Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning

“The illiterate of the 21st century,” wrote Alvin Toffler, “will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Toffler’s words seem particularly appropriate to the GIS profession.  In 1983, I was among the last of students who for over 10 years were using the SYMAP program to create 3D mesh terrain surfaces.  My colleagues and I at the US Census Bureau used GIS to develop the TIGER system during the late 1980s.  I started using ArcInfo in 1989 at version 4 at the USGS.  Despite the huge changes that occurred in GIS at that time, I firmly believe that I have seen more change in the past 3 years than I did for the previous 30 years.  The open data movement, crowdsourcing, cloud computing, attention to spatial thinking, mobile apps, and SDKs are among the forces that are modifying huge portions of our profession, from the technology to the number and variety of people in it.

Changes in GIS and society are having an enormous impact on GIS education:  What must we teach to help learners update their current skills and prepare them for the future?  How must we as GIS educators most effectively educate ourselves?  To think about it as Toeffler might, think about all that you have learned, unlearned, and relearned in GIS over the years.  (I confess that I am still wondering about Toeffler’s “unlearning” process.  Do we really “unlearn” or do we just forget some of the details of what we no longer need to know?)   I remember the time I invested in learning how to download, format, and use SDTS-formatted spatial data, and then creating a 25 page document to help others do the same.  Is that document still needed?  Do most GIS folks today even know what SDTS is?  I had to learn how to use that type of data, and then relearn how to use spatial data when the formats and the software changed.  Today, with the coupling of desktop and web-based GIS, software updates no longer occur annually, but at least quarterly if not more often.  You cannot effectively use all of the ArcGIS Online resources if your version of ArcGIS for Desktop is a few versions behind.  New data, apps, and other resources appear daily.  GIS seems to me to be the perfect example of why lifelong learning is essential.

Furthermore, something common to every GIS professional is the experience of having difficulty with getting a task in GIS to work, modifying it, trying it again, and assessing the results.   I recently had difficulty matching an ArcGIS Online basemap with a set of data, because I had guessed incorrectly at the projection that the vector data was in.  While these experiences can be frustrating, we tend to more clearly remember their details than when our problem solving workflow is smooth and easy.  In short, the difficulties we experience in learning and relearning actually help us in the learning process.

I see Toffler’s point but I also think that reading and writing are important 21st Century skills, and are more critical now than ever before.  In my role on the Esri education team, I spend more time reading, writing, and communicating than I do on other tasks.   Yet even the bulk of time I spend reading, writing, and communicating is with the objective of learning and relearning, and teaching others.

How does GIS require and foster lifelong learning?  How can you model lifelong learning with GIS with your students?

Joseph Kerski

About Joseph Kerski

Joseph Kerski is a geographer who believes that spatial analysis through digital mapping can transform education and society through better decision-making using the geographic perspective. He serves on the Esri education team and is active in GIS communication and outreach, creates GIS-based curriculum, conducts research in the effectiveness of GIS in education, teaches online and face-to-face courses on spatial thinking and analysis, and fosters partnerships to support GIS in formal and informal education at all levels, internationally. He is the co-author of Spatial Mathematics, The Essentials of the Environment, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data, and other books. Follow him on Twitter @josephkerski
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