Feb 102011

When ESRI recently announced their new Technical Certification Program, I was really interested in what they specified as required skills, particularly for their ArcGIS Desktop Associate and ArcGIS Desktop Professional designations, since those are likely to apply most directly to my students.  I was impressed with the number and range of skills, and it seems as though they’re not planning to just hand these out to anyone that comes along.  This got me thinking about which of these skills I already teach, which I should add, and which are beyond what I can do with the usual time and resource limitations.  It also got me thinking about the relationship in my courses between training and education.  This is something I address on the first day of my first introductory GIS course each year.  I explain that my courses emphasize education, but that I do my best to build in practical, marketable skills whenever I can.  My approach is to get students to understand the underlying concepts first, but to use examples from ArcGIS wherever I can to show how that concept has been implemented in the software, how to apply that concept correctly, and what risks there may be if you don’t understand it and plow ahead anyway, fingers crossed and clicking on defaults all the way.

If you look at the skills listed under “Coordinate System (Spatial Reference) Awareness” for the ArcGIS Desktop Associate (under the Skills Measured tab), it lists things like “specify a coordinate system in ArcGIS desktop when creating or editing a feature class” or “implement a transformation for a data frame”.  These are definitely important skills to know.  However, what’s missing are things like “be able to explain why you would choose one coordinate system over another for a particular study area and purpose”.  That to me illustrates the difference between a list of skills and a list of concepts or knowledge sets.  However, conceptual understanding does seem to be emphasized much more in the Desktop Professional list, as they include skills such as “determine suitable projection parameters for a specified set of data given bounding coordinates for a specific geographic area and purpose”.  Even though this is listed as a “skill”, the implication is that you can only master this skill if you understand the theory necessary to successfully complete that task.  I’m not sure how this is actually tested, but it appears as though they have the right idea.  This really doesn’t surprise me – as much as many people want to bash ESRI for various reasons, I know they have incredibly bright people working there, including many who come from academia, and who uphold rigorous standards (of course, I’m not saying they’re perfect either).

This new certification program is an interesting development, and one that will be useful.  It’s may be tempting for us university GIS instructors to want to teach to the Technical Certification requirements in an attempt to stay current and show students that what they’re learning is marketable, but how much this happens (or even should happen) will depend on a lot of factors, such as time, expertise, and personal and pedagogical views on the value of training or even views on ESRI itself.  Personally, when I begin my annual curriculum review in the spring, I will definitely see where I can incorporate some of these skill sets.  I don’t think I can or should attempt to have as a goal that students would be able to pass the certification test at the end of my courses, but I would like to prepare them as much as is practicable while maintaining what I consider to be the academic and pedagogical goals I also want to achieve.