Some Thoughts on the Future of GIS Education

By Dr. Duane F. Marble, Center for Mapping, Ohio State University

Duane MarbleAs part of Jack Dangermond's opening address at San Diego last year he made a strong statement to the effect that "the future favors GIS" and outlined a number of current technical trends that will, no doubt, be considered rather quaint before we are very far into this new century. He also noted that the GIS of the future will require ". . . good people who know about geography, who know about more than just the mechanics of a computer, who know about GIS applications and how to create them and how to support their users." Where are these people going to come from? From an educational system that for decades has not taught its students about how complex spatial processes impact society in general and their own lives in particular? A system whose students, as adult members of society, are most often unable to recognize how geographic factors enter into the solution of problems that they face? Quite unlikely, unless sweeping global changes are implemented in general education at all levels of the educational system. While some useful attempts are underway (e.g., National Geographic's Geography Alliances and Esri's own K-12 program), these must be substantially strengthened and expanded; postsecondary general education in geography must also focus far more upon questions of process and less upon simple facts.

Aside from the problem of general understanding of geography and the role that it plays in our daily lives, we also see that GIS technology is rapidly becoming more sophisticated (easy to use does not necessarily imply easy to create!). This imposes substantial new challenges for postsecondary education where existing GIS educational programs must undergo massive and rapid changes to transform them into ones that focus upon geographic information science (GIScience) as well as upon existing and future GIS technology. The future developer of GIS technology, as well as those scientists who choose to work in the rapidly developing area of GIScience (which underlies all of GIS technology), must acquire much deeper understandings of areas such as computer science, operations research, geographic theory, and modern approaches to spatial data acquisition. Programs in higher education that encompass these areas will clearly be fully as challenging as today's engineering curricula. Regretfully, institutions of higher education move slowly and are often reluctant to commit resources to new programs, such as GIScience, that cross established interdisciplinary boundaries and do not come with a clear national priority, and hopefully external resources, attached to them.

The necessary shape of the future in GIS education is clear: we must create a general atmosphere where geographic problems are recognized and appreciated and we must also significantly restructure our postsecondary education efforts so as to educate our students at significantly higher levels. The University Consortium for Geographic Information Science ( is currently working to establish postsecondary program definitions in GIScience. However, to accomplish the needed revolutionary changes in GIS education will require the concerted efforts of all those individuals and organizations who use or are concerned with the use of GIS today and with its potential for our future.

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