Presenting Google Earth Engine at the UCL-Wits climate workshop

I was asked by my supervisor Prof. Jen Fitchett to present at the University College London (UCL)- University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) climate workshop during May 2021. I was excited because she had planned for me to demonstrate to a live audience how Google Earth Engine (GEE) can be used to collect climate data remotely.

GEE is a platform that I really enjoy working with and in my opinion, it is the future of remote sensing. During the early stages of my PhD, I had the quite frightening realisation that I had very little data to work with as a result of travel restrictions caused by the global pandemic.  My project revolves around a large peatland deposit in the Angolan Highlands. This would ordinarily have involved going to Angola and collecting samples over several weeks of fieldwork, none of which were possible. I started to investigate whether I could visit my study area virtually, using remote sensing. After watching hours of YouTube tutorials, I finally got a grip of how GEE works. The platform has allowed me to collect large quantities of spatial data about my field site, all from the comfort of my home, pushing my PhD progress forward.

I have repeatedly presented on the extensive datasets that GEE has to offer to both of my supervisors. I often planned a meeting of 20 minutes that would frequently last over an hour, simply because we were all intrigued by the extensive data catalogue. I wanted the UCL-Wits workshop presentation to be no different, and Prof. Fitchett encouraged me to keep the same ‘show and tell’ format when presenting. The GEE platform really sparks discussion and places thinking caps firmly on heads.

If I am totally honest, I was not nervous to present, even with the knowledge of having to present to highly acclaimed researchers at UCL and other international institutions. I think this was because I had the experience of live demonstrations and I knew that what I would share would be new and valuable to almost all the audience. It also made me comfortable knowing that Prof. Fitchett would be there if anything went totally wrong.

I did, however, perform a quick Google search on what makes a good presentation beforehand. One of the most striking points from this search for me personally was that it is the presenter that makes the presentation worth watching. I knew I had to bring the energy and put a big smile on my face, especially at the start to draw attention.  When presenting online, you have no real social cues to go by, no eye contact or body language, so a lot of the suggestions of what makes a good presentation do not apply.  

If I look back at the presentation itself, I encouraged the live audience to interact with me as much as possible, far from a lecture-type presentation, and it was a great success. In hindsight, I probably should have moved through the datasets a bit quicker as I did not get to show nearly as much as I wanted to. The positive side to this was that some members of the audience had the opportunity to see their field site for the first time on GEE. My plan was to showcase the extraordinary capabilities of the platform in the hope that other researchers and students may use GEE in their own projects, especially now when fieldwork is logistically impossible.

After the presentation, I received communication from both Dr. Sarah Roffe and Dr. Adriaan van der Walt, two former PhD students of Prof. Fitchett, both asking me if I would like to do the same presentation at The Society of South African Geographers (SSAG) Students and Young Professionals (SnP) group workshop. Hopefully, these workshops could be the start of something that I could take forward in a teaching and learning setting in future. I would love the opportunity to teach GEE post PhD at a university or technical institution.

Three presentation lessons learnt:

  1. What you say is more important than the written text in the presentation.
  2. You need to bring the positive energy, not the audience. If you think your presentation is boring, the audience will think so too, so make it interesting and worthwhile for the them.
  3. When presenting online, technical difficulties are inevitable, just deal with them as best you can and do not let them distract you.

The realities of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Higher Education Sector

In early March 2020, the president put the entire country under hard lockdown. This resulted in limited movement and interaction of people outside the home environment. The lockdown disrupted academic calendars and activities of institutions of higher learning in the country, especially for rural-based universities. The decision to close institutions of higher learning was an attempt by the government to curb the spread of the virus and mortality in the country as it was done by other countries across the world.

Despite these continued COVID-19 disruptions and restrictions to normal lives and academic operations, we had to find ways to continue teaching and learning activities to complete the 2020 academic calendar. When this happened I was on the verge of completing my Master of Arts degree by research and I had just been allocated some groups of students to tutor. You can imagine the frustration and confusion. Tutoring has always been done face to face in most universities, especially full-time universities. So, it has never been a challenge to walk into a lecture theatre and present a tutorial on any selected topic.  If anything, it has always been quite an enjoyable process. It is a relaxing two hours outside the library while one is still engaged with academic activities.

However, with the COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions, I had to go home, my students had to go home, and we had to learn how to teach and learn online. Most of these students, like me, are from the deep rural spaces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga. We share similar experiences of signal difficulties when trying to connect to the internet. I personally often have to travel some 20-25km away from my village almost into the town of Tzaneen just to read my email – that’s how bad it gets. However, because the University was making provisions for data as a means of facilitating an eased remote teaching and learning process, it was assumed that we will all connect to various ICT platforms to stay academically engaged. Of course, that was not the reality.

The miscalculation in this equation was that, even though my students had access to enough data, just like me, we did not have the network to connect via any of the online platforms. So it was a struggle. The reality is that being on campus bridges the gap between the have and the have nots because we have similar access to facilities and other resources. However, being home, especially during the lockdown in 2020, proved that there remains a huge gap between us as a society. The inability to connect with my students easily proved that South Africa remains a divided society and that rural spaces are exactly that – rural spaces. This proved ICT inequalities between the urban and the rural spaces, an injustice I deeply feel must be addressed.

My frustrations were not only with my inability to connect with my students but the fact that I also could not swiftly carry on with my research for the same reasons – network. Although I did talk to my research supervisor from time to time on the phone, it was difficult for me to achieve anything tangible because I could not access my chapter corrections in time, nor some of the material he would share with me to enrich my arguments.

Rural universities have a long way to go in their ICT learning integrations. And from what I have observed during the height of the pandemic in 2020, the problem cannot be solved by the Department of Higher Education only. The solutions require a collective approach by the Department of Science and Innovation in collaboration with relevant researchers on Information Communication Technology on rural communities and other key stakeholders.