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This blog is for spatial analysts be they professionals, student, academician or just curious about spatial technologies. Spatial technologies include Geographic Information Systems, Remote Sensing, Global Positioning Systems, mobile spatial devises, and other spatial related programs (i.e., Google Earth.)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The crooked and forked road of geographic information science education

(image located at shutterstock.com )

Yogi Berra, the baseball player and trickster, stated, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  This appears to be exactly the direction that geographic information science (GIScience) education is taking. (For more 'yogisms', go toBrainyQuotes)

Instead of moving toward the ultimate goal of the creation of an accreditation of GIScience programs, there is still a fragmented, inconsistent and  divergent approach to GIScience education.

Some of the underlying  nagging questions concerning GIScienc programs in my mind are:
-What are students  learning?
-Are  they preparing them to be competitive to enter the job market?
-After completion of the courses, are the students able to perceive comprehensively GIScience, instead of being myopic GIS technicians?

In 2008, I published a paper “A road map for the development of an interdisciplinary GIScience Program at higher education institutions”. In it, I surveyed the existing GIScience programs and proposed a method of creating a ‘road’ to a development of  effective and comprehensive GIScience programs.  While there has been progress since the publication of this article, there is still not a consensus concerning about what makes up an  quality  GIScience program.

What are the reasons behind the persistent nebulous nature of GIScience programs? 

Is it due to the?:
-complex and confusing world of technology which GIScience and spatial technologies are entwined;
-divergent views about what constitutes a GIScience program in higher education;
-competitive job market which appears to be driving programs to be geared toward creating GIS programmers instead of analysts;
-complex nature of GIScience;
-decreasing budgets of universities causing academicians to have less time to think about quality;
-academicians in GIScience being 'stuck in the mud' and narrowly focused on their own research and university program;
-lack of transprency for detailed evaluation of the programs; or
-combination of some of the above and other factors.

GIScience has certainly matured with very active programs across the globe and the academic, a signifiant literature and  ‘brain-power’ to move GIScience education toward moving toward a consensus about a consistency and quality of GIScience programs.  Yet, there is a constant ‘churning in the vortex’ in this area with increasing complexity, but no resolution.  Why?

I will continue to explore this subject in later blog entries and possibility an updated paper on this subject. I would also be interested in the views of others involved in GIScience education.


  1. GIS is a tchnology, not a science. The term "GI science" was invented by academics who were not getting the respect they wanted from other academic geographers. They needed to be able to defend themselves from attack by human geographers who saw technology as evil or by physical geographers who were actually doing real science, so they invented "GI science". It is no more a science than are "political science" (which is really just politics), "mathematical science" (which is really just mathematics), or "domestic science" (housework).

    Now, if you're concerned about GIS programming versus GIS analysis (different scope), or GIS technician versus GIS engineer/professinal (different level), then that's a useful debate.

    1. GIS is a technology, but that doesn't mean there isn't GIS science as well. In hydrology, for example, there is a rich body of literature to develop new methods and algorithms to delineate streams using elevation data. These algorithms are (usually) tested using the scientific method and end up in the software if they pass muster. On the user end, work focuses on how to bes apply these tools as a science.

      However, I do feel the GIScience taught in schools, at least in the natural resources, is really how to use one particular piece of software, with the nuts, bolts, reasoning and assumptions behind the tools taking a backseat. It would be helpful to focus on the methods rather than the software, perhaps by making students try out other software packages and reporting back to the class. Just one idea of many; this is certainly not a simple problem to unravel.

    2. I agree. Simply learning a GIS program does not give a student the ability to use it. Spatial reasoning and methodology should come first. If you understand the methodology then you can tackle any GIS program. It seems as the jobs in GIS are stressing only GIS programming. Without a knowledge of the purpose of GIS and in turn GIScience, what is the purpose of programming. This is creating a modern version of slave labor, not professionals.

  2. The use of science in a discipline's title does give the aura of legitimacy. Would you rename GIScience to GIStudies? I will discuss this issue as a blog entry later.