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In a recent essay, I asked “Is Everyone a Geographer?,”given the advent of easy-to-use geotechnologies that have enabled the general public to use many of the same tools and data that were formerly only used by GIS specialists and geographers.  I received some intriguing responses as did a book in which my colleagues and I asked this same question, entitled Practicing Geography.   In the essay I contended that geography is a three-legged stool, with supporting legs representing content knowledge, geographic skills, and the spatial perspective.

The advent of geotechnologies has elevated the importance of geography to a level unprecedented in the history of the discipline, reinvoking inherent tensions between the integrity of the field as a discrete academic discipline, on the one hand, and its generalist appeal on the other hand.  Although this tension within geography is not new—William Morris Davis reacted to it over one hundred years ago—some say that geography has never been more prominent within the everyday human experience than it is today.

Personally, I’m not so sure about that.  We spend so much time indoors these days.  At one time we were all directly depending on the landscape for food, water, and shelter, we were very much attuned to local geography—where to plant, where not to plant, where the safe drinking water was, where we could set animal traps or fishing lures, and other actions that our very lives depended on.  That has changed for many, though certainly not all, of the planet’s inhabitants.  In the past, the ability to use “geographic data” depended on one’s five senses.  I suppose we could have a lively debate on whether geography is more prominent in the human experience now or in the past.  What is clear that the 21st Century certainly has seen society’s valuing geographic tools in everyday life.  This is different in many ways from the previous 100 years, where the ability to use geographic data, in the form of increasingly sophisticated paper maps, and later, databases and software, did require extensive geographic training.  Now, many of these tools are as common as the smartphone or the Internet itself.

The rise of geographic tools such as web GIS, GPS, data collection via smartphone, and easy-to-use GIS software means that we now have the capability of making decisions more rapidly and more wisely than ever before, and most importantly, use the spatial perspective in making those decisions.   Geotechnologies have no curricular “home” in most educational systems at the present time.  Thus, one challenge in education is convincing educational authorities and organizations, and even individual educators and parents, that these geographic tools enhance teaching and learning at all levels.  They are valuable tools with which to learn history, earth and environmental science, biology, geography, mathematics, language arts, and many other subjects, encouraging holistic and critical thinking.   However, they are also valuable to learn for their own sake, as technologies for an ever-expanding array of careers, from medicine to marketing, from engineering to ecology, from business to biology, from public safety to planning.

How can we connect the rise of geographic tools to the need to be using these tools throughout the educational system?

-Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager
As we enter a new year, we on the Esri education team look forward to working with you, the global GIS education community, on supporting the use of spatial thinking and geotechnologies to foster deep learning experiences throughout the world.  A Chinese proverb, “Ji Hua Mei You Bian Hua Kuai” or “Ji hua gan bu shan bian hua” seems appropriate to quote as we move forward as a community.  Ji hua refers to plans, bian hua to changes, and mei you means “not”.  The meaning of the proverb is, therefore, “Plans Can't Keep Up with Changes.”ranch_fence_longspeak_sm-300x199.jpg

Many nuances associated with this proverb seem to me to be particularly meaningful with regards to GIS in education.  First and most obvious is that change is a constant part of our lives.  The world of public and private education at all levels is rapidly changing in terms of priorities, learners’ demographics, and available technologies and methods.  Teaching and learning with GIS is also rapidly transforming as GIS becomes viable on mobile devices and web-based maps, apps, and services continue to open doors through which students can enter for learning opportunities in schools and universities and career opportunities once they graduate from those schools and universities.  The open data movement, citizen science, and cloud-based GIS all expanded many-fold last year and will continue to do so.  The recent upgrade to ArcGIS Online, including the viewing and filtering of tables and the ability to create time-enabled feature services, is a perfect example of the expanding array of tools that can be effectively used to teach in and about a wide variety of subjects, students, and settings.

But I believe there are subtler aspects to this proverb that are appropriate to GIS in education as well.  While things may happen that are out of our control, we still need a plan to keep us focused.  We on the Esri education team will continue to develop courses, curriculum, data, and other resources, conduct and foster professional development opportunities and research on GIS in education, and communicate through a variety of face to face and online methods and a variety of stakeholders about the need for spatial thinking and GIS in education.  We do all of these things in partnership with you, the GIS education community.  Adhering to the proverb also means that we need to prepare for and predict upcoming changes as we create our plan, and so we need to keep close watch on and anticipate changes in technologies and education.  Finally, following the proverb also means that our plan needs to include long-term and short-term  goals, and include step-by-step details to deal with the changes that will surely come.   We need to hold fast to our “big dreams” of spatially literate societies, and yet take concrete steps to help us get there.

What plans do you have for GIS in education over the next year?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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