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Geospatial education: Trends and directions

Brainware, as the intended outcome from learning, is increasingly being accepted as the key success factor behind geospatial approaches in business, society and government and for managing our resources and environments. While technologies are maturing and settling into stable cycles of innovation – even when moving onto the cloud – the ‘people factor’ and capacity building contribute the critical elements, the indispensable ‘human factor’ behind our emerging spatial data infrastructures and the information and knowledge derived from these.

The broad field of geospatial education has recently been explored from numerous angles: developing spatial literacy among the population at large, training specialists in geospatial software development, preparing technicians to complete typical GIS tasks, or educating analysts to be capable of creating contextual information from spatial data and ultimately spatial decision support.

While spatial literacy and spatial thinking should be considered as causes and responsibilities for general education and common denominators across a multitude of disciplines, professionally oriented qualifications typically face conflicting demands and alternative career pathways. Should academic programmes attempt to simultaneously satisfy the requirements towards competences in software development, systems architectures, data acquisition, sensor integration, spatial analysis, cartographic visualisation and many more?

No one-size-fits-all
It is unlikely that such a wide scope of competences will fit into any one curriculum and it most certainly will not appeal to one set of student personalities and mindsets. The Swiss army knife approach to educational outcomes typically leads to compromises not really satisfying anyone. This is not to argue for a silo approach to education, where occupational classifications are the basis for separate educational tracks and rigid professional certification. On the contrary, flexibility in educational frameworks will allow for dynamic matching with evolving professional requirements.

We can currently observe the emergence and ongoing adjustment of diverse geospatial academic environments: orientation towards technology and development, geospatial enabling in application domains including engineering, a focus on conceptual foundations, analysis and decision support and more. These approaches necessarily will balance with the job market and thus self-regulate.

Rather than aiming for THE geospatial curriculum — this rather be replaced by defined competence descriptors, perhaps from a universal ‘body of knowledge’ — the common denominator across a variety of professional orientations has to be established towards advanced spatial literacy and competences. A proposal for a lucky seven could include:

  • Spatial referencing — establishing location and place
  • Orientation — connecting (my) place with space, for context
  • Representations of spatial features and phenomena
  • Dimensions and scale – moving between individual and aggregate
  • Spatial relations — answering the ‘why’
  • Geospatial communication – designing interaction
  • Spatial thinking and reasoning – supporting decisions

With these skills and competences firmly established as a common ground, professionals with diverse specialisations are able to cooperate in geospatial teams and organisations. From these (or similar) basic ‘core competences,’ we can then legitimately develop a range of educational objectives and outcomes.

Developing competencies
Let me just outline the philosophy behind academic programmes I had the opportunity to be involved with over many years. Firstly, I prefer to build geoinformatics competences with a methodology focus on the graduate level. Students have completed undergraduate education in a spatial discipline and recognise the need for geospatial methods and solutions. This avoids the phenomenon of a solution in desperate search of a suitable problem.

Secondly, competences should expect a longer half-life period than any specific software environments, and lead towards attractive career paths. Analysing spatial information and preparing for decision processes is an attractive set of competences valid across domains and wide open for lifetime career development.

Of course the development of methodology competences in spatial analysis, geovisualisation, distributed environments and sensor strategies will always be facilitated by practical exposure and significant skill levels for tools from geospatial technologies like sensors and software, including development environments. Key learning objectives and outcomes, though, clearly focus on the extraction of information and contextualised knowledge from geospatial data, on communicating among empowered stakeholders and on supporting decisions in government and business.

This is just one of a variety of educational pathways. Of course, there is evident and strong demand for other orientations like systems architecture, software development or interaction design. We currently observe the emergence of a diverse family of geospatial occupations, sharing the common genome of spatial literacy and spatial thinking. May be it is not a clearly defined family with all the well known designated roles and family relations, but rather a flexible patchwork family of professional responsibilities.

Referring to the title above, this might be a trend in society, it certainly is a challenge, but a realistic prospect into the direction we are moving with geospatial education.