International Conference on GIS in Education

San Bernardino CA
15-19 July 2000
Hugh Blackmer

My attendance at this conference connected a number of the projects I've been working on in the last two years, centered on spatial information and linking Global and International Studies, collaboration with other members of the Associated Colleges of the South, my plans for Anthropology 230 in Fall 2000, and the process and prospects of introducing and supporting GIS as an analytical tool at W&L. This Conference (billed as a "First International") was extremely valuable for the breadth of material and perspectives in the presentations, for several contacts I made with people pursuing kindred goals, and for glimpses of ArcView powers and coming attractions. I'll summarize what I learned under several headings:

  1. pre-conference workshops (with ArcView Extensions we don't currently have: Image Analysis and ArcIMS)
  2. the general area of data visualization, and the specific problem of fluency with spatial data as an aspect of "information fluency"
  3. the gap between teaching GIS and teaching with GIS and how to bridge it
  4. the place of GIS in small liberal arts colleges
  5. Global and International Studies
  6. the importance of some specific software competencies (Visual Basic, XML, Access, ASP)

1. preconference workshops with ArcView Extensions

Our site license for ArcView includes a number of Extensions which add analytical functionality to the basic package. Several additional Extensions are available at additional cost, and the opportunity to explore two of them in day-long ESRI workshops at modest cost ($60) seemed too good to pass up.
Image Analysis (single license about $1500, after the educational discount; multiple licenses at reduced costs but details unknown) facilitates work with aerial and satellite imagery in the ArcView environment. The product is magnificent --easy to use, powerful, well documented. We need Image Analysis for Environmental Studies uses of GIS, especially because of the power it gives for manipulating satellite imagery. This is a Library software issue, or becomes so once we begin to have access to (and use in teaching) satellite data in electronic form, and it will quickly become necessary to have people who can teach and support the requisite information-handling and analysis skills.

ArcIMS provides a means to serve ArcInfo maps to the Web as interactive documents (as opposed to static images). Several years hence it (or its successors) may be a practical necessity, but at present it has some important limitations (including running only on NT servers) and is very expensive. It was useful to explore its functionality and get a sense of where it would fit in a mature site for the distribution of geographical information.

2. Data Visualization

Many academic disciplines incorporate training in quantitative methods at the undergraduate level, and sophistication in use of common tools like spreadsheets is assumed by many employers. We have not been very active in developing the means to incorporate these tools into teaching, and support for relational database development and other complex software (including GIS) has been catch-as-catch-can, for faculty as well as for students. As far as I'm aware only Tyler Lorig (in a course I've participated in several years running) has put energy into teaching about the general problem of visualization of data, and David Harbor's GIS course is the sole entrée into spatial data. Bob Akins' CAD course is cognate, but restricted to engineering applications.

A number of departments teach data analysis courses for majors, using various software packages, but the idea that broad quantitative fluency should be an integral part of a liberal education is not widely shared. This is problematic in a real world that is awash with data (largely thanks to the Web), and in which it is increasingly necessary to extract and interpret patterns. But how shall we organize to teach these skills, and teach them to students and faculty who need them? The Media Center provides support for instructional technology (particularly for graphical forms of information), and University Computing offers introductory short courses in some applications, but overall vision is lacking in this arena.

Several cases in point of data floods come from pages of recent issues of Science, though the data glut is not confined to the sciences: the NASA-funded Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) at Columbia serves demographic data for the world as a whole, for Mexico, and for the U.S. (; the complexities of the Human Genome Project data are arrayed and interpreted visually (the Gene Expression Omnibus at is one example, and WIT from Argonne National Laboratory at is another); drug design and other facets of biochemistry are increasingly dominated by visual models, and each week brings new links in Science's NetWatch column. A wander through will serve to introduce the riches. And (the GLOBE Program) is another example of the pedagogical use of large-scale datasets.

The point is that we are not doing a good job of incorporating such materials into what our students use and know.

3. Teaching GIS and teaching with GIS

Most of the attendees were teachers of GIS, either at the college level or in K-12 geography environments, and many sessions had to do with certificate programs and accreditation in the context of professional education. I attended several sessions that dealt directly with pedagogical uses of GIS as an ancillary technology for various disciplines, but as far as I could ascertain I was the only person from a small liberal arts college.

I was surprised at how widespread use of and training in GIS is in specific departments (usually Geography, Environmental Studies and/or Geology), and how comparatively well supported in terms of hardware and personnel --but the institutions with such programs were considerably larger than W&L. Most centered their activities on teaching GIS skills for external marketplaces (hence the emphasis on certificate programs), and few offered support for faculty skill development. Several instances of Summer Institutes and other subsidized faculty development opportunities were cited (Cal Poly Pomona has committed itself to becoming a "GIS literate campus" and recently held a Faculty Institute), and in most instances campuses with developed GIS programs have extensive dedicated GIS labs --often in libraries-- to handle walk-in support.

In general, it seems that locally created demonstration projects are the most effective means to raise consciousness about new technologies and approaches to pedagogy. I intend to use GIS as an integral part of Anthropology 230 (Anthropology of East Asia) in the Fall term, and (in my capacity as a reference librarian) I hope to be invited to demonstrate spatial data access in courses in various departments. I also expect to continue to support efforts of faculty members who are attempting to learn the basics of GIS.

4. GIS in small liberal arts colleges

The most important organization for support of GIS in higher education, the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science, has no members among liberal arts colleges (though its mandate "emphasizes the multidisciplinary nature of GIS and the need for balance and cooperation among the disciplines..."). Requirements for membership in UCGIS include a level of development of GIS teaching and support that small colleges can't manage. It is most unlikely that small colleges will establish departments of Geography, and few are likely to hire geographers in other departments. Accordingly, it is necessary for institutions like ourselves to develop the spatial perspective in other disciplinary settings, with appropriate support and incentives.

The yawning gap my LAAP proposal (at was attempting to fill is a real gap: without institutional support it is very difficult to develop GIS skills and introduce spatial components into courses. Creative means to share the costs of development and acquisition and distribution of data are a necessity, and consortial arrangements may be the best bet. I'm not convinced that the energies put into grant proposals are appropriately invested, but it does seem that we at W&L are further along the path toward developing workable solutions to the problem of promulgating GIS in the liberal arts context. John Blackburn and I are attempting to involve Wayne Anderson of ACS in discussions of this problem.

5. Global and International Studies

My various writings on this general subject over the last 15 months have emphasized the importance of involvement with data and the necessity of transdisciplinary approaches to real-world issues and problems. The data are readily available to support teaching about global problems, and it is increasingly obvious that it is important for educated people to know how to learn about issues at transnational scales. But how can faculty in various disciplines be encouraged to engage in interdisciplinary teaching experiments? Some level of institutional commitment is a necessity, and must include access to necessary resources, support, and appropriate incentives. The site license for ArcView is an excellent start; the work John Blackburn and I are doing with the GIS area on the Miley server is another brick in the edifice.

6. Some software competencies

In the past decade I've explored a pretty wide array of software in the context of developing the skills and perspectives of an information specialist. I can't claim great expertise --I've tended to learn enough to do what I needed to, or to talk with people more proficient than I, but the adventure has been continual, and heavily dependent upon the kindness of strangers and connivance with a number of people in University Computing. In the last two years GIS has occupied the central place in my development of software skills. The support of the Dean of the College has been especially important in my explorations.

At the conference I learned that ESRI will be releasing ArcGIS in 2001, an evolution of ArcView which will use Visual Basic as its programming and customization language --so I'm pretty sure that I need to learn Visual Basic. Web development in the direction of integration with relational databases makes it also desirable to learn ASP and XML and Access... and doubtless the list will continue to grow. These explorations are an essential part of what I think of as my responsibilities as a librarian, though they are tangential to the conventional job description.

Some especially useful websites mentioned at the conference: (vast amounts of digital data intended for GIS use) (a good source for basic introduction to core concepts of GIS) (Internet Map Server with several illustrative applications) (Digital Library for Earth System Education) (a source for digital datasets) (new USGS service) (contributed course materials and instructions for teachers) (Southern California Earthquake Data Center) (National Elevation Data Center)