Experiences Teaching Free and Open Source GIS at the Community College Level

November 7, 2011

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Like schools across the globe, the Geographic Information Technology (GIT) program at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) teaches and trains students in the principles of GIS and in the types of applications for which it is used. Our program has always been Esri-centric, as its products are the industry standard. As our field expands, more and more people use free and open source software (FOSS) to accomplish the same tasks. Reliable FOSS alternatives to proprietary software have emerged.

In the interest of keeping our curriculum both cutting edge and thorough, I developed, and now teach, a three-credit course called Introduction to Open Source GIS and Web Mapping.The GeoTech Center funded the course development and the full course curriculum will be made available on its website in the near future. The primary goal is to teach students the principles of free and open source software for GIS (FOSS4G) as they create the same workflows and maps that they've already mastered using proprietary software. The only prerequisite for the course is Introduction to GIS. As a longtime proponent of FOSS principles, I am excited to bring these alternatives into the college classroom.

Why Teach FOSS GIS?

FOSS4G comprises one of the fastest evolving sectors of GIS. A wide variety of FOSS4G products are now available including those for the desktop, Web server, Web client, spatial database and mobile GIS. While FOSS4G has been around since the 1980s, recent years have seen the software becoming more mature, interoperable and user friendly. Historically, ease of access and installation has been a major hurdle for those wanting to transition to FOSS GIS software. Now there are intuitive Windows installers for all the leading packages. Those who prefer to work on Macs appreciate that most FOSS4G software can be installed natively on the Mac OS.

Employers are beginning adopt FOSS4G, often using a mix of proprietary and FOSS to create efficient workflows. This is due to the aforementioned strengths and because there are no licensing fees. This trend is likely to continue as organizations try to stay current in a rapidly changing field, and look to reduce financial overhead. Two local state agencies have recently included knowledge of FOSS4G as a desired skill for applicants. Since job placement is a high priority in our program, it makes sense to train our graduates in FOSS4G.  GIS is simply a tool. Why not expose students to a fuller toolbox?

The Course

During the semester we explore a variety of tools including desktop packages Quantum GIS and GRASS GIS; the GDAL/OGR command line utilities; both the SpatiaLite, PostgreSQL/PostGIS spatial databases, and MapServer for publishing spatial data to the Web . The students learn how to use these tools for cartography, data conversion, projection management, basic analyses and Web mapping. The course sticks to a pure FOSS paradigm. Assignments and lectures are provided in open document format. Students use Open Office and are required to use the open document format for all collected work.

The first portion of the course is focused on the principles and history of free and open source software. In a capitalist society there is something counter-intuitive to why a community of people creates software and gives it away for free. To put this in context the licensing schemes, development models and business models of both FOSS and proprietary software are compared and contrasted. Students learn that the software may be free, as in free beer, but that there are still costs involved. To migrate wholly or partially to FOSS GIS software, training and time to migrate data and workflows are obviously required.

In addition to FOSS software, students are introduced to open data and open standards. During the desktop portion they learn about OpenStreetMap (OSM). OSM is a freely editable map of the world that has numerous applications in both FOSS and proprietary software. During the Web portion they learn about open standards via the Open GeospatialConsortium (OGC) standards: Web Map Service(WMS), Web Feature Service (WFS) and Web Coverage Service (WCS). They publish a WMS service in MapServer, and see how that service can be consumed by a MapServer client, QGIS and ArcGIS.

In addition to lab assignments, students work on a software evaluation final project. For this component they research a FOSS4G software product not being covered elsewhere in the course. The project involves evaluating the software via a small GIS project. They write a report detailing the software's strengths and weaknesses, and its suitability to their project. During the last week of class they demonstrate their software package and present their findings to the class. This exposes the entire class to a larger number of new tools.

The course concludes with an introduction to both Web mapping and the Web in general. This is the only place in our GIT curriculum where the Internet is covered, so basics like the server-client relationship are introduced. Google Maps (although not open source) is used as a gentle introduction to Web mapping. Each student then creates a basic Web mapping application using Apache and MapServer and learns how to customize it, and add data to it.

Lessons Learned

Teaching this course has shown me that an Introduction to GIS class taught with Esri software sets a deep foundation in Esri as much as GIS. It has also made it clear just how much GIS language and how many procedures come from Esri. Migrating to any new GIS software requires a move from Esri-centric language and workflows to new ways of accomplishing the same tasks. For beginning GIS students, shifting from ArcMap to QGIS requires a retraining of the brain. For example, the terms “symbology” and “spatial reference” in ArcGIS might become “style” and “coordinate reference system” in QGIS. Just these small differences cause many students pause. I strive to tie terms and tools from the new software being taught, back to what they know in ArcGIS.

GIS courses almost universally rely on packaged labs and students often fall into the trap of just following directions. By re-doing the same task in a FOSS package they begin to think more critically about how and why something is being done. Their conceptual understanding of GIS grows considerably and students who take this class leave with a more solid GIS foundation. Perhaps this effect could also be achieved by putting more real world issues into labs, where software bugs or data that are difficult to work with are encountered, to teach students how to problem solve. However, FOSS4G deepens their problem-solving skills while giving them a fuller toolbox.

There are always some students who do not embrace the FOSS paradigm. However, most students are shocked to discover how many capable FOSS GIS software packages exist and are excited that they can just download and install them, even on a Mac. They ask questions like, "Why isn't everyone using QGIS?" Frequently students end the semester wanting more. There is certainly room in our program for a FOSS GIS course that dives deeper into spatial analysis and modeling. The Web portion of the course could be expanded to an entire semester. In the near term, one of my goals is to have other GIS faculty take this course so that they can begin to weave FOSS4G into other courses. The FOSS software is intentionally left installed in our GIS labs throughout the year, even during semesters when the course is not being taught. This allows students to use it for their final projects and serves as a reminder of FOSS as an option.

It is very rewarding to expose students to this world and I hope that it becomes more commonplace for colleges and universities to offer similar courses.


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