Resilience in GIS Education

COVID-19 Cases across the United States.

Bang. The spring semester was cut short, everyone was sent home, and the fall semester is still morphing. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a reset in the way we think about teaching and learning. Distance learning is not new, of course, but forced distance learning on a global scale—that’s a different story. This causes disruption and tension in all disciplines but is more acutely felt in disciplines that are dependent on hardware laboratories, as in the case of GIS. Can we–educators and learners—adapt? Are we resilient? And will we be resilient when the next unannounced disruption occurs?

During August 2020, the University Consortium on Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) began a series of online panel sessions entitled Resilience in GIScience Education. During the preliminaries, the group quickly agreed on a very wide view of resilience, defining it as the overall ability to cope with and adapt to disruption. Because the first round of panels was focused on pedagogy, I made what I feel is another important clarification. The title of the session series (as well as “UCGIS”) deliberately refers to geographic information science (GIScience), not GIS per se, although many people will conflate them. But it seems useful to clarify whether any one of us is really talking about educating geographic information scientists (which is normally done at the graduate school level), or whether we’re talking about educating undergrads about the hows and whys of GIS. One learner may be planning to go on to a research career; another may want to graduate ASAP and go to work for a GIS company or government agency. One curriculum would normally focus on theory and methods (David Mark, 2003), the other on practice and problem solving. Student profiles and expectations are important to consider here.

There were some other fundamental questions as well. Is COVID-19 different from other disruptions? (I remember when the University of Iowa was flooded in 2008; and certainly, in Latin America, university classes are disrupted for months on end due to strikes.) Is the COVID-19 disruption somehow unique for GIScience? To what extent is resilience affected by social, institutional, legal, and societal norms?

These sessions moved from the pedagogic implications of COVID-19 and other disruptions to some of the more technology-related implications, and then to implementation of resilient GIScience education. The latter topics are where Esri’s education outreach team has much experience, having worked directly or indirectly with almost 11,000 university users over the past two decades. In the end, the topics are intertwined—pedagogy necessarily changes, as do the classroom environment and the manner in which courses are conducted.

In terms of equity, did all registered university students before COVID-19 have access to GIS? Historically, the GIS lab was the great leveler—every GIS student had access to the same computers and the same software—but only on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.  And only those learners who knew—or were allowed—to register for a GIS course could access the GIS. More recently, universities began installing GIS software in common spaces, such as libraries and study rooms, which is a big step toward resilience. Suddenly GIS was available at any time. Desktop software is now easier for students to acquire—via direct downloads or access codes from instructors—for installation on student-owned computers.

This reminds me that part of human resilience is insistence—speaking up and asking for a possible “yes” rather than assuming a “no.” The squeaky wheel gets the grease—or, in this case, the software.

In 1992, Michael Phoenix created Esri’s unwritten pledge that needy people in the education world would gain access to the software they need. Esri now offers free access to pandemic-affected (at-home) students who are not already covered by university software licenses.

But is that an equitable solution? Should we expect that every student owns a laptop with the requirements for modern desktop software? This is not totally realistic even in the wealthiest areas of developed countries. Saving many a GIS instructor, accessing GIS online is a trend that is at least five years old but has exploded in popularity during the COVID-19 crisis. The end user connects on almost any hardware via an internet browser, and the server in the cloud does most of the work. ArcGIS Online now has a sufficiently robust set of spatial analysis tools, so many introductory GIS courses can be taught on that platform today. Some instructors miss some of their favorite desktop tools, but the resilient instructors work with the available tools and move forward, and students whet their appetites for GIS.

But there are still underserved populations. Does resilience include a university or a government agency that covers the cost of hardware and internet connectivity for each needy student? Again, is GIS different in that respect to, say, graphic design or engineering fields? In any case, the GIS industry and the AAG are doing what they can to help people continue under difficult circumstances. See the COVID-19 pandemic-related Esri education resources and updates from the AAG COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force for more information.

We welcome the active collaboration of resilient educators and students so that we can all keep moving forward in helping solve geographical problems.

Michael Gould is the Esri Global Education Manager


UCGIS 2020 Global GIScience Conversations

Mark, D. M., “Geographic Information Science: Defining the Field,” in Foundations of Geographic Information Science, edited by M. Duckham, M. F. Goodchild, and M. F. Worboys (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2003), 1–18. doi:10.1201/9780203009543.ch1.


Educational GIS Activities in Africa

Over the past decade, most universities and some secondary schools across Africa have been exposed to geographic information system (GIS) technology. Teaching about and with GIS on that continent has been both challenging and rewarding.

On April 9, 2017, the panel session “Teaching GIS in Africa” was held at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) annual meeting in Boston. Esri organized this session, and speakers came from several nations and spoke of their diverse experiences as teachers and, in one case, as a student in Eastern Africa.

Although every African university and nation has its own unique characteristics, the speakers and audience members coincided on several issues. GIS education across Africa—with exceptions especially in South Africa—has been slow to evolve beyond the teaching of basic GIS theory, in large part due to a lack of sustained resources such as computer labs, Internet connections, and updated local datasets. Often these resources are donated but not maintained in the medium or long term. Software is generally available either as open source or via discounts and donations by Esri and other commercial providers.

The main limiting factor identified was the lack of instructors educated on the latest technologies and methodologies such as mobile data collection, data publishing and sharing, and advanced spatial analysis. Far too many students are still learning GIS from textbooks instead of via hands-on use. Much of the applied GIS being taught is natural resources (and satellite imagery) oriented, with less attention being paid to human geography, urban issues, and cartography. This, again, is due to the limited availability of specialists in these areas and of spatial data such as street networks and geodemographics. Many steps have been taken in the form of short-term, donor-funded projects, but often momentum is lost after project completion.

The University of North Alabama’s Jonathan Fleming, an Esri education ambassador, teaches in the geography department at the University of Dar es Salaam.

Esri is committed to making a long-term difference in GIS education in Africa and, over the past five years, has ramped up its involvement in this endeavor. Esri has sponsored a series of education user conferences (in Eastern Africa), training sessions, and other activities organized by local Esri offices. Additionally, special assistance has come from Esri’s offices in France, Portugal, and Switzerland to support universities in francophone nations, lusophone nations, and Rwanda, respectively. Esri has sponsored a growing group of education ambassadors to travel and conduct teaching and geomentoring missions across the globe. Among them are Jonathan Fleming of the University of North Alabama, who taught in Dar es Salaam in 2013, and Stace Maples from Stanford University, who visited Kenyatta University (KU) in Nairobi in spring 2017. Maples taught several classes and also mentored faculty and the university administration about how to apply and sustain GIS across the entire campus. Feedback from the universities and ambassadors was extremely positive, and so Esri will continue to support these missions in the future.

Among African universities, Kenyatta University has emerged as a star—a lighthouse exemplar—in adopting and promoting GIS. As in many GIS success stories in any field, a GIS champion was involved: Professor Simon Onywere. Onywere had been a GIS and remote-sensing expert for many years, but in 2013 he decided to take his university to the next level. He worked with Esri’s home office and Esri Eastern Africa Limited (in Nairobi) to craft a memorandum of understanding (MOU) whereby both parties would contribute to the success of GIS across the entire KU campus. Under Esri’s 100 Africa Universities program, the MOU included a donation of ArcGIS software to the university. Esri has worked with approximately 70 universities under this program thus far. With software installed in the laboratories, Onywere and Esri personnel trained instructors, students, and administrators on the power of GIS for solving spatial problems in any field of study. Enterprise GIS, including attention to servers and client apps, became available to anyone showing interest in learning on the same platform used by industrial, commercial, and government entities around the world. GIS Day and similar events were run; a GIS club was formed; and, soon, a small army of GIS users and promoters was created.

The first Esri Eastern Africa Education GIS Conference was held in Nairobi in 2013.

KU recently hosted the 2017 Esri Eastern Africa Education GIS Conference. GIS is being taught and used for research by Onywere’s environment science faculty and several others including staff of the recently added tourism and hospitality department and the newly built library. The KU story is a story of hope for GIS at African universities, demonstrating that with personal and collective initiative, anything is possible.

Working with instructors, students, and university/school administrators in Africa has been extremely rewarding and gratifying. We encourage all AAG members to consider lending a helping hand to slowly but surely raising the level of GIS education across the continent. If you’d like to apply to become an Esri Education Ambassador, send a brief CV with teaching experience and a statement of interest to edambassadors [at] esri [dot] com.

By Michael Gould, Global Education Manager, Esri

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