Revisiting the Path to GISP: Is it Time to Add an Examination?

February 1, 2011

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It's time again for members of the geospatial community to step up and express their opinions about The GIS Certification Institute's (GISCI) GISP certification process. The organization has put forward a "GISP Certification Update" proposal. Those who found the first implementation of the certification less than satisfactory are likely to be at least intrigued by the new vision, which includes an examination based on the newly minted U.S. Department of Labor's Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM) and other "industry-validated competency specifications." Feedback is requested between February 1 and 28, 2011 via the GISCI website. A decision on implementation is expected in April.

It's worth reading the entire Executive Summary in the PDF document at the very least (one page). Those who read the entire document (11 pages) can explore all the change options considered for the certification process: "(1) Change nothing; (2) Add an examination to existing portfolio requirements; (3) Create a tiered (vertically-differentiated) certification program; and (4) Create a topical (horizontally-differentiated) certification program." The proposal details the benefits, costs, risks and grandfathering vision for each.

Summary of Proposal
For those who are looking for a quick recap, here are the key parts of the current proposal.

GISCI's Certification Committee submitted four unanimous recommendations in response to a board request to explore a more rigorous certification.

"...professional certification based solely on a peer-reviewed applicant-supplied portfolio is no longer defensible."

"New applicants should be awarded the GISP upon successful completion of both the exam [based on DOL Geospatial Technology Competency Model and related competency specifications] and a peer-reviewed portfolio that documents experience, education, and contributions to the profession."

"Plans for the new examination requirement should be announced three years in advance of its effective date in order to allow sufficient time for a methodical and robust exam development process. ... All GISPs certified prior to the effective date should be exempt from the exam requirement."

"To ensure that a valid and reliable exam is developed in a timely manner, GISCI should consider retaining the services of a reputable private firm or individual with exam development experience."

My Take
This sounds like a "no brainer" to me. Now that there are several well-vetted documents detailing the scope of knowledge that defines our discipline, there is no reason to shy away from an exam. Further, the appearance of software specific examinations (Esri's is the most prominent within geospatial technology) highlights the value of a broad base of knowledge, especially as solutions incorporate more and more tools, services, data types, hardware, programming languages, etc.

Having said that, I would add that the creation of an exam is likely to be quite challenging. How much will come from each of the selected "industry-validated competency specifications"? Will the exam be a simple multiple choice or will there be open-ended questions? The GTCM, for example, includes workplace, academic and personal effectiveness competencies including skills such as reading, writing, teamwork, initiative, creative thinking and lifelong learning. It's difficult for me to imagine evaluating and measuring those activities via multiple choice testing. Getting at the key principles and avoiding vendor-specific language in the questions may also be a challenge. That's no reason to avoid creating such an exam; I just want to highlight that it may take more time than those based on a specific set of software skills.

The most important implication of the addition of an examination is that it shifts how employers might perceive the certification. I've long pointed to Jeff Thurston's (Vector One) observation from years back that the key value of the current certification is for organizations that are not familiar with geospatial technology and that are not comfortable selecting a candidate. The current certification allows the potential employer to point to a candidate with a GISP and conclude: "A committee looked over this person's portfolio and concluded they meet the credentials' requirements." If the certification does, in the future, include an exam, that comment would be on the order of: "This individual passed a test on the current understanding of the skills that make up the profession and a committee looked over this persons portfolio and concluded they meet the credentials' requirements."


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