Searching for the perfect GIS textbook

If you’re reading this, chances are you are a fellow geonerd, and may have a shelf of GIS books that you have collected over the years (or maybe that’s just me).  One of the great perks of my job is that, from time to time, I get free GIS textbooks sent to me from publishers for my consideration.  I LOVE getting new textbooks, and immediately start flipping through them and thinking about what topics are included, how they are organized, the writing style, the quality of the figures, what’s been left out, etc.  I have a clear conscience about receiving these books because every spring, after my courses are over for the year, I review my GIS curriculum and take a fresh look at what textbooks I’m using and what else I should consider.  I have used six different textbooks in ten years of teaching, so I am certainly willing to give different titles a try, even though switching is a lot of work, as all my reading lists and references to the text in my lecture notes have to be updated.

As much as I love GIS textbooks, I have never found one that met all of my needs for a course.  I know this is a common complaint from instructors.  I think the reason it’s common is not rooted in arrogance (“no one can possibly capture all of my brilliant teaching material in one book”).  My suspicion is that it is because teaching is so personal.  In order to be able to teach something well, you have to really make it your own.  Inevitably, that means that you will develop ideas about what works, what doesn’t, when to introduce certain ideas, and so on.  It’s just really unlikely that some author out there just happens to think the way you do and has turned that into the perfect textbook.

My main complaint with most GIS textbooks is that they are organized according to the old familiar project-oriented approach: a bit on basic map concepts first, followed by data input, management, analysis, and output.  This is a great way to organize content for a reference book, but I have never been convinced that this is a useful way to organize material for the most effective learning.  When I teach, I tend to refer to several sections of a textbook in one lecture, often across several chapters.  This is because I prefer to introduce concepts within the context of a problem-solving example, or to at least link concepts that I think have a natural connection.  When I first started teaching, I made the mistake of thinking that I had to stick to the sequence of topics in the textbook to make it easier for my students to follow.  While this might be true, I found it was quite limiting and, consequently, a bit boring for me and the students.

Every once in a while a student or textbook sales rep. will ask if I have considered writing my own textbook.  While it’s flattering to be asked that, I always say no.  The short version of my explanation is that I think the traditional textbook model is problematic at best, particularly in a rapidly changing technology-oriented field like GIS.  The longer version is something I plan to address in a future post.





7 responses to “Searching for the perfect GIS textbook”

  1. Chris McGinty Avatar
    Chris McGinty

    Don, I too have struggled finding the “right” text. I’ve used everything from Bolstad to DeMers to Longley to Chang… you get the idea. I would be very interested in hearing your methodology and approach to teaching your GIS courses (especially intro courses), should you find the time to write about it! Best of luck in the search, if I come across anything I’ll send it your way! – Chris McGinty, USU

    1. Don Avatar

      It sounds like we’ve been going through the same process. Thanks for the suggestion for a blog post (likely more than one!) – I will definitely write about that soon, and would love to compare notes. I find that I am constantly reevaluating what should go in which course (intro, intermediate, advanced, capstone project course) and am never convinced I have it right!

  2. Marcel Fortin Avatar

    Hi Don,
    Really interesting post. While I only teach GIS workshops in the library, I see a parallel in some ways to what we encounter in GIS instruction in the library. There is no one workshop that you can borrow from someone or get out of a workbook that works for everybody because we are individuals with individual teaching styles. Of course the needs of our students also vary tremendously from one faculty/department to another so that there is no one-size fits all from that perspective either.

    Do you think the perfect textbook then is made up of several already published textbooks? Of course the practicalities of that are obvious, but theoretically it could work I think, especially as more and more texts become available digitally in libraries.

    Marcel Fortin
    GIS and Map Librarian
    University of Toronto

    1. Don Avatar

      Thanks for the comments Marcel. I don’t think the perfect textbook exists. One option, as you suggest, is to try to cobble together sections from a collection of books. I have attempted this in the past, as there is some wonderful material found in a lot of GIS books, but I ran into obstacles with copyright and/or publisher limitations (this was going to be for a printed course reader). I may revisit this idea, but more likely will move towards online content that is freely available. I plan to write more about this in an upcoming blog post. -Don

      1. Chris McGinty Avatar
        Chris McGinty

        Don, I wanted to mention that I did the same thing in combining chapters and information from multiple sources for my intro to GISci class last fall semester. It was not a great experience for me or the students. We generally had good material, but there was inconsistency and a disconnect that was obvious – and the students could see it. There were also copyright issues and other limitations as you mentioned. I think I did stray into a few gray areas from time to time – and I didn’t like that at all.

        I think a book (or a compilation of material), possibly in the image of what you are talking about here, could work very well. The caveat being that the editor would need to be very adapt at blending ideas and topics between concepts so that the students can see the relationship and importance of one topic on another. I think the flow would be very critical.

        I know some open compilations of GIS material exist, but what I’ve seen online seems somewhat unorganized and not terribly well adapted to teaching. A great online resource, yes, but difficult for students to follow. Thinking out loud, so to speak, here – I wonder if a semi-open attempt at building an evolving GIS “text” would work? Rather than a straight wiki-type compilation, possibly a well edited system? The issues I see are, of course, time, money, and desire and passion to build and manage such an endeavor.

        -Chris McGinty

        1. Don Avatar

          Thanks for the comments, Chris! Interesting that you tried the compilation approach and weren’t that happy with it. It may not have been clear from my previous comment, but I abandoned my attempt at a compilation before that semester started, and reverted to a single textbook. I think your comment about editing a compilation is absolutely true – it would take a lot of effort and skill to blend ideas well. Even so, I think it, like any textbook model, probably wouldn’t suit everyone, which is the problem with any one-size-fits-all approach.

          I think we both have the same idea of moving towards some form of curated online resource. I agree that a straight wiki-type compilation isn’t that appealing, and that it would have to be semi-open, edited, and otherwise moderated (at least as far as my own purposes and goals are concerned). My long-term plan is to gradually put online my own lecture material with a creative commons license. My initial instinct is to limit it to my own stuff, just so I can maintain control, and to limit the time required, as you mentioned, but I don’t have any philosophical disagreement with something bigger. Of course, online content has its own problems, but I think something modular and well-organized might be useful to more people.

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