Those of us currently teaching GIS must set the example…

Those of us currently teaching GIS must set the example…


Karen Kemp is Professor of GIS at the University of Redlands in southern California where she is director of the International Masters Program in GIS.Karen K. Kemp
Karen K. Kemp
Professor of Geographic Information Science
Director of the International Masters Program in GIS
University of Redlands
Redlands, CA
Email: [email protected]

Karen Kemp is Professor of GIS at the University of Redlands in southern California where she is director of the International Masters Program in GIS. Dr. Kemp was a member of the Board of Directors of the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) and acted as senior editor of the UCGIS Education Priorities. She is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI). In recognition for these and other contributions, in October 2004 she was named Educator of the Year by the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS). Her scientific research has focused on developing methods to improve the integration of environmental models with GIS from both the pedagogic and the scientific perspectives and on formalizing the conceptual models of space acquired by scientists, and now humanities scholars, across a wide range of disciplines.

Here she discusses candidly with GIS Development about her views on issues of education in GIS.

In your opinion, what is the need and relevance of GIS education?
GIS education is extremely important. It is all too easy to use the software without knowing the implications of decisions made with it, or to produce maps that look nice but are at best meaningless and at worst misleading. Knowing how to run the software is only the beginning. There are many important topics that users need to know, like cartography, projections and statistics. These are not self evident, but need proper education to understand.

What is the Scenario of GIS Education in your country? Can you highlight on GIS education in different regions of the world, particularly Asia?
GIS Education in the US is now well over 30 years old. While it had a solid but limited initiation at a very few graduate programs like the Harvard Graphics Lab, UC Santa Barbara, Ohio State University and University of Washington, it was not until the early ‘90s that courses began to be taught across the country in undergraduate programs. Now, GIS can be found in almost every university catalog, though the departmental home of GIS is still quite variable. GIS is taught, of course, in many Geography departments, but it can also be found as a stand-alone course in many other disciplines like geomatics (surveying engineering), forestry, ecology, criminology and epidemiology.

GIS will continue to expand throughout University curricula in the US as broad understanding of the spatial perspective on most areas of human activity is acknowledged. Certainly, the recent focus on homeland security has catapulted GIS into the limelight, making it not only a planning tool but a strategic and defense essential. As well, GIS will continue to push down into the lower school levels as teachers become aware of the technology and the value it can have in teaching problem solving and critical thinking. I am not currently in a position to comment on what is going on in Asia. Sorry.

Kindly put your views on major problems (constraints) in GIS education.
GIS education is constrained largely by lack of awareness about the theoretical foundations of GIS. Due to its relative newness, few teachers (both school and university level) have actually taken university level courses in it and thus are not able to introduce this material into their own curricula. It is by far easier to build GIS courses that teach only software operation. In my opinion, most people teaching GIS today are innocently unaware of the richness of the geographical and other disciplinary theories and concepts upon which the technology sits. Until this situation is remedied, GIS education will continue to be woefully inadequate, though present, in many educational institutions worldwide.

Of course, another major constraint is lack of access to hardware and software. While the hardware requirements of GIS are much less than they were 10 years ago, you still do need to have a new computer with large amounts of processing capability and memory. On the software side, the problem is not so much getting it (most of the GIS companies seem to be willing to offer free or much reduced software prices to educational institutions, at least in the US), but rather it is keeping up with the new versions. There is a very important question to be answered about the value of teaching with out of date versions – certainly students can learn fundamentals even with very old versions, but the workplace situation is likely to require more modern skills than many universities are able to provide.

While actually getting a copy of the latest version may be a challenge for some educational institutions, what is even more problematic is keeping the faculty up-to-date. I often joke that I wish I could teach ancient Roman history, or perhaps math, because the lectures and assignments wouldn’t have to be rewritten every year. This is actually a critical problem. Given that most universities are now hiring people to teach GIS because there is a demand for people who “do” GIS, the lack of understanding about the depth of theory that is involved in the field often relegates these faculty to second class status amongst their academic colleagues. We are often seen as simple “technologists” rather than “real academics”. To make this even more problematic, not only are we often not seen as worthy colleagues, we are required to spend far too much of our time keeping the lab running, installing software, upgrading our teaching materials AND helping our colleagues “do GIS” in their own research. There’s a bit of a disconnect between our support of our colleagues in their work and the lack of understanding of what we have to contribute to the academy.

What is the scenario of Industry-Institution or Government-Institution interface in the US?
This is a difficult question to answer as there are about as many different versions of these relationships as there are universities. At one end of the extreme are universities like the University of Redlands with an open and very public tie to ESRI. In our case, which is unique given our proximity to ESRI’s Redlands headquarters, we have almost daily interaction between our students and the staff at ESRI. Our students have access to the world’s largest GIS library at ESRI, we hold our weekly colloquium series on their campus, and, of course, we always have the newest version of all the software as soon as it is publicly available (and often before it is).

Many other universities have close ties to one or other of the software vendors, though generally they don’t make their connection quite as public as we do. There is a tradition in academia, which is generally justified, that universities are unaligned with private industry. This means they can teach about different software products critically. The truth is that most universities cannot afford, in terms of staff time, the overhead of truly supporting more than one product, so they focus their efforts on a single vendor’s platform, perhaps having a single copy of a competitor’s product on hand, and a grad student with some familiarity on it. While they won’t admit to being virtually a “one vendor shop”, they usually are.

Then of course, there are the many small colleges who have (or more likely believe they have) insufficient resources or status to pursue relationships with the industry. These schools struggle to keep their labs upgraded, to get copies of new software and to stay on top of the industry innovations. In many cases, this may just be a problem with overworked faculty who do not have time to pursue the options offered by industry.

On the Government-Institution side, there are two ways in which these may be achieved. One is the traditional academic grant channel. For example, over the past decade the National Science Foundation in the US has provided a large amount of money to support colleges wishing to implement GIS programs through grants for computing infrastructure. There has also been a lot of money spent on the development of teacher and faculty training programs and instructional materials in GIS. The other Government-Institution relationships are provided by the special congressional budget actions that allow a limited number of universities the opportunity to support agency GIS programs directly. Since this kind of money is often regarded as somewhat unfairly distributed (since money goes directly to universities in the designated congressional districts without competition), we don’t talk much about these programs.

What are the career prospects in GIS education?
High. From technical trainers to university faculty. GIS is booming and people do need to know how to “do it”. However, it’s my personal challenge to make sure that all of these people who do aspire to be GIS educators understand the responsibility they take on to ensure that their students are taught the full depth of the field, not just how to push the buttons. Those of us currently teaching GIS must set the example through our own courses, discussions with our colleagues and research.

What is the role of academicians in GIS community? Can they play role in policy making related to maps, etc.? Any such instance in the past?
In the US, academicians in the GIS community have been very prominent in policy making. The University Consortium for Geographic Information Science ( was established specifically to represent the GIS academic community to policy makers. I believe that we have had a number of successes in getting GIS placed higher in funding programs and in government management programs. For example, the new Intelligence Bill making its way through congress contains a number of references to geographic information and its primary importance to the Intelligence Community. I believe this awareness has only come about because academics have been successful in demonstrating how GIS can be used in this arena and/or in teaching people working in these agencies, through part-time education programs available to agency personnel, enough about its potential that they understood where to take it.

Kindly state a case study, if any, on implementing GIS education.
The only story I can tell is about our program at the University of Redlands, which is very unique. Our program is designed as a one-year professional masters program. Our students are expected to enter the program with professional working experience in the field. This allows us to set the bar high and to aim for mastery of GI Science and GI Technology, rather than just an introduction to GI Systems.

Our program is designed around three key streams – Theory, Technology and Project Design and Implementation. These three streams run concurrently through the program. We have four two month terms which cover the topics: GI Science and Technology Foundations, Information Systems for GI, Spatial Analysis and Cartography/Communicating GI. In each term there is a GIScience course on the theme, and a parallel technology course in which our students receive hands-on training by ESRI’s professional trainers on the full suite of ESRI’s ArcGIS products, plus 6 weeks of group project work in which they apply the training they have learned in the term’s training sessions. For example, in the second term (Information Systems), following 1.5 weeks of ESRI training, the technology course focuses on the design, implementation and populating of real geodatabases for real clients. In the fourth term, when they are learning Cartography in the theory course, they are learning Customizing GIS for the Web. Recently this has involved developing ArcIMS websites. In our next cycle, we’re going to move on to ArcServer installations.

We have a one-month term for focused electives in which students choose either Managing GIS or Programming GIS. This allows us to stream the students between those who are more technically oriented and those who are more management focused. We also have other individually chosen electives, which also help the students build their individual skills, knowledge sets according to their interests, and career plans.

Throughout the program we also have the Project Design and Implementation theme. During their first month with us, they choose a client driven practical project to undertake. This is our version of the Masters Thesis, but is more practical in orientation than research focused. While being taught the sequence of Project Management stages, each student works on their individual project, building it up from concept, through needs analysis and design stages, to final implementation and report.

Our program is offered only as a residential full-time program since our key feature is our relationship and constant interaction with ESRI’s staff. Through the involvement of many foreign students and visiting faculty, we are determined to keep the program international in character. Foreign students are strongly encouraged to pursue funding from their own national governments or employers and apply for participation our program early so that all the processing can be completed before beginning their studies.

The program started in early 2002 and with a new cohort starting each September and January, we have now graduated over 50 students. Our seventh group of students begins in January 2005. For more information, see our website at