ESRI’s Dr. Michael Gould Weighs in on the State of GIS Education

By Directions Staff

ESRI announced in early January that Dr. Michael Gould had joined the company as director of higher education. He comes to ESRI from Universitat Jaume I, Castellón, Spain where he was interdisciplinary professor of information systems and co-creator of an Erasmus Mundus-funded geospatial technologies master's program. Directions Magazine interviewed him about the state of GIS education, standards, the role of the PhD and more.

Directions Magazine (DM): Some "conflict of interest" might be possible when product vendors get involved in education. How do vendors and schools balance the benefits of vendor participation with the independence of academia?

Dr. Michael Gould

Michael Gould (MG):
I do not see any inherent conflict of interest; schools are free to acquire software, hardware, services, etc. from single or multiple vendors, as they prefer. Also I think that schools, like other users or customers, tend to work with vendors who help them do their job more efficiently and productively.

DM: How has GIS education in public and private schools changed in recent years? Is GIS being taught differently? In different disciplines?

I just began working (a month ago) in the education team at ESRI, so I am not the most qualified to answer that in detail. Several people in our education team have been dedicated to the "K-12" (and equivalent international) market for more than a decade. What I can say, however, is that we see GIS being taught in a wider and wider array of disciplines, including business, language programs (English), environmental sciences, etc. This is facilitated by the fact that many school districts are purchasing site licenses and this makes GIS software readily available for teachers to experiment with in their classes. There are many cases where even elementary school kids are using full GIS in class (often the gatekeeper role of the teacher is the only thing holding them back!). Also worth a mention is that in the days preceding our main User Conference in San Diego, ESRI holds a specific Education User Conference, and this event draws more than 600 highly dedicated and motivated educators, mostly K-12 teachers or professionals who deal with them. This is impressive!

DM: Should students in GIS and other computer disciplines be taught the basics about standards? If so, in which curriculum does that belong - GIS, computer science, elsewhere?

I have been a longtime advocate of OGC and related industry de facto (as well as ISO de jure) standards, and I see treatment of standards and their importance within GIS education curricula in many academic programs around the world. It doesn't necessarily better reside in computer science or elsewhere. It is easily incorporated as a module in any GIS-related course or study program.

DM: We recently did a podcast (podcast, listeners' responses) about GIS and geography PhDs. What do you see as the role of those degrees in today's marketplace? For what types of positions should they be sought?

Your podcast was released, and I listened, on my first day at work at ESRI, 9 December. I found it a bit misguided but good overall because the discussion is a necessary one. In my view, a PhD in GIS per se is not really necessary, since this terminal degree is normally research oriented and most people do not research GIS, but rather either: a) applied research using GIS; or b) underlying spatial relations, processes, etc. - that is to say, GI Science. Both types of research-oriented degrees are already available from departments such as geography, computer science, survey engineering, environmental sciences, etc. Normally you would not seek such a degree (beyond the master's) unless some sort of research was part of your career goals. This research is not necessarily conducted at a university however; ESRI hires many PhDs to work on software development, strategic accounts and marketing, and of course education. Other large companies, federal agencies and think-tanks routinely hire PhDs as well.

DM: Do you have some goals or interests in GIS education that you hope to further in your position at ESRI?
I just returned from an interesting workshop at the National Science Foundation, where experts (mostly from computer science) worked at defining the future regarding "fundable" geospatial and geotemporal research. It was encouraging how the group of attendees listed as one of its priorities the promotion of spatial thinking within secondary schools. Although this is not a research topic per se, it does help to create a more spatially literate society that would, presumably, increase the supply of GIS developers and of course users. Part of the dissemination of spatial thinking has to do with supporting and encouraging interdisciplinary research and education: breaking down the barriers to allow for GIS to move from vertical niche (i.e. GIS majors) to horizontal application (GIS technologies used while teaching history, architecture, biology, etc.). This thinking is very well aligned with the priorities of the education team at ESRI.

Published Saturday, January 24th, 2009

Written by Directions Staff

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