Education and Training in GIScience: New Challenges, Innovative Solutions

By Dr. Kenneth E. Foote

In an article published in Directions Magazine in 2000, Mike Phoenix of ESRI noted how rapidly the GIScience workforce has expanded and how great the need remains for high-quality education and training for GIScience professionals.The situation remains the same today - the rapid growth of the geographic information industry and its spread into new commercial markets and government agencies means that demand remains high for well-trained professionals.This demand has presented challenges and opportunities for educators at almost all educational levels.I will focus on the college and graduate levels here, but important experiments are underway in integrating GIS into the primary and secondary school curricula as a means of promoting spatial thinking, improving geographical problem-solving skills, and introducing techniques of environmental analysis and reasoning to a new generation of students.Just as important have been efforts to serve adult learners, especially professionals seeking to train or retrain for new jobs without seeking formal university degrees.

The opportunities presented by this growing and changing demand have also posed challenges for most programs in geographical, environmental, and engineering sciences.The rise of GIScience in the past two decades has been more rapid than the usual pace of change in higher education. The heart of the challenge is that the GISciences require of students - and teachers - new tools, skills, and methods that are changing rapidly.GIS professionals are now expected to master software tools and techniques that seem to change monthly.It's assumed they are up to date with national and international geospatial standards; at ease importing and exporting into all data formats, and expert in estimating error, interpreting metadata, and visualizing data.Finding educators who can keep up with these trends is difficult enough, but the cost of implementing programs in GIScience is even higher.The price of labs and support staff is also of concern to most institutions considering moving into GIS education.Despite these challenges, educators are responding in new and creative ways.

Creating model curricula to speed implementation
Prototype curriculum materials like the Core Curriculum in GIScience produced by the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) in 1990 and revised in an online version beginning in 1998 have been particularly influential in defining and refining the core knowledge base of the field.These materials have helped hundreds of instructors all over the world develop courses in GIScience.Other efforts such as the GISAccess Project and NCGIA's Core Curriculum in GIS for Technical Programs have targeted one of the fastest growing educational sectors - community colleges offering two-year degrees and certificates in GIS.These curriculum efforts continue today with efforts by the University Consortium for GIS (UCGIS) to create a new, model curriculum suited to today's changing workforce demands.These and other projects like The Geographer's Craft Project which I led in the early 1990s have had an unintended, but beneficial effect of making available high-quality, web-based reference materials for self-study by GIS professionals.I think it is safe to say that the excellent materials now online have saved most professionals tremendous time and energy finding answers to many technical questions.

Expanding opportunities in online training to serve broader audiences
While in-depth, integrated education in GIScience and related disciplines is important for individuals entering the field, many professionals are finding great value in online training focusing on specific technical and software skills.Not long ago, professionals seeking to upgrade or extend their skills had relatively few alternatives from which to choose: relatively expensive short courses offered by vendors and some universities and instructional materials in print.Online courses and seminars have addressed this need with tremendous success.ESRI in particular, but other vendors as well, have seen enrollment in their online seminars and courses increase at a tremendous rate in recent years.These online opportunities offer several advantages over traditional in-class training - professionals can take the classes when they need them, at a pace that fits their schedules, and without traveling to a distant training site for a week or two.Early experiments in online instruction were little more than page after page of online text.These early efforts have matured into far more inviting and innovative offerings.It is now possible to study alone in a self-paced (sometimes called "asynchronous") mode, or take advantage of online chat-rooms, help desks, and virtual seminars and tutorials that promote synchronous interactions between teachers and learners.

Establishing certificate programs to provide quality assurance
Certificate programs in GIScience have been increasing in number, though not without controversy.Certificates are employed in a number of professional and technical fields as a means of affirming the proficiency and depth of training of students entering the workforce. Although such certification is important in some areas of GIScience, such as surveying, precise positioning, land-record and cadastral mapping, and photogrammetry, there is no widespread agreement as to what a certificate in GIScience should include.Students pursuing associate, bachelors, or masters degrees in geography, planning, or engineering with concentrations in GIS, will have excellent knowledge and skills and gain little from being asked to certify their abilities. And, with the field changing so rapidly, setting the terms of a certificate program is as difficult as hitting a moving target. Certainly I see value in setting standards for instruction in GIScience, but the recent rush toward certificate programs is not necessarily beneficial unless great care is placed on careful curriculum planning and execution.

Moving into distance education to reach professionals
The final innovation I wish to highlight is the rapid growth of distance education, both for degree and certificate programs.During the Internet boom of the late 1990s there was speculation that such distance education programs ‑ particularly those entirely online - would rapidly supplant traditional classroom and laboratory instruction.This has not happened except, as noted above, in respect to online training focusing on specific technical and software skills. Educational programs offering complete degrees and certificates are still relatively few in number.Those that have succeeded mirror conventional extension and adult education programs both in student numbers and media.They appeal to a modest, but not large number of students and typically use Web, print, and audio-video resources as well as email, phone, and face-to-face contact.Still, these programs offer many advantages to professionals with tight schedules to deepen and broaden their knowledge and skills.The UniGIS program, an international collaboration of universities offering an MS in GIScience has been in operation for a decade.Penn State's and the University of Denver's online certificates in GIS have also been very successful and are two of many available nationally and internationally.

These developments give some idea why it is an exciting time to be involved in both education and GIScience.I have always seen GIScience as a field propelled by technological innovation, but it is no less true that GIScience has posed challenges and offered opportunities for education and training.GIScience has been at the forefront to developing new programs and deploying new technologies to reach wider and more diverse audiences and I can only hope that this trend will continue well into the future.

Web Resources and Further Reading

Distance Education Courses in Geographic Information Science compiled by Harlan Onsrud

The Geographer's Craft Project, University of Colorado at Boulder

Geospatial Workforce Development Center, University of Southern Mississippi

GIS Certificate and Masters Programs compiled by Karen Kemp

GIS Certification Institute

NCGIA, Core Curriculum in GIScience, and

NCGIA, Core Curriculum for Technical Programs

Pennsylvania State University, World Campus, Certificate in GIS

UniGIS, MS program in GIS

ESRI Education and Training with link to the Virtual Campus

University of Denver, Geographic Information Systems Certificate Program

University Consortium for GIS, The Strawman Report on the Development of Model Curricula for Geographic Information Science and Technology

Published Tuesday, March 8th, 2005

Written by Dr. Kenneth E. Foote

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