My GIS curriculum review: what to leave in, what to leave out

I have now completed a systematic inventory of my teaching material as part of my GIS curriculum review and renewal process.  It has been a challenging and enlightening exercise, as I forced myself to take a hard look at what I have, as well as what’s missing.   The result is I can now make more confident and informed decisions about my curriculum, particularly what topics I should add, what changes are realistic in terms of time available during each course as well as the limits of my own abilities, and what teaching goals I’m trying to achieve.

In my last post, I mentioned three phases to my curriculum renewal, and I have now completed the first two. The first phase was making an organized list of the topics I already teach, and related “Tools and Skills” and supporting “References”.  I have always emphasized the connection between theory and practice by making explicit connections in my lectures between an abstract concept and how it is applied using specific tools in the software.  However, it was interesting to see that there are some topics that could really use more of this.  That is, I spend a fair amount of time on a particular concept or topic in class but then have not adequately followed through so that students get enough experience trying it out for themselves.  I have noticed these gaps before, but now have a much better idea of where the weak spots are.  On a more positive note, it’s also nice to know which sections are well covered in this regard.

For each lecture topic, I went through all of my textbooks and filled in the “References” section with the key chapters and/or sections (something I’ve been meaning to do for ages).  I started with the books and chapters I had been using for years, but the most beneficial part was taking a fresh look at books that I had let gather dust on a shelf for too long.  Consequently, I have rediscovered some great material I can use to broaden my own understanding as well as add more depth and alternative viewpoints to my lectures.  This list of references is really for my own benefit now, but will likely be edited and turned into a reading list for students.  I had originally planned to add in references to scientific papers that I want to use as examples and case studies. However, that was proving to be quite time-consuming and I have decided to leave that for the last phase, when I will actually revise each topic’s content.

The second phase was to systematically go through the UCGIS GIS&T Body of Knowledge, the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM), ESRI’s list of required skills for technical certification (ArcGIS Desktop Associate and Professional), as well as a large pile of textbooks, in order to identify new material that should be included.  I found this to be both tedious and rewarding.  I started with the Body of Knowledge.  Even though the authors specifically state that they don’t expect any one instructor or even a department’s curriculum to be able to cover all of it, it is still a humbling experience to read through every section and realize how much I’m leaving out.  However, it was also really enlightening, as it made me think about my teaching goals, and why I include or exclude any particular topic.  I became more conscious of the fact that I take a pragmatic approach, recognizing that the majority of my students are not destined to become GIScientists or GIS specialists.  Thus, I can exclude educational objectives such as “formalize the notion of field using mathematical functions and calculus” (from Topic CF4-3 Fields in Space and Time) as well as the entire section on geocomputation, while focusing on ensuring students are able to “explain the concepts of ‘developable surface’ and ‘reference globe’ as ways of projecting the Earth’s surface” (Topic GD5-2 Map projection classes).

Once I had gone through the UCGIS Body of Knowledge, I then went over the GTCM spreadsheet and realized that there were a lot of similarities, so this didn’t take long.  One very useful difference in the competency model is that, since it is indeed about competencies and not an attempt at describing a body of knowledge, there are things listed such as oral and written communication skills, which I wanted to make sure I also included in my own curriculum.

The last step in phase two was to go through the list of skills for ESRI technical certification for both Desktop Associate and Professional.  I came to the same conclusion as with the Body of Knowledge and the GTCM, namely that I will not be able to teach everything, but that I can get a good sense of how many skills I teach now, and what could be added.  It’s interesting to note that some of their skills are quite specific (“design a file geodatabase”) and others are more vague (“determine the appropriate workflow to complete a given geoprocessing task”).  I have not seen the ESRI exams for either certification but, from the list of skills ESRI provides, my sense is that my curriculum covers many of the Associate skills but only some of the Professional skills. I should note that, while my GIS courses use ESRI software and are geared towards providing students with practical and marketable skills, I have no intention of designing my courses around ESRI certification.  I was curious to see how my curriculum compared to ESRI’s requirements though, and I do think it is only pragmatic to recognize that it would be useful for students to acquire as many of them as is practicable within the academic teaching objectives of the curriculum.

So, now it’s on to phase three, where I will revise existing lectures and assignments and add new ones, guided by the results of my curriculum inventory and review.  This is something that will extend over at least the next few months, and will be discussed in future posts.


P.S. yes, the title was inspired by Bob Seger’s Against the Wind – I’ve always liked that line.


2 Replies to “My GIS curriculum review: what to leave in, what to leave out”

  1. I liked your blog. Its very informative. I started teaching GIS recently at the bachelor students of the geomatics department of an University. I would like to have your guidance in teaching GIS and some literature. From where to start. Although we have a course outline but I need your literature.
    Kind regards
    Amir khan

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you like it. I would suggest starting with the UCGIS Body of Knowledge and the Geospatial Technology Competency Model I mention in my post here: There is a new book on teaching GIS coming out in February that should be quite helpful, especially as there really aren’t many resources available like that. There are numerous articles available on various aspects of teaching GIS, for example as it relates to problem-based learning, or service learning, but I don’t have a listing of them all. I hope this is of some help to get you started at least. -Don

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