Those of us teaching GIS must set the example

Those of us teaching GIS must set the example


Karen K Kemp
professor and Director International Masters Program
in GIS, University of Redlands
Redlands, California, usa
[email protected]
Karen K Kemp was named ‘Educator of the Year’ by the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) in October 2004 in recognition of her contributions to GIS academics. Her scientific research has focused on developing methods to improve integration of environmental models with GIS from both pedagogic and scientific perspectives. She shares her thoughts on geospatial sciences education

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.

How would you comment on the scenario of GIS Education in your country and 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.

There are also many small colleges who have insufficient resources or status to pursue relationships with the 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. 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, we don’t talk much about these programs.

“GIS education is constrained largely by lack of awareness about its theoretical foundations. Due to its relative newness, few teachers have actually taken university level courses in it…”

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?
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.