Summary: Prof. Josef Strobl of the Department of Geoinformatics - Z_GIS, University of Salzburg has been a pioneer of GIS education, both at his institution and via the online UNIGIS effort, for decades. Directions Magazine asked him about the use of Oracle Spatial and the state of the art in online GIS teaching and learning.
Oracle presented UNIGIS Salzburg with the Oracle Spatial and Graph Excellence Award in the “Education and Research” category at the user group meeting held in May in Washington, D.C. Prof. Josef Strobl from the Department of Geoinformatics - Z_GIS, University of Salzburg accepted the award and Directions Magazine asked him about the integration of Oracle’s technology in his university’s and UNIGIS’ curriculum.
Oracle's Xavier Lopez presents Professor Josef Strobl with the Oracle Spatial and Graph Excellence Award in the “Education and Research” at the User Group meeting in Washington, DC in May.
Directions Magazine (DM): The University of Salzburg's, Z_GIS, was designated as an Oracle Spatial Center of Excellence back in 2002. What was the process of weaving Oracle Spatial into the Z_GIS residentialcurriculum? What was the most challenging aspect? What were the special challenges of integrating it into the all online UNIGIS curriculum?
Josef Strobl (JS): Databases including spatial data types as well as operators have steadily gained importance since the early days of file-based GIS. The emergence of spatial data infrastructures (SDI) required well-managed, distributed databases accessible through a variety of clients. We needed to include the conceptual foundations of such architectures into our curricula for future geospatial experts, and students need practical exposure to applied workflows to gain a deeper understanding of such rather complex topics. We were grateful that Oracle offered assistance, and of course experience with this particular technology translates into a job market asset when applying for professional positions.
For the classroom-based setting of ourresidential full-time MSc, inclusion of Oracle Spatial technologies into the conceptual as well as practical framework of the program was relatively straightforward. An online distance education program like UNIGIS (www.unigis.net) of course faces additional challenges, but advances in desktop as well as network technologies facilitate inclusion into our curricula. Still, there are several “digital divides” making it impractical to support instruction over a distance for Oracle Spatial everywhere in this world, and for all audiences.
DM: What percentage of the UNIGIS students opt to take the Oracle Spatial module? What are the career goals of students who pursue it?
JS: Currently, around 20% of MSc level students from our German language program take this option, but fewer from our international participants. There clearly are easier choices to complete the curriculum’s electives requirements. Students selecting Oracle Spatial either already are working in a corporate environment committed to this technology, or are aiming at establishing an edge for future job applications. Spatial data infrastructure components, large enterprise databases and “big data analytics” are the focus of their professional ambitions.
DM: Oracle, let alone Oracle Spatial, can seem daunting especially to those who come to a GIS program as more of a GIS user rather than a database-savvy practitioner. How does UNIGIS prepare students to jump into such a complex tool?
JS: The first challenge usually is to get the server and services to run on a PC at home used for course work in the UNIGIS distance learning program. While there are no real technical obstacles, usually hurdles pop up for the uninitiated without experienced help readily at hand. Like for other products, UNIGIS therefore offers remote access and increasingly cloud-based options, enabling students to focus their learning activities on practical and conceptual matters, and less on platform installation and maintenance.
Still, the level of complexity requires some “hand holding” in the initial stages of the course for everyone without prior exposure to database interaction. It helps a lot to have a dedicated textbook available, co-authored by one of our professors at Z_GIS (Pro Oracle Spatial for Oracle Database 11g by Euro Beinat et al.).
DM: By studying Oracle Spatial students clearly learn how to use its tools. What other skills do you think they pick up that can be applied as they move through their careers?
JS: What “moves” graduates through their careers, of course always is a “moving target.” Tool-based skills as the operational end of key geospatial concepts and architectures often are the door openers to new career opportunities. At the same time, software skills have a comparatively brief half-life. Only a deeper understanding of foundations and analytical concepts will sustain a career across the transitions to new generations of tools which invariably enter our domain every couple of years.
A decisive “skill” for sure is learning-to-learn to keep abreast with everything driving our information society (“life-long learning”), project management, social and communication skills – geospatial careers pathways are based on a well-balanced mix of specific and generic qualifications.
DM: Are there any new additions or changes at UNIGIS that you’d like to mention since you shared information about the program with readers last year? Are there any changes in the coming months about which potential students should know?
JS: Well, “the only constant in life is change,” thus even though the UNIGIS distance learning program has entered its third decade and exceeded 5,000 alumni worldwide, we keep “re-inventing ourselves.” SDI-related topics like OpenGIS standards, services and architectures gain importance. All things “open” are considered a key development principle across our programs. Outreach into application domains like public health, security or business geographics keeps growing. Potential students from all over Latin America later this year will learn about a significant increase in options, with additional universities in major countries joining the UNIGIS network. And in the spirit of life-long learning, our alumni will appreciate the continuation of the recently launched “u_Lecture” webinar series featuring eminent speakers from across the geospatial industry and academia (latest installment).