COVID-19 Educator Advice: Opportunity to move to SAAS

03-17-2020 12:05 PM
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Esri Regular Contributor
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With COVID-19 causing colleges and universities to close doors for in-person courses, educators are seeking information on approaches to transition to a fully online classroom.


There are many challenges – providing access to technology in absence of the trusty physical classroom, providing licensing, adjusting our teaching style for the virtual classroom – all needing to be solved in a short timeframe!


Amidst of all the disruption, there is a tremendous opportunity ahead of us. While intimidating, this gives us an opportunity to re-invigorate our courses and to innovate.


Now is the time to identify and focus on your course's learning objectives and consider how ArcGIS Online (SaaS) instead of ArcGIS Pro or ArcMap (desktop GIS) will help you meet those objectives.  ArcGIS Online (and other apps) have minimal hardware requirements and run on Macs, tablets, and phones, making them more accessible than desktop GIS.  Web and mobile apps generally have a simpler user interface (fewer buttons and menus) that can be learned more quickly, keeping the focus on concepts and content.


Some more advanced objectives (most likely in advanced GIS course work) may still require desktop GIS; in these cases, consider a blend of SaaS and Desktop GIS.  ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Pro are designed to work together, so moving between the two is easy.  Starting with SaaS can buy additional time for you and/or your IT support staff to explore virtualization and remote access solutions for desktop GIS. That said, please consider moving your course activities to SaaS – ArcGIS Online and Apps – for which students only need an internet connection.  


A few items to think about:

  •      Desktop-only GIS is a thing of the past - for a while now, we have encouraged the use of SaaS technology such as ArcGIS Online and associated apps. Many educational institutions are highly leveraging apps like Story Maps, Survey123, Collector, among many others. These are now the starting point for geospatial technology in the classroom. And fortunately, there are many online learning resources to get us started quickly.


  •      The technology has grown immensely over the years - many capabilities are possible with ArcGIS Online and Apps. We can maintain our current learning objectives and map them to some of these newer online learning resources. Some examples:
  •      Symbology and Visualization –plenty of basic concepts can be covered with ArcGIS Online and apps such as Insights for ArcGIS.
  •      Spatial analysis –ArcGIS Online has fundamental capabilities for querying and summarizing data, calculating proximity, and overlaying layers.
  •      Field data collection workflows – there are many apps available to collect locations and attributes, such as Collector and Survey123.

Bottom line: Use some of these lessons and e-learning/web courses as a base, as opposed to re-writing your existing materials, then pose additional challenges for your students.

  •      Today’s students are fast learners - they have no problem with new technology and will welcome the opportunity to experiment. In addition, the SaaS technology and apps are easier to work with than desktop applications.

  •      This is a forgiving time – if something doesn’t work, that is OK. Students will be open/receptive in this time of disruptive change. We are not going to design a perfect online course in such a short timeframe, it is not realistic. We need to do what is practical and feasible.

Here are a few quotes from Higher Education colleagues that support the above.

  •      Clemson University: In our pilot to test moving a course to fully online, we limited instruction to ArcGIS Online. This is my advice if institutions haven’t virtualized yet, have little experience with it, and had to rush to move online, as students might not have the right computer/access/space) etc.

  •       NC State University: If our in-house virtual environment were to become overloaded for some reason and all else fails, we would look for ways to supplement our instruction with more ArcGIS Online examples where we can, particularly at the undergraduate level. 

  •      University of Minnesota: ArcGIS Online removes much of the stress associated with quickly moving my in-person courses to all online.
New Contributor III

Thanks for these reminders. I am taking this approach (moving from ArcMap to AGOL), and have found that students are receptive and adept, as you note. A couple questions: 1. What is the SaaS acronym? 2. What advice do you have for dealing with .csv files and leading zeros in census identifiers not uploading correctly (even when they are formatted correctly in the .csv, using single apostrophe). I have been manually changing the field type upon uploading to AGOL as a hosted layer, but this option is not available when trying to add the .csv file directly to the map. My biggest concern in moving to AGOL has been that I don't understand the credit system well, and don't want to inadvertently use too many credits. Thanks!

Esri Frequent Contributor

Greetings Georgiana:

Joseph Kerski here on Geri's education industry team.   (1) SaaS:  Software as a service.  Basically any tool running in the cloud, not on your own local device, so no program you need to download and run.  Example--Using Google Docs instead of MS Word 2010; or GIF animator online vs PaintShop Pro.  ArcGIS SaaS has the advantage, just like Google Docs, of running on any device, at any time, given decent bandwidth.  (2)  I used to work at Census Bureau and yes, those leading zeros (for example, zip codes in the northeastern part of the USA) remain a challenge, to be sure.  What I've done in the past is to format those in CSV as text, so the zero is retained, and then in ArcGIS Online make sure it is still text, and not a number.  (3) On your credit question, [1] you can, as the administrator, set a limit on the # of credits for student consumption; (see link) but [2] we don't want you to be too overly concerned about credit consumption; cautious yes, but set it high enough that the students can accomplish some rigorous analysis.  (4) Another thing to be conscious of though is that in ArcGIS Online you might consider working on a specific project you did in ArcMap or ArcGIS Pro in a smaller area/ smaller number of variables, simply because with ArcGIS Online, you are on the web, and you might experience some sluggishness if your students are all dealing with hundreds of thousands of points, lines, or polygons.   Case in point:  I am using a parcel layer for a county that has 800,000 polygons.  For the students in ArcGIS Online, I have them run a filter on it and then work with the filtered data instead of the whole data set.  I can still accomplish my lesson objectives and course goals with a smaller more manageable data set.   I hope this helps!   Feel free to reply if I can clarify further.  --Joseph Kerski