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The spatialities of running a concurrent dissertation ‘bootcamp’

By Dr Matt Finn and Dr Laura Smith (University of Exeter, UK)

It was with some trepidation that we set out to run “concurrent” workshops, with some students on campus and others joining the same session online, for second year BA Geography students in preparation for their final year dissertations. Each year in the summer term, after assessment has finished, we run a two-week workshop called Research Planning Fortnight: Getting Dissertation Ready, that introduces the dissertation, and which serves as a transition and handover space between a research skills and methods training module, and the dissertation.

This was a workshop programme that we’d both collaborated on for a couple of years already—with Matt as convenor of the second-year research methods module, and Laura as convenor of the dissertation module. In the emergency conditions of 2020, we’d moved some material online, and embedded other content into the dissertation module in the autumn. For this year, we wanted to return as much as we could to our earlier collaborative and more interactive format. But with cautionary tales abounding from colleagues at other institutions of the challenges posed by ‘concurrent’ or ‘hy-flex’ teaching evolving along with the pandemic, we wondered whether we were being ambitious, or just overly optimistic.

The first week of the two-week block was structured around a series of two-hour workshops each morning. Rather than structuring these workshops on a day-by-day basis, we set out the themes we were going to cover across the week, but with a flexibility that meant we could pause for longer or shorter on particular themes as needed. This meant we could easily adapt and respond to student interests, queries, and questions.

Another blogpost here covers more about the practicalities of the sessions, and some student responses. In this post, we reflect on the workshops including a focus on questions about spatiality – the ways that spaces shape and are shaped by society.

Photo by Toni Koraza on Unsplash


One of the things that shaped our practice was a desire to make both ‘online’ and ‘on-campus’ spaces feel like equally legitimate learning spaces. We planned for an on-campus host (Matt) in the lecture theatre and an online host (Laura) on Zoom and we regularly passed conversation back and forward between us. This might not be feasible regularly in terms of staffing, but it was evident in student responses that this aided the sense that both spaces were equally important.

That both spaces are equally significant can sometimes be undermined by our language if we talk about virtual vs. real spaces, or online spaces as if they are distinct from physical spaces (Kinsley, 2014). While we avoided online vs. in person language (all learning is still embodied) we did still use online or on-campus. However, we realized this too didn’t reflect what was happening.

In fact, as we all used Padlet, and the Zoom chat, as a shared medium of interaction all students were ‘online’, not only those joining from other locations. In that sense, it was less a question of joining online or on-campus but joining on-campus or from other locations (such as student accommodation or wherever the student might be). This has important implications for understanding student choices about how they wanted to join in, and for technology use.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash


The various lockdowns and easings over the last 15 months have reinforced the particular sociality and sense of community offered by on-campus teaching. In planning the workshops, we wanted to incorporate and celebrate different forms of social learning. Students could choose, day-by-day, how and where they wanted to learn – with friends meeting up to walk together to the lecture theatre, as well as a chance to study amongst a larger group, while Zoom allowed students to learn as a household or bubble, or to fit the workshops more easily around other commitments. Zoom also allowed students not in Exeter to participate in the workshops. This flexibility was something that came through in student feedback as being particularly appreciated.

But it’s also important to remember that for some students, the pandemic has more severely interrupted or disrupted this sense of community, and so coming on to campus could be unsettling, if there are no friends nearby to go with, and with no collaborative or small group working in the workshops. The Zoom chat became the default space for conversations, asking questions, and sharing ideas and reflections.


Students joined in and from multiple spaces in a range of digitally mediated ways. An implication of this concerns the digital infrastructure that enables access to education in these ways, including that we recognize the digital inequalities in and between each space.

Previous comments from colleagues, and schoolteachers, focused on the challenge of the technology in the room from which the educator was teaching – whether camera, microphone(s) to pick up different speakers and sound. While investment is taking place in the physical infrastructure of rooms there is a need for it to be present and reliable, and matched by the know-how to use the equipment, understanding what it enables and constrains in terms of pedagogy. Together these form part of an institution’s digital culture.

Similarly, issues of wifi access in student accommodation was noted as a reason for one student to attend on campus, for another their laptop speaker had gone and they didn’t know if this would be a barrier to attending in person (it wasn’t as the Zoom audio came through the room’s speakers).

While full participation looks like it requires each student to have a device (certainly on campus) we can remember above that practices of learning together with shared devices means, lack of access to a device might be partially mitigated, and hidden, by watching with a fellow student. This means a student’s digital traces – or their absence – are not necessarily indicative of their individual engagement or lack of it. These inequalities remain a key issue.

Concluding thoughts

Our concurrent teaching went better than we had feared, and had positive, and thought-provoking, student feedback. It has made us think repeatedly about the spatiality of learning which has important implications for understanding learning as a socio-technical practice.

In looking to the future, if concurrent teaching becomes more typical, it does not remove but reconfigures some of the barriers to education, while opening up new forms of access.

Some students reflected that they had found online lectures, and pre-recorded lectures, to be very difficult to engage with and for them there was a relief in being able to attend on campus, while others had found the way learning materials had been packaged far more conducive to their learning and lives. For them, the option to continue learning in ways that didn’t require being in the lecture theatre were important.

While there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, it seems important to us to continue to pay attention to the spatialities of learning, attentive to the opportunities and limitations new approaches bring.


Balancing Courage and Compassion in Research-Based Learning

By Helen Walkington (Oxford Brookes, UK)

In Tuesday’s ‘Environmental Hazard Management’ class, live on Zoom, I did a little experiment with my students. In one hand I held a juggling ball (new lockdown skill) and in the other a very ripe tomato. I said that developing resilience is a key concept in disaster management. I asked “If I squeeze the juggling ball and the tomato, which do you feel would best demonstrate a resilient response?” Of course, in wanting them to engage, I asked if they would like me to enact the thought ‘experiment’ (cereal bowl and kitchen roll under the desk at the ready). Once the juggling ball bounced back and the tomato went almost everywhere except the bowl, I made my point about the longevity of tomato seeds and different, sometimes unexpected types of resilience.

Image: Bowl of tomatoes (Credit: Dyer)

I suspect that I’m not alone in having chosen an academic career, at least in part, because I value autonomy. The freedom to pursue research that I find interesting, to advance a discipline that I feel passionate about, and to help share this journey with my undergraduate students is energising, even if it ends up being quite messy at times. In Higher Education we have a relatively high degree of control over how we provide learning opportunities to our students. When tasked with teaching ‘research methods’ for instance, we can choose whether to do this by providing lectures, or directing students through research projects so they can ‘learn by doing,’ or offering even greater freedom to learn by allowing students to take control of generating research questions, designing and carrying out investigations themselves. We probably deliver all three approaches progressively, as a team, across the course of a GEES programme. 

Working with students who are engaged in research, sometimes for the first time as undergraduates, is always going to be a careful balancing act. On the one hand, offering students the freedom to pose their own research questions, with the associated authenticity of potential failure, might be considered a courageous pedagogy. On the other hand, we have to consider how students might react to having made mistakes, and be compassionate as they grapple with the potential for creating new knowledge (either new to themselves or new to society) through discovery. Learning by doing research requires emotional investment and resilience, an experience which unites staff (faculty in the US) and students. We can perhaps empathise with students because we share this experience with them, even though we are in a different position, ultimately being judged on the way we communicate our research. For me the cognitive involvement, emotional buy-in and desire for students to succeed has shifted my practice of dissertation and independent study supervision into mentoring. I am acknowledging the ‘whole student’ (Hill et al , 2019).

This aligns very much with Thiry and Laursen (2011), who suggested that academic (faculty) mentors to undergraduate researchers perform three supportive roles: professional socialization, intellectual support and personal/emotional support. These complementary supports acknowledge the importance of working with students to explain why they are engaging in research, supporting their cognitive development, but also acknowledging their emotional needs. The need for a balance between courage and compassion in our practice is clear. However, add to this balancing act escalating concerns about declining levels of student wellbeing (IPPR, 2017) and we begin to appreciate the weight of responsibility for successfully maintaining the balance in our own practice between courageous pedagogy and compassionate pedagogy. Can we still judge securely how far we can draw students ‘to the edge of their ability’ (as one expert mentor put it) and challenge them, when they are self-isolating in student accommodation and can’t collect physical data, get onto campus or access the library? (Using a metaphor, maintaining this balance might feel like walking a tight rope, but if you’ve been working on your balance through yoga during lockdown, then let’s say it’s across Niagara gorge, just to make you feel more alive). By providing all three of Thiry and Laursen’s supports as a research mentor, we hope to open a productive, liminal space for contemplation to our student mentees. My hope is that my students will connect their learning and knowledge production to their values, personal sense of meaning, as well as their relationship to the world around them. 

Learning is an emotional journey, particularly in research mode. The research cycle throws up sticking points and challenges at different (usually inconvenient) times in the research process. (perhaps a large knot in the tightrope, or a sudden gust of wind). This doesn’t just impact our student mentees, but us as research mentors as well. While supervising research prioritises research products (e.g. the student’s dissertation, group report, journal article) and content (new geographical knowledge), mentoring personalises learning and makes it meaningful and important in shaping the learner’s own esteem and identity, which may impact career aspirations and life chances. 

The benefits of undergraduate research are well established for students, including the development of critical thinking, enhanced degree outcomes and student retention, making it a ‘high-impact practice’ (Kuh, 2008). It is not enough to just make students ‘do a dissertation,’ effective mentoring is central to accruing these benefits. Over the last five years, I’ve worked with a team of researchers to try to work out why, exploring specifically which types of mentoring practice are effective. Our large-scale literature review resulted in Ten Salient Practices (Shanahan, et al., 2015; and summarised in Table 1) which are effective regardless of national context, type of higher education institution or discipline. We’ve since completed 32 detailed research interviews on what award-winning mentors from around the world actually do, including strategies to engage students in research, retain their interest through appropriate challenge, and celebrate success (Walkington et al, 2019). One example is supporting students in publishing their research findings through, for example, research journals like GEOverse. Importantly, mentored research opportunities at undergraduate level have been found to confer particular benefits on underserved student groups (Finley and McNair, 2013). As they help all students to succeed, I would argue that these undergraduate research opportunities have the potential to enhance student wellbeing. Indeed, since effective mentoring of students involves getting to know them on a deeper level, recognising their work and valuing them as individuals, this knowledge of the ‘whole student’ is a fundamental underpinning of an inclusive approach. 

1.     Do strategic pre-planning in order to be ready to respond to students’ varying needs and abilities throughout the research process.
2.     Set clear and well-scaffolded expectations for undergraduate researchers.
3.     Teach the technical skills, methods, and techniques of conducting research in the discipline.
4.     Balance rigorous expectations with emotional support and appropriate personal interest in students.
5.     Build community among groups of undergraduate researchers and mentors, including graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and any other members of the research team.
6.     Dedicate time as well to one-on-one, hands-on mentoring.
7.     Increase student ownership of the research over time.
8.     Support students’ professional development through networking and explaining norms of the discipline.
9.     Create intentional, laddered opportunities for peers and “near peers” to learn mentoring skills and to bring larger numbers of undergraduates into scholarly opportunities.
10.      Encourage students to share their findings and provide guidance on how to do so effectively in oral and poster presentations and in writing.
Table 1: Ten Salient Practices of Undergraduate research mentoring (Shanahan, 2015; Walkington, 2019).

However, the Covid–19 pandemic threatens to challenge the benefits of research-based learning. An undergraduate Geography student, alongside a doctoral student and several faculty members have researched the impact of Covid-19 on access to (and thus the benefits from) undergraduate research opportunities. With data from 18 institutions in the USA, they found that COVID-19 reduced access to research experiences*, reduced student access to technology and specialist research spaces, as well as interrupted face to face mentoring (Trego et al. 2020). Clearly significant changes are required in approaches to data collection for it to remain safe for student researchers to continue to engage actively in research under these challenging circumstances. Understandably, in some instances there are topics that universities have declared ‘off limits’ due to their sensitivity. However, it is still possible to mentor students. It is possible to connect to students and provide the three forms of support that Thiry and Laursen outlined. 

To be resilient to unexpected changes, such as Covid-19 has posed, we need to embed research experiences that are inclusive of all students within the curriculum, rather than having selective research opportunities at risk from (hopefully!) short term changes in circumstances. We can democratise engagement with research and make it an entitlement, but to ensure effective learning outcomes for each and every student, we have to demonstrate our pedagogic resilience through a commitment to the ongoing balancing act of courage and compassion.

*In the US research opportunities for undergraduates are sometimes embedded in the curriculum, but are also provided as co-curricular opportunities such as summer projects.


Finley, A. and McNair, T. (2013) Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hill, J., Walkington, H. and Dyer, S. (2019) Teaching, learning, and Assessing in Geography: foundations for the future, in Walkington, H. Hill, J., and Dyer, S. (eds) Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Geography Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA Edward Elgar Publishing pp. 474-484.

Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) (2017) “Not by degrees: improving student mental health in the UK’s universities.” Available at [Accessed on 12/05/20]

Shanahan, J., Ackley-Holbrook, E., Hall, E., Stewart, K., and Walkington, H. 2015. Salient Practices of Undergraduate Research Mentors: A Review of the Literature. Mentoring and Tutoring 23 (5), 359-376. 

Thiry, H., and Laursen, S. L. (2011) “The role of student–advisor interactions in apprenticing undergraduate researchers into a scientific community of practice.” Journal of Science Education and Technology 20, 771–784.

Trego, S., Nadybal, S., Grineski, S, Collins, T and Morales, D. (2020) ‘Initial impacts of Covid-19 on Undergraduate researchers at US universities.’ [online] accessed from:

Walkington, H., Griffin, A. L., Keys-Mathews, L., Metoyer, S. K., Miller, W. E., Baker, R., &    France, D. (2011) Embedding Research-Based Learning Early in the Undergraduate Geography Curriculum. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 35(3), 315-330. 

Walkington, H., Stewart, K., Hall, E., Ackley, E and Shanahan, J.O. (2020) Salient practices of award-winning undergraduate research mentors – balancing freedom and control to achieve excellence. Studies in Higher Education 45, 1519-1532.

Virtually in the Field

Dr Lynda Yorke, Bangor University.

Geography by its very nature is a field-based discipline. However, as the new academic year has begun there have been increasing concerns about the practicalities of undertaking in person field teaching, and both staff and students have health issues that prevent them from participating with in person teaching.  Potential conflict exists between ‘town and gown’, with locals wary of students that may be Covid positive. Taking a group of socially distanced students into the field can require multiple re-runs for staff because group numbers are limited by Government regulations. Thus, a virtual alternative can remove these issues.

Inclusive for all

In the last six months there has been a greater debate about Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) in Geosciences field teaching. There is recognition that under our existing teaching practices the very nature of field teaching can be exclusive. How do you create parity of experience if the alternative to going in the field is simply writing an essay and not participating in the data collection nor the field report your peers are undertaking? It is telling that the pandemic is forcing a long overdue shift in our approach to delivering field teaching that is inclusive and accessible for all. A synchronously delivered, virtual field trip or course enables all students to have the same experiences in real time and in essence does not exclude* anyone.

StoryMaps and Google Earth for Remote Teaching

At my institution I run several locally based field days in Semester 1. Due to my own health risks I am not in person teaching so I needed to develop new alternatives to traditional delivery. This has come in the form of StoryMaps, which is an ESRI product available through ArcGIS Online, and Google Earth. The premise was simple, I wanted to recreate the feeling on being on the ground and in the field, whilst teaching remotely.

Geographical field work is about making observations, collecting data and teamwork. My virtual, remote alternative provided all those aspects. I combined StoryMaps and Google Earth to create an interactive package for my students to engage with. I used the web version of Google Earth (GE) to create a project that combined GE’s aerial and Street View imagery with place markers, lines and shapes, with additional videos and contextual notes. Once the project (series of slides) was created I was able to export the project as a .KML file. Students could add the .kml file into an open GE window and view it via the Present mode. This works best with GE for the web; Google will be discontinuing the GE Pro in the next few years. I used only a fraction of the capabilities available within GE that could be included for enhanced remote teaching, see Google Earth Outreach.   

Screenshot of the Google Earth project.

To complement the GE project, StoryMaps allowed me to create a story comprising existing field work content to create activities for students to work through. In StoryMaps I created a series of slides that contained basic maps (created in ArcGIS), clickable data (NRW Flood Risk Maps) and embedded videos/images. The StoryMap I created included the academic content in the form of brief notes, embedded links to short articles, and associated questions or tasks. This worked particularly well with links to data sources like the National River Flow Archive, where the students could extract data and work on it during the breakout group sessions. To access the StoryMap, students only needed to log in via our institutional URL. StoryMaps can be published in the public domain but I have kept this within my institution. There are many options with StoryMaps, see ArcGIS for virtual field trips.  

Screenshot of the StoryMap with the embedded link to NRW Flood Risk Maps for Wales.

Timetable the Day

The virtual field day was spilt into discrete sessions, combining whole cohort teaching or discussion, with group breakout activities and external speakers. Approximate timings were given for each session ahead of the trip, and a scheduled lunch break was included as time away from the screen is vital.

The Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)

I ran the virtual field trip via Blackboard Collaborate. This allowed for group interaction as well as breakout group activities. It also enabled me (the moderator) to join any of the breakout groups. This was prefect for emulating lecturer/student interactions in the field. In smaller groups, students switched their cameras on and interacted more naturally. As the day progressed, students gained in confidence and were actively speaking out rather than contributing via the chat box. However, the students really liked the ability to ask questions via the chat box.

Issues and Reflections

The principles of good pedagogy must remain in place when designing a virtual field trip. Thus, thinking about the audience, their capabilities and the learning outcomes are a must. Time at the start of the session should be dedicated to unfamiliarity with software. Students using Macs needed to run Google Chrome to access ArcGIS online. I needed a Google account to create the GE project.

Consideration must be given to connectivity issues, and the need for students to access a laptop/PC. Digital inequality is a significant barrier to online delivery. However, running a virtual trip can mean 100% inclusivity* for all participants. Students highlighted wi-fi connectivity varied between student houses meaning sometimes interaction was not always easy. However, they liked being able to request staff help at the click of a button!

The students can re-visit the trip at any point during the module because the materials remain on the VLE. Students highlighted that they had a positive experience, and it was a good substitute under the current circumstances.

Finally, students found it easier to understand the key information through the supporting materials. They liked the fact they could simultaneously interact with online data and resources, whilst also listening to staff insights on the topic.

* I fully acknowledge that there is digital exclusion as we pivot to online delivery.

Recasting the human geography dissertation in lockdown

by Dr. Laura Smith, University of Exeter

The Coronavirus lockdown has greatly disrupted the research ideas and plans of undergraduate geographers. It has also recast, for many students, what ‘fieldwork,’ ‘research,’ and ‘data’ looks like. This is my second year as convenor of Exeter Geography’s B.A. Dissertation module, and while many fundamental aspects of the module remain familiar, much has had to change. The dissertation module has undergone a substantial overhaul over the summer, in response to the shifting research dynamics imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, a small group of us were already meeting as a departmental Dissertation Working Group to review the human geography dissertation modules (Exeter Geography offers both a 45-credit and a 30-credit dissertation module), but that review was soon repurposed around discussions on how to navigate and negotiate undergraduate geography research in an escalating pandemic, with social distancing protocols and lockdown orders. The overhaul began at the close of Term 3, after the spring exam period. The final two weeks of term in the Year 2 B.A. Geography calendar are usually set aside for ‘Research Planning Fortnight: Getting Dissertation Ready’—a transition space for students to begin exploring dissertation research ideas, and to submit (and receive feedback on) a dissertation proposal before the summer vacation. It’s also an informal handover between the Year 2 module, GEO2328 Geographies of Consumption: Doing Human Geography Research (convened by Dr. Matt Finn) which also introduces (and does some of the earliest work in setting up) the dissertation, and the Year 3 modules GEO3311/GEO3312 B.A. Dissertation that I lead on. But the lockdown summer of 2020 meant that even an online Research Planning Fortnight had to be postponed. Ongoing uncertainty about just what the dissertation and ‘dissertation research’ (and dissertation support) might look like by September, and a careful effort to ensure consistency and coherence in our correspondence with students, together with a challenging extended summer assessment and marking period, all fed into pausing the fortnight’s sessions and activities. The summer also saw the department introduce a short set of research restrictions for all human geography dissertations completed in the 2020-2021 academic year:

  • No face-to-face research
  • No travel or visits as part of your research
  • No research that involves live participants. This means no interviews, focus groups, or surveys (online, by phone, or by post), and no ethnographic encounters that involve other participants
  • No research should take the current Coronavirus pandemic as its focus or primary context

We pushed the content—and ethos—of the Research Planning Fortnight into Term 1 of Year 3, embedding it into the start of the B.A. Dissertation module delivery. The dissertation proposal submission still went ahead as planned, and students still received feedback from dissertation advisors, but follow-up conversations with advisors, and all summer ‘research’ (and ethics approval), was pushed until the start of the new academic year. It’s not unusual for students to begin their dissertation research at the start of the autumn term—if summer vacations are filled with combinations of holidays/travel, summer jobs, work placements or internships, sport, caring and family (or other) commitments, or if the nature of their research project requires students to be on campus/in Exeter, or if students change their dissertation idea. What is unusual is that for this year, the autumn term signals a universal start for our dissertation cohort. A module-level ethics application was submitted and approved by the department’s research ethics committee over the summer, and students must now only use the methods/materials outlined (and pre-approved) in the new Ethics Pack. The sample of past dissertations that we’ve made available all demonstrate the revised methods, materials, and analysis that students will be working with this year, even though the earlier research conditions were very different.

The University of Exeter has committed to a mix of synchronous (e.g. ‘live,’ whether on campus or online) and asynchronous (or ‘Anytime Anywhere,’ e.g. pre-recorded) module delivery and learning. The human geography dissertation module is usually delivered through fortnightly dissertation tutorials across Terms 1 and 2 (with the dissertation submitted at the end of Term 2), and a short series of lectures in Term 1 to support students in working through the different stages of a dissertation research project. This year, we’ve expanded and reconfigured the ‘lecture’ provision around a fortnightly set of online resources and activities that alternates with an online dissertation tutorial programme (which has also expanded).

Over the course of the first term, students will work through collections of online materials that variously explore: Selecting a Topic or Finding a Puzzle, Literature, Sourcing Materials and Analysis (Quantitative and Qualitative), Employability and Your Dissertation, and Writing Up Your Dissertation, together with Ethics and Risk Assessment tasks. This sits alongside a research timetable template that tentatively recommends that students use Weeks 1-6 of Term 1 to focus on refining their topic, research questions, and research approach, and Weeks 7-12 to move on to gathering research materials, preparing materials for analysis, and maybe beginning to develop their analysis. In Term 2, the focus will shift to drafting, redrafting, and writing up.

Figure 1. GEO3311/GEO3312 Week 2: Selecting a Topic or Finding a Puzzle online resources and activities.

Although led by different human geography academics, each of these packs of resources and activities follows the same format and rhythm—each section begins with a ‘Coming up this week…’ summary, and a ‘What should I do this week?’ introduction and checklist, followed by a short video capsule to introduce the ‘big questions’ and things to think critically about,[i] a ‘How do I…’ curated reading list that invites students to select one text to explore in more detail (whether individually, or collectively in their dissertation tutor groups), and a practical activity that encourages students to translate and apply some of these principles to their own evolving research projects. The completed activities can then be incorporated into tutorial discussions the next week. There are also opportunities for feedback and review on the module, with three online Q&A sessions scheduled throughout the term.

I’m excited to see how the module unfolds this year. And I cannot wait to see the dissertation research projects that emerge.

[i] Many of the videos and curated reading lists were originally produced by Dr. Matt Finn for GEO2328, as part of his 2019-2020 Exeter Education Incubator project, ‘Online resources and narrowcasting the curriculum.’

The Online Transition in HE

By James Flanders (City University, London) and Maddy Thompson (Keele)

In March, most Universities announced an end to on-campus teaching. Drawing on our differing experiences as a final year student (James) and lecturer (Maddy) doing a Geographies of Digital Health module, we reflect on some of the critical challenges and opportunities that this swift transition has created. Despite our differing experiences, we hope our overall reflection will be useful to students and staff embarking on or returning to online teaching.

The Perils of the Digital

Coincidentally, the transition to online teaching began with a lecture on Digital Health geographies. Previous planning dictated that this would include an interactive activity with students communicating via digital technologies to produce a presentation from opposite ends of a lecture hall to experience distanced health. The need for students to go online made this a more realistic experience. Figure 1 illustrates the students’ reflections on distanced and digital work. The issues and opportunities identified are applicable to our broader experiences of online teaching. Here we focus on communication and technology.

Figure 1: Slide produced by GEO3151 Geographies of Health students at Newcastle University March 2020

Communicating Online

As the Geographies of Health students identified, online communication is complicated. More communication is required to make up for what is lost without face-to-face interaction. This meant more emails. We both felt compelled to have push notifications on 24/7 to prevent email build-up and inevitable confusion. Online teaching makes it harder for students and staff to ‘switch off’.

Online communication in teaching settings creates additional problems. For example, Maddy’s early lectures over-ran. She was more concerned with speaking slowly and repeating key points where she would usually have gestured. Online communication requires additional time to communicate the content; hence, there is less time for content.

If students can easily switch between the lecture and external information (websites, videos, quizzes, etc.), then less content is required in lecture form. James, with a laptop and tablet, was able to easily view the lecture on one screen and take notes and undertake research on his other (see Figure 2). Students confined to using a single device cannot. We both firmly believe that universities should provide complimentary tablets/laptops to students who enrol. To give all students a better opportunity to engage with online teaching equally.

Figure 2: James’ laptop screen set up – he watched recordings on a tablet device

Pre-recorded lectures may be attractive for many staff and reduce the risk of over-running, but for James and his peers, live lectures are essential to maintain motivation and a sense of ‘being there’. Maddy also found the live lectures preferable for this reason, particularly as she was able to gauge understanding through using the ‘react’ option on Microsoft Teams chat (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Example of a message posted by Maddy in Teams chat to check student understanding

In some sessions, we shared open dialogue at the end of each lecture. This allowed us to have a friendly and unstructured discussion between ourselves. Due to the unprecedented times, this was beneficial to restore a bit of normality in the storm. However, while James had the technology available to go on video, others did not.

Issues of privacy and accessibility meant students had a choice to be on camera, and chat functions were used for discussion. This necessitates multiple forms of conversation, and for Maddy as moderator, created additional challenges. It is easy to prioritise students that can be seen and heard, but care should be taken to ensure this does not happen. For students like James, who were willing and able to share an insight into their home lives, these discussions were more enriching than talking in lecture halls. However, lower engagement reduces the chance of diverse opinions from entering the teaching space.

Interestingly, many issues disappeared in one-to-one video calls. These more personal meetings provided a greater sense of normality as we could focus on body language and engage in natural forms of speaking. Furthermore, there are fewer connectivity issues with fewer people on a call, mainly as smartphones can be used. Students were much more likely to use video in this smaller setting.

The transition to online teaching necessitated a steep technological learning curve for us both, particularly due to the multiple options available and lack of planning time to plan. Maddy used various options as university preferences changed, but James was subjected to countless more across different modules. Innovative forms of online teaching are additional things for students to learn. They can quickly become a technological burden.

Additionally, while our experiences were mostly trouble-free, key issues on accessibility and engagement arose. It became clear that Zoom is smoother than Microsoft Teams, less likely to be impacted by poor connectivity. The features of Teams, however, are better suited for group work, and the slide above was produced via students in chat groups. As groups could call in Maddy and other teaching staff, it also helps produce a feeling of normality.

The future of HE Geography teaching

Covid-19 has created striking new norms and associated challenges. Our experiences highlight two overarching concerns universities and teaching staff must address to ensure equality in learning and teaching.

  • More uniformity among online teaching across modules, courses, and universities.
    • This reduces the demands of training for both staff and students and reduces complexity in learning and teaching environments.
    • Teaching staff should also consider their own technological practices to avoid over-burdening students for innovation’s sake.

  • Universities must provide students with additional technology to ensure that those confined to single devices are not excluded from learning opportunities.
    • As online communication is more time consuming and creates additional challenges relating to equality, diversity and inclusion for students, staff need to ensure their teaching practices (such as in group discussion) are inclusive.

Six months on: What does compassionate and courageous pedagogy look like now?

By Sarah Dyer (Exeter), Helen Walkington (Oxford Brookes), and Jennifer Hill (Gloucestershire)

The Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Geography, published in December 2019, ends with a synthesising chapter proposing four principles with which to build strong foundations for the future of geography higher education: entering pedagogic borderlands; embracing partnership working; acknowledging the whole student (which includes embracing compassionate pedagogies); and adopting courageous pedagogies (Hill, et al., 2019). [For a summary, see this blog post; the chapter itself is open access and can be found here].

As we write in summer 2020, the need for the compassionate and courageous pedagogies argued for in the Handbook could not be more pressing. However, the aspiration of building strong foundations feels, just now, like it comes from another world. In the seismic biological, economic, social, and cultural shocks of this global pandemic, we are experiencing a liquefaction of the earth beneath our feet. In this moment we wish to pause and reflect, using what we wrote less than a year ago as our prompt. Our reflections coalesce around three questions. We set these out below in the hope of inviting you into a conversation. We believe that, as a community of geography educators, we need to collectively discuss what a compassionate and courageous pedagogy looks like now.

Question 1) How might we navigate disruption to create learning spaces as pedagogic borderlands in the coming academic year?

In the Handbook, authors discuss the productivity of pedagogic borderlands, spaces of “novelty and ambiguity (that) offer challenge to student and faculty…….. (which) are liminal, operating as a transition between secure knowledge and new understanding” (Hill et al, 2019; p.475). In the academic year 2020/21 all teaching and learning spaces will be novel and ambiguous. Faculty and students will be learning together in these spaces in all sorts of as-yet-undetermined ways. This has the potential to create “the process of joint working between students alone and with faculty, sharing inherent risks and rewards, but leading ultimately to enhancement for all concerned” (Hill et al. 2016, 375). However, as we noted in the conclusion of the Handbook no space is automatically a pedagogic borderland space. The question we want to pose here is, how can we work to ensure that navigating the ‘unpredictable’, ‘messy’, and ‘confusing’ learning spaces of 2020/21 is productive; that we are able to create the conditions for learning that builds empathy and understanding?

In the spring of 2020, many academics managed what has been called an online pivot, quickly moving teaching online. Over the summer, faculty are assessing what they learnt, trying out new software, and redesigning courses all in the context of uncertainty about what the academic year 2020/21 will look like.

Many of us are being asked to plan for being back on reconfigured campuses. Our lecture halls, seminar rooms, labs, and fieldtrips will not be the same (McClure, 2020). We will need to navigate uncertainty; how different intuitions and individuals construct and practice ‘Covid secure’ will be ambiguous for some time, and will require us to engage with colleagues and students holistically, respecting their embodied emotional experiences of university, as well as their roles and responsibilities – their lives – beyond campus.

A heavy reliance on online educational spaces will be novel for most of faculty and many of our students too. As educators we must step out of our comfort zones and experiment; be willing to feel vulnerable. We will experience – and have the opportunity to model – the discomfort of learning that we routinely ask of our students. Developing the skills we will need to teach online seems the least of it though. To create a pedagogic borderland we have to negotiate cultures and ways of being in online education environments. Ours is the challenge to use the affordances of online spaces to build inclusive and emancipatory cultures of learning.

New educational spaces (Credit: Sarah Dyer)

Question 2) What does it mean to be hospitable as educators?

Our second question extends the first. In the Handbook, our authors call for a number of qualities in education. These include resisting traditional academic hierarchies as we choose to work in partnership with students and others. They argue we must acknowledge the ‘whole student’, recognising, and indeed welcoming, both the emotional aspect of learning and the diversity of experiences students bring with them.  Such a commitment to compassionate pedagogy entails a willingness to “explore and share excitement, insight, passion, vulnerability…” and “embraces the idea of hospitality in teaching and learning (p.480). The authors recognise too that faculty must be courageous as educators in the context of working environments which lead to ‘pedagogic frailty’ (Kinchin et al., 2016 cited on p.481). Compassion, courage, and hospitality, to support students’ transformative learning are needed now more than ever. And yet, conversely, they are also more at risk.

In the coming academic year, we will not (yet) be at home in our new educational spaces ourselves and the challenge of being hospitable (p.481) to others may be weighty. All of us, even the most experienced online educators amongst us, must configure learning spaces in the context of a world with heightened insecurity and anxiety. We know the pandemic has been experienced diversely and has exacerbated existing inequalities. How, in the face of psychological and existential unease, can we create the sense of security needed to learn?

We will be learning and teaching, at least in part, in each other’s homes. For most this is unchartered territory. What does it mean to teach with other (unknown) people present? What can we safely assume about students’ ability to access these educational spaces, or their safety to participate/speak once they have ‘joined’? How can we practice hospitality, meshed as we will be in each other’s domestic and personal space?

We know that students arrive in HE with different senses of belonging aligned with class, ethnicity, and family background. All students are more likely to experience learning spaces as novel and confusing. Most won’t have had any formal teaching for many months. All will need our welcome more than ever. Our effectiveness at extending our welcome, particularly to those who do not feel welcome or ‘at home’ in HE, will be heightened as a political, as well as pedagogic, act.

Hospitality is the (desirable) relations between a host and their guests. It entrusts educators to be welcoming and generous, with the hope of helping students to feel comfortable enough to learn. We need to value the role hospitality can play in learning but be wary of valorising it. We know from the hospitality industry that workers can be experiencing precarity and insecurity themselves, yet still be able create a feeling of welcome. We know too from the study of hospitality and the work of care that this type of work is systematically de-valued. As this comparison suggests, it will be important to vocalise and make visible both hospitality and care not only as pedagogy but also as labour, not least because we need to be attentive to who does this work and for what reward (Dyer et al, 2016).

Question 3) How can we be courageous as educators?

The coming year will require courage. We will face multiple, sometimes competing, demands from institutions, students and their families, the media, governments, and regulators. At times, what is good education won’t always seem, to these stakeholders, to resemble good education or ‘value for money’. In the face of these expectations and the ambiguities about how they will play out, there will be a temptation to play it safe, to provide an education which looks as similar as possible to previous years’.

Being courageous will mean challenging ingrained practices and tropes. Kinchin et al (2016; p.1) argue that universities are places of ‘pedagogic frailty’, where accountability and labour restructuring have led to a lack of adaptive capacity. Pedagogic frailty manifests itself in a retreat to conservatism and authoritarianism in teaching, and a fear of true dialogue with students. Institutions respond to student dissatisfaction and challenge with a requirement for educators to “just do more and do it faster” (p.4). Even in 2016 Kinchin el al (p.4) identified “relatively minor events” could cause real problems in fragile systems. Clearly, the situation we face now is anything but minor.

Being clear of the need to be courageous as educators helps focus our minds on both the risks and the costs. We need to be courageous at a point when many of us are exhausted and beset by uncertainty. We will need to decide which actions are courageous and which are foolhardy, making assessments about the risks and the costs of courage. We believe that the proper response is to insist that the courage we need is a collective, rather than an individual endeavour, one wedded to a care for each other and our students. So we ask, does that ring true for others, and if so, what might it look like in practice?

And finally, we have the sense that these are questions which could provide a structure to the conversations we think we need to have. The challenges we face are collective, as well as individual ones. We want to move beyond ‘pandemic platitudes’ and explore what has changed, what persists, what that means for both our identity and practices as educators. There may be other pressing questions that we have missed. We would welcome responses in the form of blog posts. These might respond to the questions above or identify other questions that need to be addressed. We see the need to address these questions both in the abstract and at a very practical level too. How can we be hospitable and welcoming in any particular session, is just as important question as we plan for the coming academic year, as more abstract consideration of hospitality.

If you are interested in responding to this blog, please contact Sarah Dyer with submissions. We will also be discussing ‘courageous and compassionate pedagogies’ in a workshop run by the SRHE on 18th November and will likely be organising a session at the next RGS annual conference.

Dyer, S., Walkington, H., Williams, R., Morton, K. and Wyse, S. (2016) Shifting landscapes: from coalface to quick sand? Teaching Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences in Higher Education Area 48(3), pp.308-316.

Hill, J., Walkington, H. and Dyer, S. (2019) Teaching, learning, and Assessing in Geography: foundations for the future in Walkington, H. Hill, J., and Dyer, S. (eds) Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Geography Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA Edward Elgar Publishing pp. 474-484. [Accessed 25th July 2020 at ]

Kinchin, I.M., Alpay, E., Curtis, K., Franklin, J., Rivers C. and Winstone, N.E. (2016) Charting the elements of pedagogic frailty, Educational Research, 58:1, 1-23, DOI: 10.1080/00131881.2015.1129115

McClure, C. (2020) Experiencing COVID-Style Classroom Teaching Inside Higher Ed [Accessed 29th July 2020 at ]

Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Geography: Foundations for the future

by Sarah Dyer, Jenny Hill, and Helen Walkington

In the final chapter of the Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Geography we, the editors, propose four principles in which to ground university geography education for the future (Hill, Walkington, Dyer; 2019). These principles emerge from a synthesis of the discussion, evidence, and debate in the preceding 32 thematic chapters of the volume. The principles are: 1. Entering the pedagogic borderland; 2. Embracing partnership working; 3. Acknowledging the whole student; and, 4. Adopting courageous pedagogies. The full chapter is open access and can be found here.

1. Entering the pedagogic borderland

Pedagogic borderlands are unfamiliar educational spaces whose ‘novelty and ambiguity’ (p. 475) support transformative learning. These might be spaces which are new to us and our students or they may be traditional educational spaces which we use in new ways. They might be curricular or extra-curricular; physical, digital, or even metaphorical. Examples of borderland spaces include, the field, undergraduate research conferences, and peer-mentoring spaces. No space is necessarily a borderland space. What is important is that these spaces are used to enable genuine dialogue between educators and students to unsettle traditional hierarchies. Our authors discuss the need for us as geography educators to create pedagogic borderlands, what they look like in practice, and how to support students in such spaces. Collectively we see that through navigating these spaces, our students are prompted to develop their own personally-meaningful ways of knowing the world and themselves, along with their self-efficacy and self-regulation. We learn through the chapters in the Handbook the power of constituting educational space ontologically, epistemologically, and practically as borderland ‘contact zones’.

2. Embracing partnership working

Partnership working signals a move away from faculty-centred education. It forefronts both the student and how learning is co-created. Working together in a more equal way supports meaningful engagement in teaching and learning by students and faculty. Often partnership working also includes others too, such as community organisations or employers. Authors in the Handbook demonstrate in their case studies the increase in students’ motivation, confidence, and sense of intellectual agency which these relationships bring, as well as building their impact on students’ sense of their academic identity and sense of belonging (p.477). Partnership working between faculty and students can contribute to creating a pedagogic borderland. Partnership working with people and organisations beyond the university has huge potential for our students to learn and apply geography in authentic settings. In doing so educators support students to develop a potent combination of geographic skills and knowledge, what can be thought of as ‘geo-capabilities’ to advance human capabilities, wellbeing and agency (Walkington et al; 2018).

3. Acknowledging the whole student

The third principle  focuses our attention both on what we hope to achieve as educators and what our students require to be able to  learn effectively. Our authors are interested in students learning to make sense of the world, but also contributing to solving pressing social and environmental challenges. Developing geographic understanding is necessary but not sufficient to do so and we must engage with our students’ emotions, values, and skills too.

Acknowledging the whole student also directs our attention to what supports learning. No one learns well when they feel unsafe, unrecognised, or devalued. As such, we must deliberately design learning environments; classrooms, fieldtrips, and online spaces; with an understanding of how to support positive learning communities and scaffold engagement, as well as working in partnership. We must also acknowledge a tension: learning requires we move beyond what is familiar and comfortable, for example through navigating pedagogic borderlands, heightening the need for care and respect. As educators we must acknowledge the contexts we teach in where we see a huge increase in mental ill-health and poor well-being. In this context, and recognising that we ourselves create discomfort by inviting students into pedagogic borderlands, we identify the pedagogies of compassion (p.480) that authors in the Handbook propose. Such pedagogies  create welcome and foster feelings of belonging, where we invite our students as people, with emotions, values, and lives before and outside the university, into learning spaces

4. Adopting courageous pedagogies.

The final principle identified throughout the variety of the Handbook is that of adopting courageous pedagogies. This principle responds to our experiences of increasing intensification of university-work and/or accountability regimes that creates a pressure to play it safe. It calls for us as educators to consciously create education that is creative and challenging, to reflect on and evaluate, and to iterate. This call for courageous pedagogy recognises that the transformative learning we want for our students is not inevitable and requires that we, as well as our students, take risks and move beyond what is comfortable.

The four interconnected principles are threads which connect the wealth of discussion and evidence presented from a huge variety of contexts. In their chapters, each author provides contextualised nuance, thoughtful analysis, and useful resources to inform your own education practice. The principles unite our authors, along with their commitment to building geographical learning that is transformative, as a powerful international community of geography educators.


Walkington, H., Hill, J. and Dyer, S (2019) ‘Contents page’ in Walkington, H. Hill, J., and Dyer, S. (eds) Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Geography Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA pp.v-vii Edward Elgar Publishing pp. 474-484. [Accessed 25th July 2020 at ]

Hill, J., Walkington, H. and Dyer, S. (2019) ‘Teaching, learning, and Assessing in Geography: foundations for the future’ in Walkington, H. Hill, J., and Dyer, S. (eds) Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Geography Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA Edward Elgar Publishing pp. 474-484. [Accessed 25th July 2020 at ]

Walkington, H., Dyer, S., Solem, M., Haigh, M. and Waddington, S. (2018) ‘A capabilities approach to higher education: geocapabilities and implications for geography curricula’ Journal of Geography in Higher Education 42 (1), pp. 7-24.


Students As Change Agents: Exeter Geography hosts Missing Maps

University of Exeter staff and students hosted a mapathon in partnership with The British Red Cross to map the most vulnerable places in the world. Students put mapping skills to use in order to act as change agents and contribute to the worlds largest digital humanitarian aid effort! A story map version of this blog post can be viewed here:


IMG_8817Dannen Cowling, our SSLC chair introducing the mapathon.

The students as change agents project had 2 main aims: (i) to optimise the mapping relief at mapathons and encourage more people to contribute and (ii) inform the volunteers of the various career opportunities in mapping and GIS. Both aims were achieved by inviting Exeter Geography alumni Becca Ketley, researcher and Red Cross volunteer to deliver a keynote speech on how her GIS training in Exeter Geography led to her current role. The Geography Student Staff Liaison Chair, Daneen Cowling also welcomed everyone to the mapathon and introduced the evenings project.

The mapathon was mapping the Kurigram District in Bangladesh in order to effectively implement disaster risk reduction activities, to enhance resilience to future floods. To get an understanding of the area and the impact of the mapathon projects explore this spyglass map showing the open street map.


By working with British Red Cross and Youth Mappers, students and staff acted as change agents making the world a better place as well as developing transferable skills and inviting other mapping opportunities. The University of Exeter was the first UK university to register a mapathon which has a mission plan we share in Exeter Geography “We don’t just build maps, we build mappers”.


The mapathon took place in the second week of November which is an important one for Geographers and Geography departments around the world. Not only was it Open Street Map Geography Awareness Week but on the 15th of November it was also GIS day. Both initiatives are international forums to develop interest and understanding of the subject, the technology of Geographical Information Systems, showcase applications, raise public awareness of the significance of place and encourage collaborative mapping.

The map below shows the global coalition of partners hosting mapathons. Mapping events took place around the globe, following this year’s Geography Awareness Week theme “Explore! The Power of Maps”.


The humanitarian aid projects continues at Exeter, if you are local come along to our next mapathon. If not then we encourage you to host a mapathon for yourselves!

The Science of Where: Ideas for GIS Education

Damien Mansell, University of Exeter (an esri Story map version of this post is available here )

Damien Mansell’s Top 5 take home messages from 2017 esri User Conference

In the Geography department at The University of Exeter we adopt a research-led learning approach to teaching and assessment. Recent advances in the ArcGIS platform are not just changing the workflows of how we operate GIS, but how students are publishing, sharing and collecting data as well as creating work place relevant assessment. My story map: Learning & Assessment with Applied GIS sumarises my approach to GIS education and won the the 2017 esri UK Young Scholar Award. The prize involved the amazing opportunity to present a poster of the work at the esri annual conference in San Diego and collect the award. This story map reflects on some of the big ideas I picked up during the conference, including my top 5 take home messages.

The week involved attending the Education GIS Conference and the Esri User Conference. My top 5 take home messages come from both conferences and include educational focus as well as emerging capabilities of GIS. Since not all the emerging capabilities have made my top 5, first, here is a longer list of the rapidly expanding fields that provide opportunities for GIS users and fit with the conference theme of ‘The Science of Where:’

Integration of real-time data; Integration of big data processing and analysis capabilities; Virtual Reality and Spatial animation; Open GIS data and services; Geodesign and Planning; Management and Decision Making; Advanced Geospatial Analysis for Data Science; & Community Engagement.

My top 5 are introduced below in reverse order followed by the Big Ideas discussion created by Esri. View the trailer below for an introduction to the conference.


5: ArcGIS Education Resources

‘The Science of Where’ is about applying a data-driven approach that uses geography to unlock understanding. In this context, geography provides the science and framework for organising our knowledge and so GIS is deeply rooted in science as a platform for many applications, as well as an education tool in its own right. As an educator of Geographical Science, I both teach GIS and use it as a learning tool for Geographic learning and enquiry. I create bespoke practicals that link in with students own data and that from cutting edge research in the department. At the user conference I was made aware of the accelerating changes of GIS and how Esri are keeping up with these changes by providing increased resources for teaching and training and different learning environments including the Esri GeoInquiries collection and The ArcGIS Book.

All delegates received a copy of The ArcGIS Book second edition (Harder & Brown, 2017). It includes 250 new example applications but more noteworthy is that it has moved away from the traditional text book by being fully interactive with hands-on lessons, dynamic maps and story maps and links to demonstration and lecture videos. This interactive format of text books is an early example of what will no doubt become norm in the Education sector. Download the interactive pdf for free.

The GeoInquireis collection are instructional resources for educators that incorporate advanced web mapping. The resources provide a fast easy-to-use exercises that require no installation, fees or logins. For example see the Climate GeoINquiries activity  here). I have saved this as a web app for ease of integration into this blog, but it usually comes in a web map along with suggested questions and explore tasks. Use the web app to explore the long-term atmospheric factors that make up climate – you will need to show different layers.

The GeoInquiries resources are aimed at school students to bring GIS to the classroom. Whilst the exercises themselves are not directly applicable to my role in higher education, I can aim the resources at my students who currently go into classrooms to either develop teaching experience, promote widening participation or are ambassadors for organisations such as RGS. Quite often my students come to me looking for material they can present in these environments, so the GeoInquiries collection are great resource packages for such environments. I have also recently signed up to be a GeoMentor for schools, so the GeoInquiries resources will serve as a starting point I can direct teachers to, or serve as a template for creating material for the curriculum if required.

4: ArcPro 2.0

I was introduced to ArcPro at the Esri UK user conference in 2016, offering a new connected desktop, containing comprehensive GIS capability and access to online and enterprise capabilities. Whilst many Esri customers still require ArcMap capabilities due to the customised add-on tools, it is still easy to justify teaching the traditional ArcGIS desktop or ArcMAp. However, at the 2017 Esri UC ArcPro 2.0 was launched and the increasing functionality has made it much harder to justify only teaching ArcMap – the traditional desktop platform from Esri. ArcPro features the following improved functionality:

  • Faster & easier Geoprocessing
  • Context-sensitive ribbon interface
  • Smart editing
  • Simple data & map sharing
  • Simultaneous 2D and 3D windows
  • Multiple maps and layouts
  • 3D visualisations, editing and analysis
  • Dynamic charts
  • Smoother workflow integration with ArcGIS Online
  • Animations
  • Living Atlas of the World

Due to the capabilities of ArcPro I plan to re-write sections of the GIS course next year, to include training in ArcMap and ArcPro. The two biggest selling points for ArcPro in my work is the integration of 3D data and ease of publishing and sharing to ArcGIS online. In addition see my number 2 take home message about visualising and animating multidimensional data in ArcPro.

During the user conference Esri professionals presented live demonstrations of advances in ArcPro. 2.0 including the top 10 latest functionality. Below is the recording which also serves as an example of the well rehearsed and polished presentations that delegates have come to expect at Esri events.


3: ArcGIS Online & Enterprise Administration

In the opening plenary of the Education GIS conference Esri announced their Global programme for free GIS in all schools and clubs. This is fantastic for the future of GIS professionals and developing curriculum in schools. Web GIS has made it possible for school children to view, edit, create and publish GIS material. However for these schools and clubs there will need to be guidelines and workflows on WebGIS administration.

One such administrative task may be to set up accounts for users. For Enterprise accounts institutions can utilise existing single sign-on (SSO) by linking their institutional login to their enterprise accounts.  The GIF below shows the path to follow to access the tab to set up your organization account so that your users will be able to sign in to ArcGIS using the same username and password that they use with your existing on-premises systems.


The Geography Department in The University of Exeter was an earlier adopter of ArcGIS online and have been grateful for the recent improvements in being able to manage the WeGIS licensees and users. During the conference I learnt about three tools that help with WebGIS administration. Below are some of the tools and some of my top tips for how they may help.

ArcGIS online assistant. This online tool is great for individuals to manage their own content. Users can copy items, view usage stats of published content and view and edit content in JSON (JavaScript Object Notation). One of the main benefits of this tool is the capability to copy content from different portals and different accounts. Below is an example benefits of this.

Managing student content when they graduate or when they are due to leave the organisation. At the University of Exeter we currently keep ArcGIS online accounts active for two years after graduating so students can showcase their web maps and apps to future employers and manage their online content. However, this may present problems for graduates when their account is removed after two years and problems for the University in terms of managing the number of licenses available to current students. With the ArcGIS online assistant tool students can transfer their content to a new account. The new workflow I now propose is as follows: Students create a new developer accountwith a personal email address (non-institution account). The developer account is free and allows user to access basic online apps and web maps. Students themselves then copy their content from their University ArcGIS online account to their non-institution account using ArcGIS online assistant. The student accounts and content can then be removed after graduation without the requirement to back up content.

GEOJobe is another Web GIS tool for managing ArcGIS online accounts. Possibly the most valuable set of tools from an education perspective is to manage user profiles and for administrating groups. Groups are really useful for delivering content to students in modules or classes. Content can be contained and shared within these groups. For individual assessment I do however tend not to use Groups, as members can view the entire content of the group which must be avoided for assessment.

In addition to the above two tools the new ArcGIS API for Python allows content management and administration of web GIS. The developers site for the Python API includes lots of sample code and notebooks for users to edit in order to make administration of web GIS even easier. Below is an example on how to batch create groups.


The Python API also allows developers, analysts and data scientists to automate scripts for performing data analysis. That is why the ArcGIS API for Python also features further up my list of take home messages…………

2: Visualising Multidimensional Data in ArcPro Range Slider

Geographic content often contains naturally embedded variables within it at multiple times or depths (ranges). Such multidimensional data is normally stored in netCDF, GRIB, or HDF format. Each file contains one or multiple variables, and each variable is a multidimensional array that represents data in a given time or at a given vertical dimension. For example an oceanographic netCDF dataset can contain ranges of salinity, wind speed and temperature at different times and at different depths.

In ArcPro 2.0 users can visualise such data as a dynamic range. Once the range properties are defined, an interactive, on-screen slider can be used to explore the data through a range which can be customised.  For example the user can view the first 100 m of the salinity and temperature in a multidimensional oceanographic water column. The GIF below shows an example of the range slider by viewing the different floor levels of a building.


ArcPro 2.0 also includes an animation tool which can be used to export videos for sharing and showcasing the progression of variables through a specified range – how cool is that?!

1: ArcGIS API for Python, with Jupyter Notebook Integration

For the esri UK team who were sitting next to me in the plenary it will come as no surprise the ArcGIS API for Python is is my number one – the live demo had me bouncing in my seat with excitement.
I started using Jupyter notebooks last year when I introduced first year Geography students to coding for data analysis. Jupyter notebooks are an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) that operate through a browser which integrates code with visuals such as graphs and markdown text. For teaching it presents an unrivaled environment where single lines of code can be surround by text of either instructions, or space for learners to explain the outputs and workflow. Jupyter notebooks has allowed me to expose first year Geography students to python coding in an intuitive and  accessible environment where outputs are viewed in the same notebook under each cell of code that is run.

When I learnt the ArcGIS API for python could bring in ArcGIS online content I instantly recognised the benefits. Users will be able to create maps, perform spatial analysis, data analysis and create graphic outputs, tables and maps all in one notebook. For learning and assessment this will no doubt make python coding for GIS much more accessible and manageable.

The GIF below shows a live map of San Diego being brought into the notebook in just three lines of Python code!


The additional benefits of the Python API with Jupyter integration is the beneift of being able to call in other functions for further analysis. Functions such as Pandas, Numpy, and Matplotlib for example mean the entire workflow for all outputs (cartographic and statistic) can be demonstrated in one notebook.

Esri User Conference: Big Ideas

My first Esri User conference was a fantastic experience with many more take home messages than I have listed here in my top-5. As well as developing my own knowledge of GIS, the ArcGIS platform and GIS education, it has been really inspiring for me and provided with me motivation to continue to develop the GIS curriculum in the Geography department at Exeter. It was a great chance to learn more about Esri UK and pathways for my graduates including internships and the graduate scheme, meeting the other Esri Young Scholars (full list of projects here) and connecting with many other GIS professionals in the Esri Young Professionals Network. For any Esri customer thinking of attending in the future I strongly recommend it. Below is the ‘Big Ideas’ summary notes from Esri about the user conference, some of my highlights which didn’t make my top-5 can also be seen below.


This post was created by Damien Mansell from The University of Exeter. For more information, questions, or suggestions please get in touch. @DamienMansell

Discomforting Education

By Lewis Winks (University of Exeter)

It is no surprise that uncertainty has become a well-used word of late. We live in uncertain times. Some talk of wicked problems – issues so fundamentally big, that they cannot be ‘fixed’ by simple solutions, rather they demand a systemic, holistic approach or ‘nexus thinking’ as the 2016 RGS conference termed it. Every day these wicked problems ping into our inboxes, drop onto our doormats, fill audio feeds and flicker onto our screens. Ecological and social crises are unfolding across the globe – no longer the concern of those deemed to be less fortunate, as Aldo Leopold’s ‘wider biotic community’ continues to unravel at unprecedented speed. Evidenced in widespread decline of species, the spread of disease and invasive species, water pollution, displacement of people, habitat loss, deforestation, war, economic turmoil, and the marginalisation and segregation of vulnerable people…  There is no need to go on – the narrative is one well told – we’re messing stuff up and there is neither clear consensus nor solution. There is only uncertainty. But is this a bad thing? Should we hope to be certain about anything? Is certainty not another word for complacency? Does uncertainty not create fertile ground for unbounded creativity? Can we imagine a more just, sustainable world from this uncomfortable place? I cannot claim to have answers to these questions, indeed – I am unsure anyone does- but it is from this position that I would like to explore the role of uncertainty and discomfort in educating for sustainability.

This is not a particularly new topic. Others have trodden this path and have explored these themes. Of those, I particularly recommend the work of Megan Boler who has for many years written about a ‘pedagogy of discomfort’, which seeks to “invite students and educators to examine how our modes of seeing have been shaped specifically by the dominant culture of the historical moment” (Boler, 1999 p.179) and prompts both students and their teachers “[to] willingly inhabit a more ambiguous and flexible sense of self.. [and to engage with a] critical enquiry regarding values and cherished beliefs” (ibid. p. 176). There is a strong tradition of working with the unknown and unknowable as an aspect of education. In particular, education theorists have long struggled with the paradox of sustainability education: how can we educate for sustainability when we don’t really know what sustainability is? Indeed, some have proposed that it would be far better to give students the aptitudes to think for themselves: rather than teach solid facts about the shape of a sustainable world, it would be more appropriate to create critical competencies and to encourage divergent, creative thinking (Jickling, 1992). The watchword is plurality – but not everyone agrees. Plurality and uncertainty might put off action and lead to exploration of dead ends, it is claimed (Kopnina, 2015). This could be avoided by working to a plan and shifting behaviour in a predetermined direction based on policy and infrastructural changes. These fascinating discussions continue and it is probably fair to say that there is a great deal of sense in each of these positions. However, I wish to draw the focus of this piece back toward a pedagogy of discomfort, as it is there that I believe the best case is found for challenging the underpinning social norms and societal narratives which have locked into place unsustainable behaviours and practices.

Megan Boler’s Pedagogy of Discomfort and associated works have outlined the importance of ‘shattering worldviews’ if significant change is to emerge from an education which seeks to challenge deeply embedded norms. In ‘Teaching for Hope’ (2004) Boler focuses on her teaching of social injustices and the occurrence of inherited cultural perspectives which give rise to racism. Her work with HE students aimed to uncover the undercurrents of racism which prevail within large parts of American society. The work is discomforting to students – it might come across as accusatory, confrontational or challenging – and in part it is all of these things, but it is also painful, upsetting and raises issues of deep uncertainty about student’s positions in the world and their views of themselves. While Boler’s work hinges on the role of discomfort in leveraging social change in the form of challenging social injustices, the pedagogical approach also lends itself to teaching about socio-ecological crises. This year as part of my fieldwork with young people taking part in outdoor environmental education programmes I have witnessed some students shock at damage done to coastal defences after severe storms, their sadness at the rate of species decline on a nature reserve and anxiety at being asked to take part in the butchering of deer or rabbit for their dinner. I have asked myself what the role of discomfort is within these experiences and – should the educator make more explicit use of a pedagogy of discomfort – what the potential is for radically shifting worldviews and uncovering and questioning undercurrents of social and cultural norms as part of these programmes.

This is of course all far from straightforward to implement in practice. Many will read this and be alarmed at the ethical implications of making use of a pedagogy of discomfort, and take issue with causing students the deep distress required to decentre and discomfort inherited narratives – and that the nature of discomforting entails a degree of ethical violence (Zembylas and McGlynn, 2012). It is true that this educational approach does not seek security, but to say that it is not caring would be a mistake. In terms of an ethic of care, it could be the most loving and caring of activities to learn to break free of the inadequate and unjust modes of behaviour which have come to dominate society and to craft new cultural practices in their place. So too, some will cast aspersions at the naivety of such an approach in the face of the ‘student satisfaction’ agenda and the impending TEF, under which it is hard to imagine HE lecturers and educators placing students in positions of discomfort under the guise of long term and deep learning. This remains to be seen, and in many ways depends upon how such an approach to teaching is implemented in practice and how it is communicated and supported by HE institutions. My work has focused on how discomfort operates as a mediator for transformative learning in the outdoors, and I believe that the presence of choice plays an important part in the process of uncovering and rediscovering the identity of self and society. The opportunity to choose to place oneself in a position of discomfort sets this form of discomfort apart from its oppressive counterpart. In addition, discomfort as perceived by and shared with others enables empowerment to overcome previous ways of knowing. The act of sharing and collective witnessing may make discomfort formative rather than destructive (Boler, 1999 p.177).

In sum, wicked problems require more than simple answers. Working with uncertainty seems to be an important part of problem solving, but being able to work with uncertainty requires an unearthing of our own constructed social and cultural histories, beliefs and shared values – especially if those problems are deeply rooted in social practices and norms. The process of becoming uncertain can be discomforting, but this is the work that schools and higher education institutions might have to do if we are to prepare critical thinkers who are able to creatively and confidently step into a tentative future. In short, we may need to become comfortable with discomfort.


Boler, M. 1999. Feeling power: Emotions and education, Psychology Press.

Boler, M. 2004. Teaching for hope. Teaching, learning, and loving: Reclaiming passion in educational practice, 117-131.

Jickling, B. 1992. Viewpoint: Why I don’t want my children to be educated for sustainable development. The Journal of Environmental Education, 23, 5-8.

Kopnina, H. 2015. Sustainability in Environmental Education: Away from pluralism and towards solutions.

Zembylas, M. & Mcglynn, C. 2012. Discomforting pedagogies: Emotional tensions, ethical dilemmas and transformative possibilities. British Educational Research Journal, 38, 41-59.