GIS education is in need of modernization

The road ahead for GIS learners beyond COVID-19

The pandemic has jolted the educational paradigm and there are overdue changes being wrestled with to meet student needs.  Every administrator in every school has had to think about how content deliveries will be made in our isolated states.  I’ve consumed many educational articles, webinars, and panel discussions and see a scramble to offer teaching under plan A, B, and C depending on the severity of the pandemic. People are weighing in with advice on financials, logistics, and content.  But in the majority of these discussions, I find that students are the least consulted group.  Although I’ve been an Esri Business Partner for 23 years, I’ve also been intimately involved in the EdTech community. This inspired me to bring into focus what the new GIS learner wants so we can provide the best GIS education.

A technical industry HR problem

Let’s start with a major pain point that technical companies have.  By and large we can lump GIS into the IT industry with a variety of computing based roles.  Code.org reports that 67% of all new jobs require computing skills yet only 11% of college graduates have a degree in an IT related field.  If you are in a hiring position in any technical field in the US, this is a well known problem.  I have interviewed about 50 GIS managers and every single one of them finds it difficult to hire someone with the mix of IT and Geography skills to help support a map system rather than just making a map.  In various industries, it’s known as the ‘skills gap’.  Graduating seniors possess skills X, but human resources staff are hiring skills Y.  It’s of national interest to decrease this gap and many companies in the EdTech sector are working to address this.

Who teaches the GIS technology?

Not only are there less graduates with technical degrees, but the skills they possess are limited.  In most academic environments it can be tough to learn the latest technical applications.  A primary reason is that technology evolves really quickly so it’s impractical to expect the broad spectrum of professors to keep up.  Google, Apple, and IBM know this and no longer require a degree to hire people in their technical departments because they can’t wait around for the college graduate who ends up needing an immense amount of on-the-job training.  The pandemic has forced families to look to new sources of education and make more decisions about how they will learn beyond the 4 walls of a classroom.

What is the new GIS student looking for?

A survey by College Pulse says 6 in 10 college students say that the credential was one of the most important reasons they are in college.  Yes, having a certifying body say you stuck it out and got your degree is a good thing.  But students want real experiences. This is why everyone’s study abroad semester is rated as their favorite semester in college.  Likewise, students place high value on internships.  Students like peer-2-peer learning.  We have always learned more outside of class than in class. After you get some professor inspiration, you learn and teach others in your peer group projects.  And finally, students like real-time access.  The best tools in the world for learning are Google and YouTube.  Show me the 5min video that teaches me how to replace my car’s dead headlamp rather than giving me a semester in car mechanics like I took in high school.  I would say that most of us have valued these characteristics no matter when you graduated.  But the key difference is that the new GIS student has options outside of a stovepipe GIS education program where they typically accept the institution, tuition, and whatever professor that walks in the door of their classroom.

What are your learning options?

The path through GIS education is non traditional.  If you ask around, you’ll find that not everyone starts out with a computer science or GIS science degree.  I know that an equal number of my colleagues got degrees in other areas and then found their way to some GIS training that got them interested in our field.  This accidental discovery has created an eclectic audience that makes up the GIS community.  So let’s examine  your options to prepare yourself for many good jobs in GIS.

1 The Geography degree

GIS is a multibillion dollar industry which has driven the growth of geography programs all around the country in 4 year universities.  Yes, it’s a marketable field. And yes, degrees show you how to think in an open ended fashion about lots of things.  But it’s possible you got a degree in another discipline and a single class is not enough so you look for more.

2 The GIS Certificate

The GIS certificate is a more focused dive into GIS.  Forget about all non GIS courses so you can get working faster.  At community colleges, you’ll find courses are commonly taught by adjuncts that do have experience in industry which is a good thing.  The curriculums are pretty standard with classes in Intro to GIS, Cartographic Methods, and Spatial Analysis.  They get you in the game but maybe not on top of the game as these provide a foundation rather than higher level marketability. Ten years ago, I authored a 20 chapter class on Applied Cartographic Concepts, but I wouldn’t advise any of my new students to take my class if they wanted to be more marketable.

3 Micro-credentials

The outcome of the pandemic is that more schools will look for ways to partner with industry talent to offer micro-credentials to complement their degree.  This is the best combination.  You’ll ‘Spotify’ your education by making your own playlist of places to learn from.  You might get a web architect certification on AWS to learn cloud.  You might take the specialty certification tests from ESRI on things like AGOL, Python, or Utility Network.  Or you might go to Bootcamp GIS to practice mirrored skills with high level industry practitioners that use GIS in a real project.  There you can buy an individual course or several to build your own online GIS certificate. Then I suggest joining some LinkedIn groups and local GIS groups to network with people.  Together, this is a recipe for success.

Create your own GIS professional certificate

Isn’t that a cool idea to have the power to build your own ‘degree in GIS’.  We know that the new GIS student lives the ‘Spotified’ life every day choosing which music, news, and food they consume with precision.  I foresee many students making their way successfully and free of debt in this same manner if they deviate from the typical college path which is like a vinyl record where you are forced to pay for the entire album and get 2 good songs and 8 so-so songs that you want to skip.  I’m confident that industry needs, financial forces, and EdTech innovations are going to offer some efficient pathways into our industry so that students can walk past the vinyl.

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