Model GIS Curricula

I thought I would follow up yesterday’s post on ESRI technical certification and my GIS curriculum with a discussion of the UCGIS Geographic Information Science and Technology Body of Knowledge project.  I don’t think that ESRI is in any way intending their certification program to be a model curriculum for the entire field of GIS, but it got me thinking about how their requirements fit in with the UCGIS Body of Knowledge (BoK).

First, a little about model GIS curricula.  When I first started teaching GIS full-time back in 2001, I was so happy when I discovered the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) core curriculum in GIScience – first the 1990 version (still faithfully hosted by Brian Klinkenberg at UBC), and then the revised version.  I was in the process of developing my teaching material for several courses, and really wanted to model my own curriculum after something authoritative, and what better than the NCGIA?  Their core curriculum included actual lecture notes and figures (although the figures were sometimes omitted or hard to find).  The list of contributing authors was impressive, and included some big names in the field: Mike Goodchild, Peter Dana, Albert Yeung, Jacek Malczewski, Kenneth Foote, David Unwin, and many others.  I adapted some of this material for my own lectures but quickly realized I would have to refer to a wide variety of other sources in order to make sure I really knew what I was talking about, and had found the best way to explain a particular topic.  Nonetheless, it was a great source for thinking about the organization of topics, as well as a great reference.  Unfortunately, the last update to the core curriculum was August 13, 2000.

I’m not familiar with all the details, but my understanding is the core curriculum project was handed over to the UCGIS who agreed to carry it forward.  The list of the UCGIS editors, contributors, and board members is truly impressive.  They started on it in 1998 and the first version of the Body of Knowledge was published in 2006.  I had been monitoring their progress before it was published, read the “straw man” version, and ordered a copy of the BoK as soon as it was finally published.  I have to say that my initial reaction was one of disappointment.  What was included was great – there was a well thought out list of topics and goals.  What was missing was the actual substantial content I thought would be included, as was done with the NCGIA core curriculum.  I realize that getting as far as they did was a huge feat, and I in no way want to detract from their accomplishment, but I had envisioned something more like the book Geographical Information Systems: Principles and Applications (known as the Big Book of GIS) by Maguire, Goodchild and Rhind, 1991, (which weighed in at over 1000 pages).  However, I certainly still refer to the current BoK and look forward to the planned second edition.

This all brings me to what I wonder is the bigger question: is it even feasible to try and have a core curriculum?  Has the field of GIS become so wide and varied, and does it change so quickly, that any attempt to capture it all in one curriculum is becoming unrealistic?  It took 8 years to publish the first UCGIS Book of Knowledge – how much had changed during that time, and is this a constantly moving target?  Or is there still indeed a “core” set of concepts that define the discipline?  I would love to hear your thoughts, and will likely write more on this topic in the future.

Ann Johnson provides an excellent summary of the various core curriculum projects here:

ESRI technical certification and my GIS curriculum

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.

Learning from my alumni

Last night I had the pleasure of having a drink with a former student of mine, who is now a rising star in a large and prominent market research company.  He’s a great guy, who finished university years ago, but always makes the effort to keep in touch.  I hadn’t seen him in a while, so it was great to catch up.  Once we had finished with the important stuff (family, weddings, etc.), we got down to some serious shop talk.  I love keeping in touch with former students, certainly because they are nice and interesting people, but also because they are the ones that are now out in the workforce, and can keep me up to date with changes and new trends out there in the “real world”.  It’s also great to get their perspective on what they feel are the skills needed for graduating students to get their first job.  For example, last night I heard my former student lament that many of the people they interview have weak Excel skills.  This really surprised me, but got me thinking that, while I have some Excel-related material in a couple of my assignments, perhaps I shouldn’t take it for granted that students either already know it or can pick it up on their own.  This leads to another benefit of keeping up with my GIS alumni: curriculum renewal.  I am always reviewing my curriculum to see if I have the right balance of topics and in the right sequence.  After our talk last night, I am going to think about adding not just more on basic Excel skills, but also Access, and even basic statistics, based on his advice.  Interestingly, he also mentioned how hard it is to find people with strong analytical skills who are also strong communicators.  I do try to emphasize this to my students.

It was great chatting with my former student last night.  Whenever I write reference letters for graduating students, or perhaps talk to them about applying for their first job out of school, I always ask them to keep in touch (and this goes for all my students, not just those that go into a GIS-related profession), as it is really satisfying to see them continue to grow and pursue such a wide variety of careers.  I certainly don’t take credit for their success, as that was all their doing, but I am fortunate to have been able to contribute to their development in some small way.

Tuesdays are for teaching

I try to do all my teaching on Tuesdays.  It took me a while to come to this little strategy, so I thought I would share it in case it is of any use to others.

My courses usually have a lab component and, since our lab holds 32 students, and my courses have several lab sessions per week, it’s helpful to know that I can teach a particular topic early in the week, before students go into the lab.  That way I know they are adequately prepared to start working (my lectures and lab assignments are closely linked).  So why not have classes on Mondays?  I have done that in the past, but found that I like to have a day before my classes to go over them and make any last-minute revisions.  If I did that the preceding Friday, it’s too far ahead for me to keep things fresh in my mind, and I don’t want to do my class prep on the weekend.

In the faculty of Arts and Science, we have two hours of class time per course per week.  In order to get all of that class time finished early in the week, I hold two-hour classes.  There are advantages and disadvantages to having a two-hour class, and I, and I think students, have mixed feelings about them.  Our university has many students who commute long distances to come to class.  Having to do that once a week for a course instead of twice a week is something many students prefer.  Other students though, have told me that trying to absorb a lot of technical information in one two-hour session is a bit much.  I find that the two-hour sessions give me more time to get into a discussion, and that two hours is often sufficent time for a particular topic.  I should mention that I always have a 10 minute break halfway through so students can stretch their legs.  I also do my best not to do all the talking, so that the classes are broken up with discussion.

Since I teach two or three classes per term, I have four hours of class time on Tuesdays, both terms.  This means my Tuesdays are fairly hectic, and I am definitely tired at the end of the day.  However, it also means that I then have the rest of the week, with larger, uninterrupted blocks of time, that I can devote to developing new teaching material, working on other projects, administration, and meeting with students.  To summarize: Mondays are course prep, Tuesdays are in the classroom, and the rest of the week is for everything else.  Everyone has their own preferences, but this approach seems to work best for me and my students.

Making time for service

I recently read a great blog post by ProfHacker called On Being Busy that essentially says we faculty members should try to make time to serve on various committees, and not rely on the old excuse of being “too busy”.  He argues that participating in university governance is really of service to both the university and ourselves.  Coincidentally, shortly after that my dept. chair asked if I would serve on the Arts and Science Council for the remainder of the school year, to fill in for a colleague.  I was happy to oblige, and have just returned from my first meeting. It was short, and not too contentious, but I can tell already that my participation will be quite a learning experience.  There are discussions on budgets, curriculum, new programs, and many other topics that concern a large number of faculty and students (Arts and Science has over 21,000 full-time undergraduate students, over 3,600 graduate students, and 930 faculty), and I find it quite interesting.  I also serve on the teaching stream committee for our university’s faculty association, as well as several departmental committees, and have learned a lot from them as well.  Yes, there are times when I really do feel like I am “too busy” and yes, I continually struggle with balancing the demands of my job with making sure I make time to enjoy the other parts of my life, but I encourage all faculty to consider getting involved in governance.  It’s too easy (as I admit I have done in the past) to focus on more immediate priorities.  Try to make time for some of the bigger picture issues, as well all need to contribute to governance at various levels, and I have a feeling you’ll find it rewarding.

Starting a conversation on GIS and teaching

I have been thinking about starting a blog for a long time and have finally taken the plunge.  Why?  I’m sure like many other bloggers, I have gotten to a point where I feel like I might have something useful to say, and want to reach out to others who have similar interests.  What interests, you may ask?  Mainly, I want this to be a place where I can share my passion for teaching geographic information systems (GIS).  Topics may include how I teach a particular GIS topic, how I use technology in my job, and issues related to higher education in general.  I also plan to add content this site to help those interested in learning about GIS.   I hope you find this interesting and useful, and look forward to many lively conversations!