GIS training vs. education at university

Many undergraduate university students take GIS courses with the expectation that these courses will increase their chances of finding gainful employment upon graduation.  While I believe that the GIS courses I teach can help students develop marketable skills, I think that there are sometimes differing opinions between instructor and student about what students should learn, what will help them in the short vs. long term, and what the right balance should be between education and training.  This was highlighted in a recent article by Fagin and Wikle (2011) entitled “The instructor element of GIS instruction at US colleges and universities”.  The authors do a nice job of summarizing the evolution of GIS instruction and instructors, and then report the results of a survey they conducted of American GIS instructors and “their perceptions concerning the importance of various GIS subject areas” (p. 1).  One passage that really jumped out at me concerns the challenges GIS instructors face:

For instance, one respondent lamented the problems of balancing the intellectual foundations of GIS with the desires of students wanting little more than software training. This sentiment was further reflected by another respondent’s recognition that many students across institutional types are seeking training to better prepare for the workforce, while many faculty are more concerned with research and the theoretical side of GIS. Nonetheless, regardless of the emphasis placed on theoretical considerations, respondents from all institutional types and educational levels signaled the importance of teaching software functionality and other practical applications of GIS.  (p. 10)

In the first class of my introductory GIS course, I explain the difference between education and training (based on definitions I heard Michael Goodchild give at a conference talk many years ago), and tell them I try to do both, but with more emphasis on education.  This is based on my belief that the underlying theoretical concepts as well as the critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills I hope to impart will serve them well, long after they have forgotten which buttons to push to perform a particular function with certain software.  It’s important that students see the value in the education aspect, both to manage their expectations from the start, and also to fuel their motivation once they see that value.  Beyond that, there are many opportunities for further software training once they’re out in the workforce, while it is much more difficult and time-consuming to get more education.

It seems to me that there is no clear separation between education and training, theory and practice, but that it is more of a continuum.  I always emphasize in my courses that students should know why they execute certain steps or choose particular parameters in a dialog box and not just memorize them, and that they should understand (conceptually, at least) what steps the software is going through to perform a particular function.  In other words, when it comes to GIS, I don’t know how you can have one without the other.

So what is the right mix of education and training that will best prepare students for life after graduation?  As I mentioned in a previous post, I sometimes have to remind myself that the majority of my students will not pursue GIS-related careers.  For them, one or two GIS courses is enough, so I try to give them a solid understanding of basic GIS concepts and the software skills they will need to perform simple mapping and analysis.  Beyond that though, I want to help them learn to think spatially, and to be able to critically analyze maps and other geographic information that they will encounter in their lives, both through work and elsewhere.

For those students who take more courses with me and are more likely to pursue GIS-related careers, I continue the process of building a solid theoretical foundation as well as teaching the practical skills they will need in order to be able to learn more on their own.  I think most GIS practitioners would agree that much of what you learn is self-taught while on the job.  When you have a task to complete or a problem to solve, you must have the requisite combination of conceptual understanding, problem-solving skills, and knowledge of the software to be able figure it out and get the job done successfully.  You have to be able to think, learn, analyze, problem-solve and then effectively communicate your results to someone else.  The software training I provide will help them get that first job, but the conceptual and theoretical understanding and the critical thinking and problem-solving skills (the education component) will continue to help them as the software changes and their professional role evolves.



Fagin, Todd D. and Thomas A. Wikle.  2011.  The instructor element of GIS instruction at US colleges and Universities, Transactions in GIS, 15(1): 1-15.


2 Replies to “GIS training vs. education at university”

  1. Great article. I’m a adjunct instructor at a local community college but am a GIS practioner by trade. The balance between the two is something i think a lot about. This is a valuable perspective.

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