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Curriculum development in university-level GIS education


Dr G Brent Hall
Professor and Associate
Dean, Computing, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
[email protected]
GIS education was introduced into the classroom in tertiary education in Canada during the late 1980s. This paper discusses the evolving structure of undergraduate GIS curricula in general. It also highlights aspects of GIS course content that allow university programmes to remain abreast of market needs as well as providing students with a well-rounded education in the use of this technology

Geographic information system (GIS) education was introduced into the classroom in tertiary education in Canada during the late 1980s. The University of Waterloo, located in the province of Ontario was among the first Canadian Universities to introduce a formal undergraduate course structure simultaneously in the School of Planning and the Department of Geography. Courses commenced in 1992 after a three year period of running demonstration courses at second and fourth year levels. During the demonstration period, software and hardware were acquired for a specialist GIS lab. The software was obtained through a site license with the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), Canada that formed the model for the subsequent nation-wide ESRI Canada University site license agreement. Now, somewhat over a decade later, GIS courses are commonplace within a variety of disciplines at both Universities and community-based Technical Colleges world-wide. Moreover, the use of this technology is now embedded within the High School curriculum in many countries. In Ontario, Canada, for example, high school students can follow a Geomatics specialist stream within the Geography curriculum (Government of Ontario, 2000).

This paper discusses the evolving structure of undergraduate GIS curricula in general highlighting aspects of GIS course content that allow University programs to remain abreast of market needs as well as providing students with a well-rounded education in the use of this technology. The paper focuses on undergraduate curricula, but comments are also made about the course structure and content of post-graduate programs at the Masters and Doctoral levels. The fundamental learning goals within a GIS education and the relevance of these goals to needs within the current global job market is a theme that runs throughout the paper.

Somewhat over six years ago Duane Marble (1998) presented a pyramid-shaped model of GIS education and argued for the need to focus attention on rebuilding the apex of the pyramid with renewed focus on software engineering, research and development and innovation in the development of GIS tools. His pyramid model described the current state of GIS curricula and education in the late 1990s, and indeed this is still characteristic of the majority of programs through to the present, where many Universities initially rushed to implement broad-based undergraduate courses that sought to transfer a basic level of understanding of GIS software use, normally in line with the products of the major developers in the industry. This rush to offer courses created a groundswell in the number of Universities interested in acquiring GIS software and companies such as the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) (producers of the ArcGIS suite of tools) responded quickly with aggressive University-based licensing agreements. In North America these agreements with ESRI extended beneath University and included Kindergarten through Grade 12 in the pre-primary, primary and secondary school environments (such as that in Ontario). Clearly, the intention of company was to “get in early” and introduce students not only to GIS, but also to their line of products. Other major vendors such as Intergraph (producers of Geomedia) were much slower to adopt education-based licensing and some such as MapInfo have preferred to remain focused on applications within the business community. Hence, in much the same way that ESRI software dominates the GIS industry, it also dominates GIS education.

In the subsequent third year GIS course, which is more specialized and focuses on spatial databases, the number of students enrolled drops to approximately 60. This represents increased technical difficulty of the course but perhaps more critically the enrollment is affected by limits that are placed on course due to practical considerations, such as computer availability to complete practical assignments

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