Changing the Way We Teach and Learn GIS

Mobile computing, social media, “the cloud”, and other technology trends are not only changing the way we use GIS; they’re also changing the way we teach and learn GIS. Just how are these changes affecting education?  I recently spoke with David DiBiase, Director of Education at Esri, about the opportunities and challenges ahead. [Note: This is the first half of the interview; you can read the second half here.]

What is the mission of Esri’s Education Team?

David: The overarching objective of Esri’s Education Team is to cultivate the next generation of ArcGIS users and Esri customers. Jack Dangermond established this goal when he founded the Team in 1992, and reaffirmed it at the Team’s 2011 strategic planning meeting in August. By his reckoning, the education market accounts for 40% of Esri users. We are known and admired within our market for our low-cost education licensing programs. Esri’s longstanding support for education is an example of how a business can do good while doing well.

David DiBiase

David DiBiase

As the Education Team begins its third decade of operation, how are changes in geospatial technology changing the way GIS will be taught?

David: When Charlie Fitzpatrick and Mike  Phoenix—the original Education Team members—joined Esri in 1992, it would be two years before the first automaker offered an optional GPS-based in-car navigation system, and four years before MapQuest launched the first web-based routing system for public use. Although satellite remote sensing systems like Landsat were in orbit since the 1970s, detailed map data were still mostly derived from aerial photographs captured with film cameras, and interpreted by eye by photogrammetrists. Google didn’t even exist until 1998. At Esri, the very first version of ArcView appeared in 1992. That alone gives you an idea of how far the technology has come.

Like information technology in general, geospatial technology has become both more sophisticated and more heterogeneous over the past 20 years. ArcView was a breakthrough desktop technology. Now the ArcGIS system includes server, mobile, and cloud applications, as well as countless custom applications “mashed-up” by combining Esri tools with others. Open source software and crowd-sourced data provide viable complements to commercial software and government data products in certain circumstances. And consumer-oriented mapping tools like Google Maps have greatly expanded public access to interactive maps and mapping. All of this progress and diversity, which a recent public media project dubbed “the geospatial revolution,” has made it both easier and harder to teach with and about GIS.  Easier because the tools are better and more accessible; harder because the diversity and rapid evolution of the tools makes it harder for educators to keep up.

Would you say that GIS has been an easy tool for educators to adopt?

David: No. In his PhD dissertation research, Esri colleague Joseph Kerski found that GIS was used in only about 1% of U.S. high schools. Joseph went on to co-edit a book that profiles the use of GIS in education in 33 countries around the world. Some of those countries include geography and GIS in their national curriculum standards. However, except for pockets of activity led by inspired innovators, GIS remains a fugitive technology in most secondary education worldwide. The reasons for that unfortunate trend include inadequate infrastructure (for example, many classrooms in developing countries lack dependable access to electricity, let alone Internet), lack of training opportunities for teachers, and the persistently inadequate awareness among policy makers and parents about the value of spatial thinking. The Esri Education Team continues to work hard to make a difference in spite of these obstacles. We now have statewide site licenses in place in 15 U.S. states, with 10 more likely to be finalized in the coming year. Expanding access to real GIS software is one obstacle we can do something about.

Higher education is a different story. Colleges and universities embraced GIS education relatively early on, in part because of the career opportunities that it affords students, and because geography—the traditional home of GIS teaching and research—has a somewhat higher profile in higher education. We recently found that approximately 85% of the top 400 universities worldwide (ranked by the Times of London) are Esri software users. All told, Esri software is in use at about 7,000 colleges and universities, including 98% of U.S. institutions with enrollments greater than 10,000 students. A few years ago, Mike Phoenix estimated that approximately 150,000 college and university students worldwide enroll in GIS-related courses each year. That number is probably quite a bit higher today.

Mike Phoenix

Mike Phoenix

How much of this is about GIS or other geospatial technologies, vs. the more basic goal of teaching spatial thinking skills?

David: ArcGIS desktop and server products have long been indispensable tools for GIS professionals. Learning these tools continues to be an essential part of the education of future GIS professionals. This is a big and important job; the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that about 100,000 additional GIS professionals will be needed in the next ten years in the U.S. alone. However, that leaves many millions of other learners who would benefit from the geographic awareness and spatial thinking skills that GIS fosters.

As the National Research Council report Learning to Think Spatially points out, our professional-grade tools are not particularly well suited to teaching and learning with, as opposed to about, GIS. Fortunately, the next generation of Esri technology—including ArcGIS Online, Esri Community Analyst, and other products—has the potential to be a game-changer for education. For instance, I recently met a professor who teaches public health at the University of Minnesota. He explained that he had long wanted to expose his students to the power of location intelligence. However, his students aren’t free to add an additional prerequisite course to learn how to use GIS. Once he saw Esri Community Analyst, he began to rethink the viability of GIS in his classes.

How does “the cloud” affect the way we teach GIS?

David: The cloud-based ArcGIS Online platform offers several advantages for the education enterprise. First, it lowers barrier to adoption by educators and administrators for whom even our deeply discounted educational site licenses are more than they can afford. By reducing the need for computer labs loaded with desktop software, ArcGIS Online greatly reduces the burden for IT administrators.

Second, the Esri cloud provides a gallery of authoritative basemaps that students can use for free, not to mention the rapidly growing collection of maps and apps contributed by ArcGIS users worldwide. This rich collection of shared map resources directly supports the active, inquiry-based learning methods that leading educators and researchers advocate.

Third, because it is accessible anywhere they can connect to the Internet, cloud-based GIS frees students to learn wherever they happen to be. This is a benefit for the increasing proportion of students—particularly adult students—who need to continue their education from home or work via hybrid or fully online courses and programs.

Finally, for institutions, school districts, and states that already maintain educational site licenses, Esri will soon offer access to ArcGIS Online for Organizations subscriptions at no extra cost. This cloud-based platform will extend the capabilities of the public version of ArcGIS Online. Of particular interest to educators will be the ability to customize the platform’s look and feel to conform to institution’s visual identity, as well as to create and manage student accounts and publishing privileges. For many institutions, ArcGIS Online for Organizations subscriptions will become an enterprise geospatial content management system.

You can read the second half of my interview with David here.

Matt Artz

About Matt Artz

Matt Artz joined Esri in 1989. In his current role as GIS and Science Manager, he helps communicate the value of GIS as a tool for scientific research and understanding. He writes extensively about geospatial technologies, manages the GIS and Science blog, and is the editor of GIS.com. Prior to joining Esri he worked as an Environmental Scientist at a large science and engineering consulting company, on such diverse projects as highway noise modeling, archaeological impact assessment, and chemical weapons disposal. His educational background includes an M.S. degree in Environmental Policy and Planning and a B.S. degree in Anthropology and Geography.
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