Teaching Modern GIS
As educators, we are always faced with challenges on how we structure our curriculum activities to ensure that we are in line with modern industry practices. This is easier said than done—for one, there is likely no consensus on what a “modern geographic information system (GIS)” means; and two, it takes a tremendous amount of time to do curricula updates. As an instructor of a variety of courses on Web GIS, programming, and spatial analytics at Johns Hopkins University, I am relentlessly faced with course updates. However, my being a Solutions Engineer at Esri as well provides me with a unique perspective into the technology and helps me stay focused on what is important in the geospatial industry.
What will the next generation GIS curriculum look like? We may call it Web GIS or something else, but we will have to address the need for this forward-looking curriculum and embrace it as educators. GIS graduates are telling us this, as seen in this Esri Young Professionals Network (YPN) survey.
Below is an attempt to outline a few important topics amid the massive digital transformation we have experienced. For now, these topics are meant to serve as points of discussion—a means for self-assessment and reflection—to make us think about what we teach today and what tomorrow will bring. Yes, it is a bit IT heavy, but in today’s GIS environment, IT is much needed. These topics come from feedback we received from students and graduates, who pointed out that we may not be placing a strong enough emphasis on the software and application development competency of the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM).
- GIS Today—GIS is not just a desktop technology anymore. We need to think about the trends that have influenced GIS evolution, such as cloud computing, mobile devices, big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), and machine learning. An important point to discuss here is the use of the technology to solve problems as well as facilitate access to information—anywhere, anytime, on any device.
- GIS as a Service—The industry is shifting rapidly from specific software implementations to services in which the underlying technology is less visible–and probably less important—to the user of this technology. While the enterprise deployments providing some of these services will be important to understand, we probably need not focus on that in these early stages. Information products are fueled by services—ready-to-use services or those we can create—and there are different protocols and capabilities we can expose through these services, which would be important concepts to discuss. Understanding the notion of hosting, whether through the cloud or on-premises infrastructure, and demonstrating how GIS is web-oriented architecture (without necessarily calling it that) are key.
- GIS in Your Apps—People use simple, focused apps to access information at home, and this same trend is now in the workplace. The industry is moving away from long development cycles to the use of apps that are easily configured, which allows organizations to stay current with technology. How people experience GIS through apps that are ready to use, configurable, native, web based, etc., also emphasizes the notion that information can be made available in many possible ways to those who need it. These apps are fueled by underlying maps, layers, and services provided by server technology, to which access is facilitated through a portal. Access, of course, could be dictated by identity and credentials.
- GIS in Your IT—This also falls under the “software and application development” competency of the GTCM, specifically, to design a geospatial system architecture that responds to user needs, including desktop, server, and mobile applications. Understanding what it means to architect and manage a GIS, using an organization’s infrastructure, whether in the cloud or on-premises, is a must. The focus is on the management of the networks, portals, map servers, web servers, databases, and data stores and on the understanding of how these components work together. Graduates entering today’s workforce will be needing these skills.
- GIS in the Field—Organizations are employing field GIS workflows, whether through crowdsourcing, citizen science, secure data collection, or maintenance. Content can be delivered in many ways in the field, such as via a public-facing, highly available app or by supporting an internal-facing, intermittently connected, field collection app. Teaching a variety of approaches is important.
- More Types of Services—Other services provide additional capabilities—whether through client- and server-rendered services or by simply enabling users to access specific functionality, such as real-time GIS capabilities, to solve a problem.
- GIS as Geospatial Data Science—Careers that include data science are expanding. Geospatial technology curricula ought to better mesh with data science/analytics curricula, infusing traditional geospatial technology topics with data science methods. This should include big data analytics platforms/databases, machine learning, Python and R data scientific libraries, business intelligence (BI) technologies, NoSQL databases, and mapping APIs. A program might promote these as data analytics, data engineering, machine learning, artificial intelligence, or in other ways.
- And, of course, one should not neglect traditional topics, such as mapping and visualization, spatial analytics, and data management, being infused with the above.
Now how do we learn and how do we teach GIS? GIS is a changing field, and change is accelerating. Transformation is occurring not just in the curriculum but also in how we learn, the resources we use to teach, and pedagogic approaches. The way one learns GIS in class should probably equate with how one learns it in the workplace. We ought to be considering a shift in the traditional resources we’ve used so far in our classrooms; a single book that covers a whole class may not be enough anymore. Also, a book that was written six months ago may likely be outdated.
Modernized Curriculum → Shift in Resources Used and Pedagogy
Classes need to be agile, which means that writing and following cookbook exercises are not sustainable ways to teach rapidly changing technology. The Internet and the wealth of information available provide ways for users to find answers fast. Relying on recently updated online documentation, blogs, and other freely available web-based resources and channels is key.
An important concern persists, though—how do we know what information is good to include (i.e., truly current and worthy material)? There is a lot of information to weed out. “Less is more” is a generally appropriate approach; when in doubt, leave it out. A less desirable approach is a disclaimer of “keep in mind that . . . ” or “use at your own discretion.” In the workplace, students will also come across a staggering amount of information, so it is important to learn how to discern what is quality content (with guidance, if need be) and applicable to solving a problem.
At Johns Hopkins, we follow some of the above approaches to keep content current and foster a culture of collaboration and peer-to-peer interaction among students, which, in turn, encourages community building; this is particularly important for fully online courses. As an instructor, standing back, observing, and providing guidance before things go off track, and challenging students to take more responsibility for their learning when solving a problem, has worked well.
There certainly are many other approaches to handling some of the challenges in teaching modern GIS. The AAG Annual Meeting and the Education Summit @ Esri User Conference (Esri UC) sessions on “Modern GIS Practices in Your Curriculum,” along with various other online tools such as GeoNet or Esri’s HIGHERED-L LISTSERV, could be great venues for continuing this discussion.