Recognizing the interdependence of research and education and the prominent role that research institutions must play in the community of GIS educators, the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) devoted the second Annual Assembly, held in June at the College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Maine, to the drafting of a set of national priorities aimed at advancing geographic information science education.
UCGIS membership includes 35 major universities, research institutions and related professional societies dedicated to advancing GIScience through improved theory, methods, technology, and data. Its primary mission is to expand and strengthen GIS research and education at all levels.
Forty-five GIS researchers and educators from 30 UCGIS member institutions participated in the education priorities working groups at the Bar Harbor assembly. These discussions were the culmination of a year-long process that began with the formulation of an initial list of priority topics based on input from UCGIS member institutions and the participants of the Second International Symposium on GIS in Higher Education held in Columbia Maryland in September 1996.
Following a period of WWW-based discussion, this initial list was collapsed during a one-day retreat at GIS/LIS '96 to a short list of seven topics which were then expanded into draft white papers. At Bar Harbor, UCGIS delegates discussed these white papers in an opening plenary session and formed working groups to transform them into comprehensive documents representing the positions of the UCGIS membership and to identify specific action items through which progress can be made.
Recognizing that UCGIS member institutions are only a sub-group of the GIS education community, considerable discussion was focussed on how to best use the membership's particular strengths and roles to further GIS education generally. An additional topic, Research-based Graduate Education, was added to recognize the critical and unique role played by the research institutions. As well, care was taken when considering areas in which the UCGIS members are only minor players (such as K-12 education and technical GISystems training) by putting emphasis on how UCGIS can best contribute to advances in these areas.
At the conclusion of the meeting, eight national GIS education priorities were endorsed by the UCGIS council. Although the final education priorities documents are still under development, the following brief excerpts from the draft white papers give some sense of their substance.
UCGIS itself sponsored a "virtual seminar" nationwide during the winter of 1997. In this project, on-line conferencing technology was used to allow seminar-style discussions to occur simultaneously among over 50 students and 15 faculty at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Colorado, the University of Georgia, the University of Washington, Clark University, the Ohio State University, San Diego State University, SUNY-Buffalo, and West Virginia University. While the seminar infrastructure experienced a number of technical problems, students almost unanimously agreed that they would participate in a similar seminar in the future.
UCGIS by virtue of its focus on research in both theoretical and applied GIS and related technologies, is already at the forefront of many of the advances in these new communications media. Therefore, it is vitally important that UCGIS assume an active role in testing and advancing many of these new educational technologies.
Successful establishment, maintenance, and operation of a GIS facility requires a clear recognition of the full range of technological, human, financial, and administrative resources required. These needs range from a clear statement of the facility's purpose, to on-going funding support for software and hardware upgrades, and to recognition during tenure review of the significant time and energy commitments required of faculty supervising such facilities.
As an emerging technology, new careers in GIS have the potential to attract members of society such as women and minority groups who may have been bypassed by other technological innovations. With its emphasis on visual approaches and spatial reasoning, GIS may provide new tools and approaches for teaching students who have difficulty learning through traditional teaching methods. GIS educators and researchers need to strive to ensure access to education for all students, including those with either some form of physical or learning impairment or with backgrounds that may create barriers, including race, age, gender and socio-economic status.
Additionally, all students, disadvantaged or not, need to understand the role and impact of GIS in society. As an increasingly important tool in public and private decision-making and in various programs and policies affecting our daily lives, the questions of whether and how the benefits of technological advancements are distributed throughout society must be asked in the classroom. A ‘GIS ethics’ curriculum should be developed which includes topics such as GIS's true costs and benefits, access and data sharing, privacy, legal issues, and an understanding of the how spatial information is used to support or justify decisions. Environmental justice cases, the identification and protection of land and resource rights, and decision-support systems for multi-party controversies to illustrate the impact of GIS are examples of case studies which might be included in such a curriculum.
Therefore, improving GIScience education requires the specification and assessment of curricula for a wide range of student constituencies. In order to achieve this, it will be necessary to (1) identify the various constituencies who will benefit from education in GIScience, (2) identify specific sets of key concepts and skills required by each constituency, (3) determine appropriate modes of delivery for each constituency, and (4) develop and put in place monitoring and assessment techniques to ensure that these education objectives continue to be effective given the evolving needs of each constituency.
Most universities and colleges and many private technical schools now offer a variety of programs ranging from minors, specializations, undergraduate and graduate degrees, to certificates in GIS. However, access to such programs is somewhat limited, and in many cases inappropriate, for the working professional. These professional students often have different educational needs than the traditional student. They already have degrees, and they usually also have jobs and family responsibilities which make it difficult to attend traditional full-time university programs.
Therefore, to address this situation, UCGIS will specifically encourage initiatives which aim to (1) document the national demands for formal professional GIScience programs, (2) collect models of the different strategies being taken by institutions of higher learning in structuring these programs, (3) determine what needs of professional students are not met by traditional GIScience education and evaluate different methods for meeting these needs, (4) establish a model core curriculum of necessary coursework for the professional student, and (5) identify different types of innovative delivery mechanisms for professional GIScience education, including web-based methods.
Given all of these developments, the development of a pedagogically-oriented GIS software toolbox that will facilitate active spatial learning should be a research objective of the GIScience community. Also, the means for assessing GIS-based learning environments and resources should be developed and tested. Finally, information about the adoption of these tools and techniques should be disseminated to the education community at large.
Therefore, through the month of July, a background paper on this topic will be posted on the WWW. Responses and position statements will be solicited from all individuals at UCGIS member institutions who wish to have their opinions noted. After what is hoped will be a lively web-based discussion period, the UCGIS Board of Directors and the Education Committee will prepare an initial formal statement on Accreditation and Certification which takes into account these various viewpoints and interests of the membership. While this will be made public as an official consortium statement, it seems likely that the consortium will be unable to agree quickly on a single common position and that this will only begin the process of resolving these thorny issues.
Progress on this effort can be followed through the Education Priorities link on the consortium's homepage (http://www.ucgis.org). Following revisions and further on-line review, we hope to have a final UCGIS Education Priorities document posted on the net by the end of the summer. A plan for implementing some of the related action items will follow. Reports on this process will be presented at various conferences including GIS/LIS '97 and the Third International Symposium on GIS in Higher Education (GISHE).
Note: We wish to acknowledge the contributions of a great many of our colleagues, too many to note in this limited space. A full listing of those who contributed to the development and revision of the white papers is provided on the Education Priorities homepage noted in this article.