Adena Schutzberg: “What will change GIS education is interest in and support for competency-based learning”

Adena Schutzberg
Adena Schutzberg

Adena Schutzberg is Executive Editor of Directions Magazine and the Principal of ABS Consulting Group, Inc., a GIS consulting firm providing services to clients including GIS software, data, and imagery companies. She has a passion for education and has taught geography and GIS informally, in residence and on-line. She holds a BA in Chemistry from the University of Chicago and an MS in Geography from Pennsylvania State University.

Adena was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You have been writing about GIS for a long time. Do you consider yourself a journalist first and a GIS professional second, or vice versa?

A: I’m most definitely a GIS person who writes about the topic. I’ve never studied journalism formally. If you saw the comments from my college and grad school professors about my writing, you would wonder how I got here!

I learned to write on the job from some great editors at Esri, TenLinks, Professional Surveyor and Directions Magazine. What they say is true: if you write about things you really care about, you write far better.

Q: We first met 20 years ago when you gave an ArcCAD presentation at Esri-Danvers. You chided the preceding presenter — a salesperson — for apparently spending too much time on learning PowerPoint and not enough time to learn ArcCAD. Have things changed? Is form and the wow factor still considered more important in GIS sales presentations than substance and function?

A: Wow, I don’t remember that comment, but it sure sounds like something I’d say! Back when we rolled out ArcCAD, both AutoCAD and PC ArcInfo users were anxious to see how it worked and what it looked like. I think my point was to address what people wanted to know, vs. what we (as sales and marketing people) thought they should know.

The big change today is that users and potential users are more savvy about geospatial products and services. The technical, and even some management staff want to get their hands on them and see how the products work.

I like to think the majority of dull sales presentations and demos are behind us! Except for the most complex or customized solutions, today’s sales cycle is much more likely to involve a free evaluation of some kind. I think we are over the hump of “wow” stuff; that reflects the relative maturity of both GIS software and the user and potential user community.

Q: I loved ArcCAD. It was a great product, and it had dedicated following. Apparently not enough to keep it alive, though. But this begs a bigger question: Do users want GIS and CAD to work together? Or GIS and data visualization, or GIS and geodesign, or GIS and BIM. Over the years I have seen many attempts to marry GIS to some other discipline and field, but the marriage never happens, or ends up in divorce. Why do you think that is?

A: My sense after following CAD/GIS integration for many years is that many people thought they wanted tight integration. At the end of the day, the horizontal offerings never really yielded the promised synergy. That’s why products like GeoSQL, ArcCAD, AutoCAD Map, MGE, MicroStation Geographics and others never really made it big.

The integrated CAD/GIS products that bring in some money for their developers today are vertical solutions for electric, gas, pipeline and other areas.

I’m reminded of a marketing story where a focus group of teens were asked about and shown a new MP3 player. When queried if they thought they’d buy the pink one or the black one, almost everyone in attendance said they wanted a pink one. On the way out of the meeting, the organizers as a thank you asked attendees to take home a device from a pile of pink and black ones. They all (boys and girls) selected the black players.

Q: You work three jobs: Executive Editor at Directions Magazine, President of your own company ABS Consulting Group, and Senior Lecturer at Penn State University. Tell us what you do at each.

A: At this point I’m really doing just the first two. I left Penn State a few years back. I was teaching in the online Masters in GIS program. Now I serve on the advisory board for the degree.

My work at Directions is mostly writing All Points Blog, putting together articles, and covering conferences. My favorite part of the job is covering GIS education, a relatively new beat for the magazine.

My consulting firm in recent years has taken on short term projects addressing the state of the industry and evaluating potential products for the market.

Q: Do you think Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are the future of education? Or of training? Do you think a MOOC will replace the Esri Authorized Teaching Program or other such vendor-specific programs?

A: I think MOOCs are part of the future of education. At this point it’s still the the wild west with MOOCs. Providers and students are still figuring out what they are for, how to teach and learn within the unique environment, and how to ensure a return on investment.

Esri’s Authorized Training Program is already being phased out. I think changes in student demand and corporate expectations related to timing, flexibility and cost caused its demise. I don’t think vendor-specific programs will go away; there’s a lot of money to be made in them! Vendor-penned and -taught courses and vendor certifications seem to carry extra weight with students and employers, whether they deserve it or not.

What will change education, in GIS and elsewhere, is interest in and support for competency-based learning. At the Esri Education GIS Conference Douglas Miskowiak of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point introduced what will likely be the first competency-based certificate in GIS.

Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Since I launched GeoHipster, I learned that for many the term “hipster” has a derogatory connotation. Do you consider yourself a hipster? Do you think “hipster” is a pejorative term?

A: I don’t consider myself a hipster. I think the most important thing for those who do think outside the box is to do so not to shun the mainstream per se, but to follow one’s own path. If that makes me a hipster, so be it!

Q: You run ultramarathons, and play clarinet in a local band. Definitely not mainstream. Between your three jobs and these two activities, where do you find the time?

A: To me these activities are mainstream; they are what me and my friends do! I’ve been playing the clarinet since I was eight and running since I was 16.  As for finding the time… I’ve been doing them so long, and they are so important to me, I just fit them in.

That said, I do multitask, especially while running or driving. I’m always listening to tech and education podcasts to provide context for my work at Directions or listening to my band’s “practice CDs” to master those 5/8 and 7/8 tempos in our repertoire.

Q: Any future plans you would like to share? More teaching? More running? More writing? More of everything?

A: I would like to be more involved in teaching. We have to get beyond the classic GIS education involving watching a lecture, then doing a lab following cookbook-style instructions. Educators need to explore new ways to engage students whether face-to-face or online.

Q: Thank you very much for the interview. Is there anything else you would like to share with the GeoHipster readers?

A: I want to thank you for inviting me to participate; it was fun.