Charting a Course for GIS Education for 2030

Blog Post created by jkerski-esristaff Employee on Jul 8, 2020

What do you want to see in society?  This may seem like a question too deep for an essay in a geospatial technology community platform such as GeoNet, but I submit it is one worthy of consideration.  I submit that in this pivotal and disruptive time, we, the GIS education community, will have a major role to play in helping shape education.  Hence it is appropriate for us to ask, "What are our educational and societal goals?", and therefore, "How should education be structured so achieve these goals?"  

Re-inventing Education to Remain Viable
Most of the people I have interviewed and worked with over the past 25 years in this field state that the ultimate goal in using GIS in education is to foster spatial thinking, critical thinking, and problem solving to empower decision-makers in the workforce to build a more sustainable, economically vibrant, healthier, happier, society with opportunity for all.  Thus, teaching with GIS has never been just about the tools.  The tools, and even the data, are just means to a greater goal.  There's no doubt that education will in many respects look different in 2030 than today, and indeed, I would argue that education should continue re-inventing itself to remain viable.  Even so, I believe that education will continue as a powerful means to achieving a vibrant society.  Furthermore, despite a few 1990s articles saying that GIS would "disappear" in the 21st Century, GIS has not only endured, but prospered, despite changes in Information Technologies and community needs, as a relevant set of tools, data, and methodologies.


The time is Now for Geospatial Thinking

This is undeniably a pivotal time for GIS.  At no time in history have maps, dashboards, and infographics been so depended upon by so many, as over the past year's crises around COVID-19, wildfires, and societal issues.  Many educators believe that spatial thinking is critical not only to geography, environmental science, and city planning, but also to civil engineering, history, language arts, business, health, economics, data science, and other disciplines.  They believe that the infusion of spatial thinking and mapping tools can be done and needs to be done at all levels, from primary school through university level, in after-school clubs and lifelong learning environments.  Educators can use GIS tools, data, and skills to provide a focused, professional, affordable education that (1) reflects and (2) anticipates workforce demands.

Five Forces Important to GIS in Education
What do we want the GIS education landscape to look like in 2030?   How can educational institutions lead the way?  One way is to recognize the forces that have brought us to this pivotal moment in geospatial technology education.  These forces include geoawareness (awareness of Earth issues such as urbanization, energy, health, climate, natural resources, and others) is at an all time high), geoenablement (the general public empowered with web based maps), cloud-based geotechnologies (which improve access and engagement), citizen science, and storytelling with maps.  

I submit that these are the 5 forces that bring us to a pivotal moment in geospatial technology in education and society.  Your list may include different forces, and I welcome your comments below.


Five Trends in GIS Technology
It may also be instructive to recognize five trends that have brought us to this point:  I submit that 3D analytical tools, the blurring of the lines between BIM (Building Information Management), CAD (Computer Aided Drafting and Design), and GIS, real-time data enabled by the Internet of Things, enterprise and web GIS, and automated intelligence and machine learning tools and algorithms (AI-ML) are the five most important trends.  A key component in AI-ML is image recognition using remotely sensed imagery such as from UAVs (drones), Lidar, and even ordinary webcams and in-vehicle dashboard cameras.  Make certain that you teach components of the manifestations of these trends in your programs.  


Five Skills Useful in the GIS Profession
I also believe it is instructive to recognize and nurture the top 5 in-demand skills for graduates versed in geotechnologies:  (1)  Be curious.  Asking good questions is a key part of the process of scientific inquiry.  It also helps students to be tenacious in learning tools and practicing new methods.  (2)  Be able to work with data and be critical of it.  Recognize the benefits of each data set as well as its limitations, and the ethical implications of mapping.  This is the focus of the data book and weekly blog that Jill Clark and I co-author, Spatial Reserves.  (3)  Learn key geographic and geotechnical foundations.  Scale, systems thinking, symbology, classification, geodesy, and map projections--these still matter!   (4)  Be adaptable and flexible, willing to go outside your disciplinary (or regional) comfort zone.  (5)  Develop good communications skills.  Learn how to build a variety of web mapping applications and be able to present orally and visually with them.  Learn how to write peer-reviewed articles.  Despite the rise in geo-awareness that I described above, you will need to give your "elevator speech" to stakeholders, your provost, your deans, your board of directors, your community, and others.  Therefore, have different lengths of this speech (your 30 second, your 1-minute, your 5 minute, your half hour, and so on) at the ready.  Recognizing these forces, trends, and skills can help us to construct the types of programs and courses necessary to teach Modern GIS methods and workflows.


Changes in the Workforce
The tools in GIS are changing, but the workforce is also changing.   Rapid technological innovation, globalization, demographic shifts, climate change and geopolitical transformations are having an unprecedented impact on the work and skills landscape.  On the one hand, technologies bring exciting opportunities, both for businesses in terms of their productivity, and for the workforce in terms of replacing dangerous and repetitive tasks with high-skilled work.  On the other hand, as cognitive abilities and tasks that were once thought to be reserved for humans are increasingly being carried out by machines, there is growing concern about the impact on jobs and the subsequent risks for government, business, and people. The World Employment and Industry Outlook found that automation and digitization look different across different industries, there is a net positive outlook for jobs – amid significant job disruption, the division of labor between humans, machines and algorithms is shifting fast, new tasks at work are driving demand for new skills, and that everyone needs to become lifelong learners.   All of this brings opportunity for educators to build programs that will educate the future workforce.  


Recent reports from the World Economic Forum have recommended building communities of action, including industry-specific task forces, comprised of senior executives, educational and reskilling experts, and representatives from government and trade unions, to identify common challenges and opportunities and align on an action-oriented agenda.  These communities develop guiding insights and recommendations, curating action for systems change. Four essential components were common in the report's examples of successful transitions for workers:  (1) Competitors in the same industry chose to work with each other to create a new pool of talent. (2) Government provided proactive support, (3) A third party with cutting-edge information on skills and jobs provided a coordinating function. (4) Relevant training and skilling services were available locally and online.  


Changes in Education
GIS instruction is rapidly changing, in the larger dynamic of education.  One thing is clear about modern GIS instruction:  There are many pathways, approaches, and tools.  Increased choices admittedly brings some uncertainty in the community.  This lends itself to the perfect time to re-examine goals for our courses, programs, and campuses.  Educational forces that were gathering steam in education have been augmented by the COVID health crisis.  What should be taught face to face versus online?  What is the proper mix in each discipline between teaching theory and practice?  What should the balance be between individual versus group work?  Hence, the tools, the workforce, and education are all changing.  What and how should students learn in geotechnologies in the 2020s?  Who needs to know which components?  My contention is that some students need to know a lot of GIS. All students need to know some GIS.  Are traditional GIS tools and workflows such as overlay, buffer, and geocoding important?  If so, how can these be melded with skills in sharing, using field data collection apps, creating web mapping applications, and integrating models with Python?  Initiatives such as the GeoTech Center have provided peer-reviewed course outlines, and documents such as the Geospatial Technology Competency Model provide frameworks to keep us focused on what matters. 


Selected Instructional Strategies
We are living in times that many of us dreamed about only a few years ago--a time of instant data, powerful tools that are easy to use, and the ability to share our research results in mapped form, just to name a few.  If your GIS is not becoming simultaneously more powerful and easier to use, then you need to ask serious questions of your GIS provider.  Given the plethora of graphics-laden help files, videos, and lessons, some instruction has shifted to helping students "learn how to learn", and emulating the kind of resource gathering, networking, and problem solving that they will use in the workplace.  You have choices on creating your own instructional activities, using someone else's, or a combination of the two.  If you are using your own, get used to curating them often.  But, use that curation as an opportunity for improvement.  Given the above array of tutorials and other resources, modern learning styles, and wizard-driven GIS workflows, I recommend that any lessons you create should avoid including long how-to directions or screen shots. 


Building Campus Support
Don't go it alone.  In your GIS work on campus, hold hands-on workshops (virtually now and later, face to face) that demonstrate the benefits of GIS for faculty and students in business, history, health, economics, and other fields.  My colleagues and I on the Esri education industry team have resources to help you in this endeavor.  I also encourage you to work with your campus facilities staffs.  This could provide internship positions for your students as they work on mapping campus infrastructure and on campus safety initiatives.  Field apps such as Survey123 and Collector could help facilities management (FM) operations.   In turn, embedding GIS in your campus FM could build additional support and stakeholders in your arguments for why GIS is essential on campus.  Consider using ArcGIS Hub and partner with local agencies for student projects.  Don't neglect the coding side of modern web GIS:  Use Arcade, the lessons on the ArcGIS Developers site, and Jupyter Notebooks to teach these skills.  I also encourage you to work closely with your data librarians--make them your allies, and even consider building a geospatial center in your library as some campuses have done.  Consider enrolling in the Esri community maps program and build maps of your campus, such as what Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has done.  You'll have a real client--the ArcGIS Online worldwide community, and a product the students can look back on and be proud of. 


Stick With It
2030 is not that far away--let's get busy! I encourage you to stick with this endeavor of instruction with GIS and about GIS.  Teaching with any inquiry-driven rapidly changing tool such as GIS is challenging.  But, it is infinitely worthwhile for the sake of our students and the planet.  This decade will be exciting for geotechnologies, and you have a key role in achieving the aforementioned goals in education and society.  For a deeper look into the points I raise here, see my story map on this subject, and the recorded video of a selection of this content. I welcome your comments below.