Commercial and government organisations today seek well trained GIS skilled professionals to spur economic and social development. But is our education system evolving in tandem with this need?
Education in geographical information systems (GIS) is evolving around the world. Despite many obvious differences among countries, universities, and educational styles, a few patterns and extreme cases are easily identified in this area. On one hand, we could signal many exemplars — such as Harvard University, University College London, University of Salzburg, Wuhan University, and the University of Minnesota — which have healthy budgets and serve the needs of faculty and students. On the other hand, we find many universities in countries like South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Haiti where basic infrastructure such as reliable electricity, let alone GIS labs, is not guaranteed, and therefore, GIS is taught to a small section of students often using outdated textbooks. Between these two extremes is where improvement can happen. An important pattern, and good news, is that GIS is being taught in almost every country. The opportunity to unite two critical elements of economic development, land management and new technology does not go unnoticed, and the value of GIS is generally accepted.
One of the goals of GIS education should be to move students progressively up the learning ladder from just memorisation of facts (what GIS is and how others have used it) to learning to use the technology to applying GIS to realistic problems and finally, to conceiving novel ideas that might become methods, algorithms, and software solutions for the next generation of GIS. Another strong pattern that has been witnessed around the world is that many GIS education programmes have either become stable or have been stalled at the second rung of the ladder. Students are just learning the basic functionality of GIS software, running basic analyses and printing a results map. This is necessary but not sufficient to meet the needs of the three main communities now seeking GIS ‘knowledge workers’: science, government, and business. All these are looking to hire problem solvers, and this requires the ability of a graduate to move beyond ‘cookbook’ GIS lessons and to creatively synthesise data and methodology from multiple sources. These skills are taught through group exercises and projects. A good example of such project-based learning is My Community Our Earth (MyCOE) project, which has trained hundreds of secondary-school students using this methodology. The Geospatial Semester programme at James Madison University in Virginia, United States familiarises secondary-school students with university curricula.
|Training exercises for science and mathematics teachers on GPS field data collection are organised by the Abu Dhabi Education Council; Kenyatta University is moving to GIS across campus, starting from the Department of Environmental Planning and Management.|
New forms of education
Educational changes have been slow to arrive in many parts of the world, partly due to the slow arrival of underlying technology. Internet access on university campuses is an important game-changer for many students, yet society is not doing enough to demand that this access become universal. Most universities claim to provide Wi-Fi connectivity to all, yet this claim is far from reality. Increasingly, many students are coming to class with their personal laptops. This means that soon the concept of maintaining a traditional, hardwired, university GIS laboratory will pass from necessity to a costly overhead.
Once connectivity becomes a reality, the doors to online education will be open. The number of participants for many massive open online courses (MOOCs) prevalent in North America shows that significant percentages of students connect and follow classes from other continents. In addition, thousands of universities have access to over 120 online Esri Virtual Campus courses, but to benefit from these courses, connectivity must be widespread and stable. Many professors around the world are now able to offload basic topics (how to use the GIS platform) by sending their students online and thus are able to focus their time and energy on teaching more specific topics such as network analysis or landscape modelling.
|The ratio of females to males in GIS education is improving around the world; GIS students in Nairobi are using their personal laptops instead of university laboratory machines.|
Another aspect of moving from the second to the third rung of the learning ladder towards project-based learning is moving beyond desktop and utilising Web and mobile GIS. Web GIS opens an important door in the learning process: the idea of sharing data and information. Another pattern observed in many parts of the world is that students are merely considered as data consumers who are at the mercy of a few central government data providers. Learning how to analyse geodata, produce information products including, but not limited to, maps, and then publishing their results to the Web, will help the students take yet another leap forward. By leaving the classroom and getting out into the field with inexpensive GPS receivers (often their own smartphones), they can become data producers and analysts. Learning GIS today should include the entire workflow cycle — go into the field as a team to collect first hand data, contribute the data to a multiuser database, analyse the data, produce information products, and publish them to an internal portal or to the wider web. By combining these multiple modes of GIS, students can prepare themselves for the future. The educational methodology needs to evolve in this direction as industry and government GIS users seek to hire such young graduates.
GIS across campus
Another pattern worth noticing is that more universities are treating GIS as an enterprise technology and are spreading it outside the traditional GIS teaching lab to affect all parts of the campus. A good example is Kenyatta University, Nairobi, which is leveraging its campus software licence to provide GIS training to IT staff, faculty, and students. By doing so they are providing skills to young people and administrators who otherwise might not have ever heard of GIS. Esri has been facilitating campus licences to those universities which show management commitment to making GIS across the campus a reality.
The future of GIS education envisions more universities around the world gaining access to full enterprise GIS platform via campus licenses, teaching GIS in a wider variety of disciplines, programming more open and available extensions, and progressively moving up the learning ladder by providing project-based learning opportunities. These are positive moves for the education community and for the commercial and governmental communities that depend on fresh graduates to spur economic and social development.