create information systems and databases of regional and local specificities.
  3. Design and disseminate content and instructional methodologies that use GIS as a pedagogic tool to investigate problems of children’s everyday world and local environment. Evolve an overall framework for instruction through the inquiry mode of learning using GIS and digital technologies, add-research based modification to the framework and identify methods of implementation in the classroom.
  4. Evaluate the potential of digital technologies for school learning, and the issues and key problems in their implementation in Indian classrooms.
  5. Demonstrate a model program that uses digital technologies as a pedagogic tool and show how to capitalize on the potential of such a tool for teaching-learning purposes in school.

Exemplar workshop on map making

A workshop focusing on the ways to evolve content for GIS-based teaching-learning was conducted with 18 school children from grade IV to grade VIII. The workshop introduced children to the tools, techniques and concepts of map making. It focused on directing children to discover and understand the significance of their familiar everyday world and immediate surroundings for map making. The mode of instruction included activities such as field walks, drawing maps of familiar locations and routes, familiarizing oneself with software tools, navigating with maps and GPS, and collecting data to create maps that highlighted environmentally significant aspects of a campus. During the initial sessions, children drew maps of small areas such as their homes and the surroundings, their school locality, of the route from home to a nearby bus stop/school, etc. Later, the children were guided through two projects to track various entities and create maps using a set of icons that represented buildings, landscaping, biodiversity, and renewable and non-renewable energy sources of a 5.75 acre campus of a research institute employing the concepts learned, computers, software tools, and techniques of map making. The children identified, geocoded and databased, a total of 363 trees belonging to 82 different species, 69 genera and 33 families. They also tracked location of various energy sources such as water and electricity distributions systems, location of solar panels etc.

We consider this first workshop as a preliminary phase of exploration towards our aim of introducing GIS in Indian school classrooms. The workshop was conducted without any external funding with support of PhD student volunteers to demonstrate how existing expertise and resources of a research institute holds the capacity to conduct such summer vacation programs for school children.

The insights generated from the workshop suggest that GIS-based instructional framework can provide an authentic context for inquiry mode of learning that is centered on problem solving and that encourage children to be active agents of their own learning process. The activities clearly provided a meaningful context for children to gain authentic field experiences, collect real data about the question of interest, adding their own data to the map, create database etc. Children learned important concepts related to map making, remote sensing satellites, GIS, energy sources, biodiversity etc. as part of an effort to  understand various aspects of their familiar everyday world. Learning happened through discussions, seminars, projects, activities, and working in teams. The distinct characteristics of the sessions were that it was interactive and non-hierarchical where every child actively participated, had their own roles to play, explore, observe, gather and record first-hand information, and arrive at ones own learning. The workshop did not focus on specific learning outcomes, but rather encouraged diversity in outcomes among children of different age groups, based on their ability and pace. The assessment was embedded in the learning contexts and was done while children performing the tasks. It was interesting to note that even the younger children who participated in the workshop were able to create maps and databases, use GPS and software tools, apply relevant concepts, and enhance their understanding of space, of trees and plants, etc., whereas senior/more knowledgeable children acted as capable peers who motivated and guided learning. This shows that a heterogeneous group of children of mixed ability and age can create a rich learning context and produce better learning outcomes. What the workshop suggests is that, it is possible for the curriculum to introduce the basics of GIS starting from middle school and reach GIS-based map making using software, in secondary school. Moreover the workshop helped children appreciate the importance of their familiar everyday world for learning of school subjects.

Barriers to incorporation of pedagogic innovations and inquiry-based teaching-learning in Indian school classrooms

There are persistent concerns that Indian school education is not offering learners enriched learning experiences, and not motivating or preparing them to pursue higher learning of the disciplines. What is more significant is that there is a serious lack of research on children’s learning and understanding of school subjects.  Such research would form the basis on which policies are formulated, pedagogic methods and content are developed and conclusions are arrived at. There exist very few studies on Indian schooling that systematically examine the efficacy of curricular principles, policies, teaching-learning practices, and how children learn the concepts and practices of a discipline.

Inquiry-based learning has been a central theme of the educational reforms brought in by the National Curriculum Framework-2005.[2] The document expresses dissatisfaction with the prevailing educational and teaching-learning practices in schools. It proposes a critical, inquiry-based and activity-oriented pedagogy for effective teaching and learning in school classrooms, where learners must assume more active roles and teachers a facilitating role. But in reality, there exists a huge gap between the intended and the implemented curriculum. The actual teaching-learning process in a real Indian classroom is still in the era of print technology, with the textbook being the powerful pedagogical tool in the hands of the teacher and the children. Kumar (1991) calls the prescribed textbook the “defacto curriculum” as it is the prime curriculum resource that completely determines the day-to-day pedagogic activities of a classroom. The classroom learning is bookish as it involves rote learning for the purpose of the examination, and the prime goal of teaching-learning is completion of the content of a textbook and syllabus within the allotted curricular time, and testing children at the end of the year on the textbook content learned. The kind of inquiry and activities conducted in Indian school classrooms are scripted by the textbooks and syllabus developed in accordance with the guidelines set by a centrally written curriculum. Teachers follow these predetermined scripts and procedures, and whole classroom processes are confined to and dependent on the content of the textbooks. Teaching and learning are confined to the specific timeframe allotted by the curriculum and syllabus, viz. the seven period time table of a school day and the strict boundaries of each subject and classroom. In the classroom, children are also socialized to accept the pedagogic authority of the teacher, textbook and curriculum (Clarke 2001; Sarangapani 2003). The classroom instruction implemented through the teacher by the centrally written curriculum and textbooks often fails to draw children’s attention to the relevance of their everyday world and immediate context for learning purposes. Therefore, it fails to develop in children the skills of inquiry, observation, reasoning and learning based on real world contexts, thus making classroom learning a ‘decontextualised’ experience for the children (Kumar, 1997).

Schools also introduce a compartmentalized view of the world and of disciplines in terms of methods and concepts. Inquiry, experiential/activity-based learning are predominantly associated with and conducted in the domain of science. Science is the only subject that is viewed as being amenable to inquiry, experimentation, data collection, analysis, etc. This brings in a dissonance in the learning of school subjects, where the humanities, arts and languages are seen as subjects that require memorization of facts and verbal skills, mathematics is viewed as a subject that needs logical skills, and science is the only subject that is viewed as requiring reasoning and practical skills, and a non-verbalized mode of learning.

Another important characteristic of the Indian classroom, especially in learning through the textbook, is the lack of inter-relatedness of conceptual learning across subjects and grades. There are no specific intended learning aims relating to the teaching-learning of a concept, and the pedagogic processes fail to connect concepts from elementary to upper primary to high school. What the child learns in each grade is a set of certain previously determined concepts viewed as fundamental to a discipline, without evaluating their cognitive usefulness, the learning progress and outcomes. Newly emerging disciplines and knowledge are not included in Indian school textbooks.

Status of technology-enabled teaching-learning in schools and barriers to the use of digital technologies in school learning

The introduction of GIS in Indian classrooms for teaching-learning purposes can create new avenues for pedagogic innovations at a time when noteworthy efforts are being made by the central and state governments to formulate curricular policy and introduce Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in schools (NCF 2005; MHRD 2010). Several states in the country have launched Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as a compulsory subject in the secondary and higher secondary school curriculum.[3] As a result, schools have been equipped with computer and IT labs, internet connectivity and other related accessories. Teachers are encouraged to integrate ICT in the teaching-learning process, and in-service teacher training programs are offered to build computer and IT-related skills and promote use of interactive software.

While there is a wealth of debate, proposals and policy documents on the use of ICT in schools, there is a paucity of research and literature on the use, implementation and effectiveness of digital technologies as a pedagogic tool in Indian schools. Although the potential benefits of digital technologies for learning have been widely acknowledged in the policy documents and reports, there are no programs that have successfully put the concept into practice and integrated ICT into the pedagogic practices of a classroom and into the curriculum. The quality of the curriculum, content, facilities and infrastructure for teaching-learning through ICT are uneven across the states of the country and the different school systems. Moreover, there is a difference in the manner in which ICT-enabled learning is used in private schools and publicly funded schools, urban and rural schools, aided and unaided schools. The practical use of ICT for strengthening the teaching and learning process is a challenge even when schools possess the necessary facilities and the teachers are aware of the benefits of ICT integration and have received basic ICT training, etc. While using technology in the classroom, the focus is more on developing generic ICT literacy skills such as familiarizing oneself with a computer, key boarding, word-processing, using databases, spreadsheets and the Internet, watching visual models, documentaries, etc. The lack of research, expertise and model curricular programs in technology-enabled teaching-learning in the Indian context is a major obstacle. The poor infrastructure facilities in government-funded schools, large student-teacher ratio, and lack of professional capability of teachers to incorporate new pedagogic methodologies/technologies are additional factors that contribute to the difficulties in implementing innovative curriculum projects.

Given the complexity of the education scenario in India, which includes differential school systems with diverse socio-cultural-economic-linguistic-geographic landscapes, the implementation of a new curricular project or a technological tool like GIS in schools and evaluation of its effectiveness in teaching-learning processes, is a challenging task. A fundamental challenge is the development of content and teaching-learning materials that can be integrated into the present structure of schooling, which has insufficient curricular time for teaching-learning through an inquiry mode. The large network of schools spread across different states of the country and using different languages for teaching and learning, poses a problem of scalability.

Suggested actions

In the spirit of improving research on curriculum and school education and to introduce authentic inquiry mode of teaching-learning and GIS based instruction in schools, the paper identifies seven areas for specific action. The implementation of these suggested actions are envisioned as joint responsibilities of the state, the government agencies involved in school education, institutes of higher learning, research centres and schools.

For educationalists and curriculum developers

  1. Restructuring organization of school classrooms and curricular time

An instructional method that guides children through the authentic inquiry mode of learning calls for a fundamental restructuring of the school classroom in terms of its organization, teacher-student ratio, processes, time allotment, activities, resources, tool use, and also reconceptualization of the roles of teacher and children. It requires design and development of pedagogic activities, content and new teaching-learning materials, professionally equipping and empowering teachers, evaluation of the effectiveness of the teaching-learning strategies and devising methods of implementation of the different components of the curriculum in the classroom.

  1. Building and sustaining academic support to schools

Developing curricular and learning experiences for school children based on the framework of authentic inquiry practices can find its purpose only when they are embedded in collaborative practices and authentic team work of teachers, educationalists, disciplinary experts, and children. In India, the schools, teacher training centres and university systems are three isolated distinct worlds and the formal organization, policies and practices of these systems reinforce this separation. Improving learning and fostering creative pedagogic practices in schools requires new ways of working in extensive and meaningful collaborative partnerships between universities, research institutes, teachers, educationalists, and children and creating a community of experts to conceptualize and implement a curriculum. A curricular project of introducing GIS in schools requires collaboration for creating resources, evolving content and pedagogy, evaluating of its effectiveness, hardware and software support, supporting teachers and children at different phases of the project and envisioning new possibilities.

What is important is building and sustaining an academic culture and a structured space around schools to interact and engage with teachers and children and creating linkages for dialogue between higher learning centres and school education.

  1. Establishing a platform that foster linkages between various stakeholders of school education

It is important to develop mechanisms, systems and procedures within a university system that will bring together multiple stakeholders of education to a common forum to support school education. One of the ways to achieve this is establishing school resource centres, with supported libraries, at university centres. This will also be a space that coordinates various activities for teachers and children, where teachers can come together to design teaching-learning materials, can access updates on research in education to inform their practices, share knowledge and experiences of classroom teaching and emerge as a community of practitioners. Such centres will design, exhibit and hold exemplary teaching-learning materials and expertise on curricular research. In addition to the above, one of the aims of this program is coordinating summer workshops, monthly programs and vacation internship programs for school children in research institutes with the help of PhD student volunteers to communicate and introduce children to the practices of knowledge creation and culture of research. Such programs for schools and children can be coordinated and conducted on a regular basis by the school resource centres.

  1. Collaborative content creation

The proposed program envisages a group of likeminded researchers from different disciplines working together to innovate on the Indian school curriculum and pedagogy and guide children through authentic inquiry practices. The expected outcome of the pilot phase of this program is evolving content and framework for introducing GIS in school, guidelines for using software that teachers can innovate and use in their own classrooms, creating local databases of a region working along with children, and trial running the implementation of such a program in schools. This can be achieved through collaborative work and content creation by a team of disciplinary experts working with teachers and children. What is needed is a synergized and concerted effort with research centres pooling their resources and expertise for creating content that provides ample scope for the teacher to be creative and innovate on the basic framework that can be adapted to the specific needs of a local environment and school.

For SEAD community

  1. A collaborative partnership across SEAD network is proposed in the following areas

a)      Creating local, national and international partnership across SEAD to foster peer to peer research and collaboration to share and exchange best practices, knowledge; also building a shared understanding of what technology enabled teaching-learning means for different countries and regions.

b)      Sharing of experiences of authentic inquiry based teaching-learning practices in schools and learning from exemplary programs aimed at engaging students with real data on research problems that are approached creatively and collaboratively.

c)      To facilitate the sharing of experiences of successful technology-enabled and GIS-based teaching-learning practices that are already in place in the US and other countries, to learn and build on ways of implementation, resource development, etc. Taking examples from successful exercises in the use of GIS elsewhere in order to show Indian schools the impact of this method; also share experiences of teacher training and preparation methods in previously envisioned and implemented approaches.

d)     Connecting higher secondary children across different regions and nations: Creating a virtual space for higher secondary school children to use media to communicate effectively and interact with their counterparts in other countries and regions to know each other, to share and learn from each other about their physical and social world,  to solve problems in real time, to share databases/maps created by them and also share experiences of collecting and making them, work together on interesting projects, and to take learning beyond the boundaries of the classrooms and nations.

e)      Supporting usage of FOSS based tools and open educational resources: Since software is the foundation for digital technologies-based learning, we believe in using and promoting Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) that will make use of GIS affordable for schools. Through SEAD we like to network with like-minded researchers and open-source communities, who use FOSS based tools in school projects, enrich, document, and maintain them; also form a forum to share and collaboratively create open educational resources.

f)       Insights on collaboration: Learning from earlier collaborative experiences of networked learning communities. One of the important issues in the Indian context is how ready educators are to collaborate, develop partnerships and make effective use of technology. Teachers are traditionally been trained for the teaching learning practices that are confined within the limit of a school classroom. Linking the practice of teaching and learning in schools to a larger collaborative network is, therefore, a major challenge

g)      Creating Information systems and databases: Networking with researchers who are a part of citizen science projects to learn and share experience of creating information systems and databases together with school children. This is a very recent initiative attempt in India. Moreover there are numerous free online data repositories which provide data on topography (DEM), rainfall, temperature, vegetation, population, socio-economic details etc. which can be directly linked to GIS platform and can be explored for the purpose in school classrooms.

h)      Device to measure weather data: One of the main areas of this project that does not have complete technology support is about setting up a model weather station (to measure rainfall, wind, temperature, humidity etc.) in a school and identify appropriate instruments that can be used by children at school level. The long term plan is to work with climatologists to gather information on the climate of a region with the help school children to create information systems on important climate variables. The difficulty faced on this front has to do with developing rain gauge and other instruments that can be interfaced to a computer and that can be handled by school children, to give accurate measurements. We seek support and insights from researchers working in this area towards innovating solutions and developing devices that are affordable for schools.

i)        Working with Government agencies, sustainability, scalability and funds: For any project of this nature to succeed beyond the pilot stages and to extend it to large number of schools, it is important to formulate partnerships with Government agencies involved in school education. We seek insight towards defining a replicable, scalable, and sustainable GIS project model for school children. Finally, sustaining such an endeavor requires funds and budget allocations. We need to explore financial and support arrangements and hence seek suggestions into means for securing funds.

For private sector

  1. Private partnerships

There are multiple stakeholders who share the responsibility of children’s school education, including the private sector. It is important to facilitate a systematic cooperation between school systems and the private sector. One of the proposals towards this is encouraging the private sector companies to adopt schools as part of their corporate social responsibility not only to bring about infrastructure changes; but also supporting curricular improvement and intervention programs.

For Universities and Researchers

  1. Fostering a climate of curricular research and innovation in India

Incorporating a program of innovative curricular and pedagogic interventions in Indian schools requires advancing avenues for educational research and empowering the role of teacher as a researcher and a guide to children in the classroom. What is needed is a curricular and pedagogic framework developed on the basis of research that equips the child to acquire meaningful understanding of disciplinary concepts, thinking and skills. The prerequisite for incorporating GIS, digital technologies and innovative pedagogic programs into Indian school education is establishing the right kind of institutions, expertise and positions in university systems for conceptualizing, designing and implementing curricular projects in schools.

Currently we recognize a major gap in these areas and see our work as providing a beginning towards this.

Acknowledgements

I thank Rajani and Nalini for their support in initiating and conducting the children’s summer workshop and identifying the area of GIS; Professor Sundar Sarukkai for his suggestion to send this proposal to the SEAD community and for his feedback on this writing; Sreeja, and Madhu for discussions and their feedback; Abhijeet and Geetha for discussions and support.

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[1] Authentic inquiry constitutes everyday practices and procedures employed by practitioners of a discipline to solve new problems (Roth and Lucas 1997; Krajcik et al. 1994). Examinations of scientific practices and routines provided by ethnographic studies of science laboratory (Latour and Woolgar 1979) offer insights into the procedures and skills of authentic practice. This idea developed within the theoretical framework of situated cognition proposes that children engaging in inquiry practices similar to those of scientists provides a meaningful learning context conducive towards developing knowledge, methods and skills of a discipline (Brown, Collins, and Duguid 1989; Lave and Wenger 1991; Chinn and Malhotra 2002)

[2] National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). National Curriculum Framework. New Delhi: NCERT, 2005

[3] One such exemplary program is the IT@School Project of the General Education Department of Government of Kerala, which was set up in the year 2000 for empowering the state schools through Information and Communication Technology (ICT)-enabled education. The project implemented ICT-enabled education in over 12000 schools in the state and put in place a system for the proper supply of computers and accessories to schools. The project works entirely on Free and Open Source Software and it is considered to be the single largest simultaneous deployment of FOSS-based ICT education in the world.  In content development, the free OS, IT@School GNU/Linux is bundled with several educational software like Dr. Geo, Rasmol, K-Tech lab, Geogebra, Chemtool, Kalcium, etc. The project has also prepared interactive multimedia CDs, handbooks and training modules for ICT, as well as text books for IT in grades V to X

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