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.

Resources:
Ann Johnson provides an excellent summary of the various core curriculum projects here: http://www.esri.com/news/arcuser/0706/curricula.html

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.

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.