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A Geographic Information System (GIS) can be used effectively throughout several levels of formal and informal education. Robert Tinker, an educational researcher focused on using technology to teach math and science, advocated using GIS software to link students to global effects and concerns. [1] Practitioners use GIS in academic instruction, educational administration, and in forming education policies. Use occurs at all levels beginning in primary and secondary grades, continuing to university level courses, throughout lifelong learning activities.

GIS in Education

GIS education occurs in both formal and informal learning settings. Students learn to use GIS in after-school programs, at 4-H clubs, as Girl- or Boy Scouts, and elsewhere. In more formal settings GIS is taught in schools, at technical colleges, universities, libraries, museums, arboreta, and other educational institutions.

Teaching with GIS is emphasized at the elementary and secondary level where GIS is increasingly used to teach concepts and skills in earth science, geography, chemistry, biological science, history, and mathematics courses. Currently GIS dominates at the university level, where courses in GIS methods and theory are taught in geography, engineering, business, environmental studies, geology, and other disciplines. Many major universities and community colleges in the United States offer some type of GIS education. Finally, GIS is used as a fundamental research tool in institutes of higher education for geography, demography, geology, and other disciplines.[2]


Students benefit from using GIS in many ways. Using GIS enhances students' ability to think critcally about analyzing data. Using GIS promotes students' ability to use numbers and numeric skills, and to use tools that facilitate processing and transferreing information. Linguistic intelligence is enhanced by using GIS; students develop the ability to read and use visible symbols as well as to interprest information in word form. The picture of the map to the right illustrates how maps can be used to communicate historical as well as location information. Map literacy is enhanced through the practice of transforming situational understanding into visual pictures, and vice versa. Additionally, students develop the ability to communicate with others through multiple modes; written, visual, and verbal.[3]

Educators around the world instruct GIS in two major ways--teaching with GIS[4], and teaching about GIS. [5] Teaching with GIS as an instructional tool helps students think critically, engage in inquiry, and solve problems. This technology enables students to visualize spatial patterns, linkages, and relationships. GIS is used not only in geography courses, but in environmental studies, earth science, history, mathematics, chemistry, biology, language arts,and other subjects.

History of GIS Education

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Humans have drawn maps for thousands of years in an effort to define, explain, and navigate through the world. One of the earliest books teaching geography is the Geographia written by Claudius Ptolemaeus[6], based on the work of Marinus of Tyre and on the gazetteers of ancient Persia and Rome.

Initially, geographic education focused on teaching maps. [7] Later, GIS education was concentrated in the domain of universities. In the 1970's GIS education, along with the development of GIS software, developed at several isolated institutions such as the Computer Graphics Laboratory at Harvard University in the US, and the Experimental Cartography Unit of the Royal College of Art in the UK. At these institutions GIS education was achieved primarily through trial and experimentation as new computer algorithms and programs were developed. Eventually, advanced students and professors learned how to integrate traditional theories about spatial information, computational geometry and computer science into a set of basic concepts useful for the computer processing of spatial information.

By the mid 1980's there was a lack of workforce educated in the use, development, and application of this accelerating technology. This situation resulted in the inception of a US National Science Foundation (NSF) funded Curriculum Development Project that culminated in the development of the NCGIA Core Curriculum in GIS. This project was founded upon the premise that GIS educational opportunities could be encouraged by preparing and distributing materials to assist university instructors in developing introductory courses. While some of the potential instructors had GIS knowledge through experience with specific GIS projects, few had formal education in GIS limiting their ability to teach students about the full spectrum of topics relevant to the development, use, and application of GIS. The Core Curriculum project brought together and formalized a set of foundational topics for teaching and learning the discipline. GIS education became well established in university curricula in North America and northern Europe during the 1990's.

Currently, GIS is common in North American and UK geography departments and in European and Australian surveying departments. GIS has also been added to the curricula of Departments of Forestry, Ecology, Landscape Architecture, Regional Planning, Geology, Environmental Studies and many others [8]

Types of GIS Education

At an elementary level GIS specialists should know the fundamental principles of Cartography. This discipline teaches basic principles that must be understood by anyone creating a map intended to convey information to others.

GIS Education in Universities
In most universities GIS is taught as a skills course, in a manner similar to that in which statistics or computer science is taught to non-majors. Graduate programs in GIS focus on either more technical or more abstract aspects of the discipline. In technical M.Sc. programs similar to those offered by the University of Edinburgh, students study for one intensive year learning how to use and apply the software and completing a detailed project. In other graduate programs, such as the one at the University of California, Santa Barbara, students concentrate on more theoretical aspects of GIS, working with faculty researchers to advance the discipline.

Online Courses in GIS
The online environment offers a solution to meet the demands of GIS training for working professionals. Online courses offer the flexibility busy practitioners desire for completing work at their own pace according to their schedule. There are various online course formats. Most online GIS courses fall into one of three categories; blended learning environments with students using content specific digital resources, a hybrid format where class meets face-to-face for some lessons and online for others, and an entirely online learning environment where students and instructors never meet face-to-face. [9]

GIS Education as Professional Development GIS informs many associated disciplines. [10] Taking professional development courses is an effective method of education for people who wish to become GIS experts, but are not currently employed as GIS users. There is a broad range of educational options available to those who want to supplement a GIS education. These options include:

  • Formal university courses
  • Short presentations and occasional seminars
  • Vendors' courses
  • Conference workshops
  • Professional workshops
  • Self study courses [11]

Delivery of GIS Education

Despite advances in the quantity and quality of textbooks, tutorials, and courses in GIS, learning the technology and applications continues to challenge students and educators. Because the study of GIS combines technological tools, methods and procedures, learners are required to grasp many concepts at once. Teaching GIS requires the instructor to master spatial concepts as well as present science and tools appropriate for the audience. [12]

There have been numerous changes in GIS in education over the past 20 years, however, its model of delivery has remained constant over time. While more spatial data has become available and accessible, and while hardware, software, and computer networks became more powerful and mobile throughout this period, the hardware-software model of GIS use was much the same. This model consisted of loading and running GIS as a desktop software application on a computer operating a Unix, Windows, or Macintosh operating system, and loading and using spatial data from an outside source.

Initially, students and educators obtained spatial data from physical media—magnetic tapes, ZIP drives, CD-ROMs, DVDs, or some other external device. Later, data became increasingly available as downloads from the Internet. However, the result was still the same; data was stored on a hard disk either locally, externally attached to a local computer, or on a local network. The advantages of Internet based GIS for the educators and students are numerous [13]. The chief advantage is that no software is required beyond a standard web browser. For instructors who are faced with school technology and staff challenges of installing software not viewed as standard in the school, browser based applications are a significant benefit. Furthermore, most web-based GIS applications require little time to learn, drastically reducing the time it takes for educators to incorporate them into their curricula. Dynamic content, such as real-time wildfires or earthquakes, can be analyzed online in a way that is more difficult in the desktop environment. A significant advantage of online GIS over desktop GIS, particularly in countries where all data are licensed, is that the data are being viewed online and are therefore accessible without cost or licensing restrictions.

Applications of GIS in Education

In addition to classroom use, GIS can be used in educational administration[14]. Applications include facilities planning activities encompassing room capacities, technology infrastructure, emergency preparedness and campus safety. Other administrative activities include managing alumni networks, recruiting students, and constructing new buildings.
Policy makers use geographic tools to make data-driven decisions at all levels. At both the local and national levels GIS is used to visualize important data related to expenditures, performance, and compliance. Examples of these critical considerations include[15]

  • Student, school, and district performance
  • Teacher-student ratios
  • Limited English proficiency rates
  • Per-pupil spending
  • Free/Reduced lunch recipients
  • Distribution of federal funds
  • Comparisons between states, districts, and schools
  • Relationships between educational data and community attributes

GIS is a valuable component in national and state educational policy, determining where resources and programs can be most effectively implemented and assessed.

Trends in GIS Education

More and more, classrooms are comprised of students with a variety of intellectual and preferred learning styles. Employing GIS in various courses provides students with the opportunity to interact with data in ways that facilitate engagement with the material, as well as overall learning.[16] At more advanced levels, GIS is a tool for display, inquiry, and analysis widely used in undergraudate research projects.[17]


In order to plan an appropriate curriculum, it is necessary to understand how different GIS professions use the application. The diagram on the right displays a GIS application cube. It is beneficial to examine how various practitioners are situated within this cube. Position 1 might represent a GIS technician working in a forestry office, while Position 3 could be the GIS department manager in the same office. Position 2 might be a GIS systems manager.[18]

The combinations of skills and knowledge can be understood by identifying some pedagogic dimensions that should be considered while planning and implementing a GIS curriculum. One dimension contrasts the approach of focus on teaching technical skills in a system operation with the approach that emphasizes teaching basic concepts. A second dimension contrasts the difference between concentrating on GIS theory and one which considers the applications of GIS. A third dimension emphasizes education about the management of GIS as opposed to providing education about the use of GIS. Clearly these dimensions overlap, but recognizing the fundamental pedagogic differences between each is useful during the course planning process.

GIS In Elementary Education

While we generally think of GIS education as being concentrated largely in universities, it is now extending beyond that confine. In the primary or high schools GIS is being used as an enabling technology, as a means for teaching students about their environment and how to solve problems.

GIS In Higher Education

The growth of GIS centers at many universities brings a rise in the number of GIS courses being taught by both geographers and non-geographers. Infusing GIS into other curricula such as biology, business, computer science, environmental science, geography, history, and other disciplines serves to enhance the spatial perspective of a wide range of students.[19]

In spite of its global similarities, there are many regional and disciplinary differences in the ways that GIS are used and implemented. These differences effect how GIS can be taught in relative locations. Disciplinary differences are often reflected in the choice of data model, for example, GIS specialists working with transportation systems require topologically structured data models while ground water specialists depend more upon raster based systems. Other disciplinary differences are more subtle. For example, while cadastral GIS specialists are concerned with the precision of stored data and the efficiency of data structures, GIS specialists working in resource management areas tend to focus more on issues related to the application of GIS rather than on the data itself. [20]

External Links





  1. RF Tinker -Journal of Science Education and Technology, 1992 - Springer
  2. Joseph J. Kerski, Ph.D., 2004. Analyzing the Earth with Geographic Information Systems, National Speleogical Society News
  5. Wright, D.J., Goodchild, M.F. and Proctor, J. 1997: Demystifying the persistent ambiguity of GIS as ‘tool’ versus ‘science.’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers 87, 346–62.
  7. Gregg, Madeleine, and Gaea Leinhardt. 1994. Mapping out geography: An example of epistemology and education. Review of Educational Research 64:311-361.
  9. Savery, John R., 2005. BE VOCAL: Characteristics of Successful Online Instructors. Journal of Interactive Online Learning Volume 4, Number 2, pp. 141- 152
  10. 29 Alternative Paths to a Technical Career – GIS Technology downloaded on 9/2/2010
  12. R Palmer, GIS Co-Owner, AM Palmer, JJ Kerski, A … -,
  13. Thomas R. Baker, Internet-Based GIS Mapping in Support of K-12 Education. The Professional Geographer 57 (2005), no. i1, 44–47.
  16. National Research Council (2006) Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K–12 Curriculum(Washington, DC: National Academies Press).
  17. CUR Quarterly (2007) GIS across the curriculum: special focus on GIS applications, Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly, 27 (3, March 2007).
  18. Kemp, Karen K. 1995. Accessed on 9/7/2010. Teaching and Learning about GIS.Presented at III Simpósio Brasileiro de Geoprocessamento, São Paulo, Brazil, July 1995.
  19. Sinton, Diana Stuart(2009) 'Roles for GIS within Higher Education', Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33: 1, S7 — S16
  20. Sinton, Diana Stuart(2009) 'Roles for GIS within Higher Education', Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33: 1, S7 — S16