NCGIA Core Curriculum in Geographic Information Science
Unit 159 - Curriculum design for GIS
by David J. Unwin, Department of Geography
Birbeck College, University of London, UK
This unit was reviewed by Alan Jenkins, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford,
This unit is part of the NCGIA
Core Curriculum in Geographic Information Science. These materials
may be used for study, research, and education, but please credit the author,
David J. Unwin and the project, NCGIA Core Curriculum in GIScience.
All commercial rights reserved. Copyright 1997 by David J.Unwin
Your comments on these materials are welcome. A link to an evaluation
form is provided at the end of this document.
Unit Topics and learning outcomes
This unit outlines:
What is meant by the term curriculum and how it differs from a syllabus
Various curriculum design methodologies
The problems that GIS can create for curriculum design.
Educational motivations for using the laboratory method in teaching GIS
Problems in establishing GIS laboratories
Intended Learning Outcomes
after completing this module, students should be able to:
define a curriculum as a system of inter-related parts
state why designing a curriculum solely by content is not always best practice
outline some formal approaches to curriculum design
list some of the problems to curriculum design posed by GIS
design a GIS curriculum for you and your students
justify the use of the laboratory class in a GIS curriculum
relate this use to the overall aims and objectives of the curriculum in
which it is embedded
list and evaluate some of the published laboratory resources for teaching
about and with GIS
outline the problems that will emerge in setting up a GIS laboratory and
the necessary resources to overcome them
Unit 159 - Curriculum design for GIS
Defining and delivering an effective curriculum is THE most important professional
responsibility for GIS instructors.
GIS instructors in higher education have shown an almost exemplary concern
for teaching. Concern for education in GIS goes back a long way (see Goodchild,
1985; Poiker, 1985).
In attempting to design a curriculum, an instructor in GIS can turn to:
Concern and care for education in GIS has been a major factor in allowing
the technology to diffuse so rapidly into geography and related sciences
as well as into industry and commerce.
Several published examples of possible syllabuses (Nyerges and Chrisman,
1989; Unwin et al., 1990) The original NCGIA Core Curriculum
in GIS (Kemp and Goodchild, 1992) was one of the most ambitious educational
projects ever undertaken in geography in higher education. Unusually, it
was subject to careful evaluation and assessment through individual case
studies (Coulson and Waters, 1992) and overall user feedback (Kemp, 1992;
Kemp and F.M. Goodchild, 1992). Nobody, least of all its originators, would
claim it to be perfect, but it gave a 'kick start' to many educational
developments. More recently, the methods used in the development of a European
GIS curriculum in GIS and the resulting curriculum content, have been described
by Kemp and Frank (1996).
The Proceedings of a number of international workshops concerned
with GIS education. Almost all of the major conferences include a `stream'
relating to GIS education and training.
The GIS community has produced many general teaching resources.
Examples include a number of, low-cost, systems that run happily on basic
hardware (see Fisher, 1989), some very useful vendor training products,
'general awareness' computer-based tutorial systems, and some carefully
designed packaged 'distance learning' materials making use of standard
GIS (Langford, 1991). There are also a number of useful analogue videos
(Hall & MacLennan, 1990).
However, even with the benefits of these resources
Increasingly, these materials are being made available to anyone who has
access via WWW. A good place to start a search for these materials is:
Many curriculum design issues remain unresolved.
There is no single correct answer. GIS curricula will vary, for example,
Level and student background
There is thus a responsibility to design the GIS curriculum correctly
to suit local circumstances, resources and student needs. Sample curricula
can help, but a more general approach is to develop methodologies for curriculum
design. An analogy we might use is between specific computer programmes
(curricula) and the more general idea of programming languages (the methods
and toolkits used).
2. Curriculum as a system
There is no clear, accepted definition of the word curriculum. The dictionary
definition is a course of study, but this gives little away and
educational theorists invariably give a much wider definition that includes:
Explicit statements of ideology underlying the instruction (why are you
teaching it, and why is the teaching the way it is?
General long-term aims (what are students intended to gain from following
Specific, testable, short-term objectives (what will they be able to do
as a result of following the course?)
Resources to be used (what is needed to deliver the course?)
The delivery methods to be employed (how is it to be taught?)
Timing of the units and their sequencing (when is it to be taught and in
Assessment procedures and the balance of assessments to be made (how, when
and why will it be examined?)
A methodology for evaluating how well the course has been received (how
will the instructor acquire feedback from the students about the course?).
A curriculum is more than a course title and list of topics or even set
of lecture notes. These constitute a syllabus and this is only one
component of a curriculum.
A simple model of the curriculum sees it as an interacting system made
up of aims and objectives, assessment and evaluation (not the same thing),
teaching methods and content (Gold et al., 1990):
The implications of this system view are:
Because changes in any one of these elements will force changes in all
the others, curriculum design is a complex and difficult process, similar
in many ways to the development of a software system. A commercial GIS
is very similar to a curriculum. Both have a high intellectual, conceptual
and technical content, but note how differently they are usually produced.
More often than not in higher education the curriculum is the work of a
single individual or small team following no clear design methodology,
often under extreme pressure of time, and with no process documentation
on the way. A large team following a formal design methodology will produce
a commercial GIS and documentation will form a very important part of the
For completeness, all the elements defined above should be considered and
In theory you could start at any point in the system and begin to design
the curriculum, what matters is that all the elements and their linkages
As an exercise, think through how these approaches might be used in
a practical curriculum design.
3. Curriculum design methodologies
GIS curricula should be designed and there are a number of formal models
of the design process (see Gold et al., 1990; Chance and Jenkins,
1997) that are surprisingly similar to those proposed in software engineering
Some questions to ask are:
Why is the course being taught?
What new knowledge, skills and attitudes do I expect my students to develop?
If so, what experiences do I need to provide for them?
Will all students benefit from the same experiences?
What range of experiences is possible?
What resources are available? What am I comfortable with, and what would
I like to experiment with?
How will I know if the course is progressing as intended?
How will I know if it succeeds?
How can a curriculum design be guided? Gold et al. (1991, Chapter
10) recognise six possible approaches:
3.1) Design through aims and objectives or intended
This is the equivalent of a top down approach to software
development. It starts from a clear statement of broad educational aims,
refines these into a series of explicit and testable objectives, and then
devises teaching strategies, content and assessment methods to meet these
aims and objectives. As with software engineering, so most of the relevant
educational literature tends to favour this approach.
An educational AIM is a broad statement of the overall motivations for
the course such as to develop an understanding of the theory behind
GIS and to develop skills in the application of GIS to problems in environmental
management. In contrast an educational objective is a precise statement
written in such a way that it easily translates into something that can
be assessed in some way such as to understand by a practical example
the basic principles of semiautomatic digitising.
Educationalists recognise a taxonomy of educational objectives.
Bloom's taxonomy (Bloom, 1956) has six major categories from knowledge,
through comprehension, application, analysis and synthesis to evaluation.
The ordering of these categories is intended to be broadly hierarchical,
each measuring a more complex behaviour than its predecessor and also subsuming
The difficulty of specifying aims and objectives (for an extended discussion
see Beard, 1970, pages 44-71) has led many educationalists to argue that
it is better to specify a series of intended learning outcomes (ILO). Examples
are provided at the head of this, and all the other, units in the Core
Curriculum. The key is to specify something that the student should be
able to do after following the course. For example, the aim we used above
might translate into an ILO such as 'after completing this module, you
should be able to use a semiautomatic digitiser to input and structure
basic vector data in the ARC/INFO GIS system'. Notice that this is
very easily converted into a task that students would have to complete
in the laboratory. Without such a laboratory exercise, the same ILO might
be 'after completing this module, you will be able to state how line
data on a map can be captured for input into the ARC/INFO GIS using a semiautomatic
digitiser'. At a higher level in the taxonomy of objectives, students
might have an ILO which asks them to take an evaluative view 'after
completing this module you will be able to list the advantages and disadvantages
of semiautomatic digitising related to raster scanning as input for line
data into the ARC/INFO GIS'.
The advantages of both aims and objectives and ILOs are that they:
Communicates teacher's intentions clearly and unequivocally
Provide an immediate framework for course structure and content
Guide the selection of appropriate teaching and learning resources
Help both evaluation and assessment.
The major problem with this very formal approach in which everything is
written down in advance is that once started, it is hard to change tack,
possibly as a response to student feedback on the course or changing circumstances.
3.2) Design by subject matter
An obvious way to design a curriculum is to write down a set of topics
that will be taught. Many instructors (e.g. the NCGIA Core Curriculum itself)
have started at syllabus and content, specifying WHAT should be taught
and then gone on to consider all the other elements. This is a content
driven approach to curriculum design and this approach is the one that
has necessarily been taken by almost all the published examples in GIS.
This is an approach that software engineers would recognise as bottom
up. There are at least six reasons why this approach should be modified:
Research evidence shows that syllabus content is not what most influences
student learning. It is the precisely extra components that turn a
syllabus of topics into a curriculum, such as attitudes to study, assessment
tasks and so on, that most define what they ultimately remember and use
in later life.
A published syllabus may actually hide the real content. Educationalists
also talk of the importance of an 'hidden' curriculum and various departmental
cultures. These form a hidden agenda of implicit demands, which may run
totally counter to the explicit syllabus. In practice, assessment in the
form of the examination questions set often reveals this hidden curriculum,
which is why the study of past examination papers is such a useful student
Content dates rapidly. What is currently fashionable in research
is often ephemera, to be replaced very rapidly by other materials. This
is particularly likely to be the case in a rapidly expanding field like
Course content always undergoes a series of pedagogic transformations
on the way from teacher to taught which filter and transform it. Thus the
real 'content' of a course can be defined in several ways. Is it what was
originally intended should be taught, what was actually delivered, what
was added to this by teacher/student interaction, what the students actually
wrote down, what they remembered, or what they took from the course into
the world of work?
C = what it was intended to teach.
C1= what actually was taught
C2= what the students actually wrote down
C3= this content after modification by the students additional work
and interaction with others
C4= this content as it was remembered and reproduced
Each transformation will be noisy.
The absence of any clear feedback loops.
Designs which build up in this way can be perfectly rational (the NCGIA
example!) but there is a tendency for designers to lose sight of the overall
course structure when using this approach.
These two approaches are the most common, but Gold et al (1990) recognise
four other possible approaches:
3.3) Design for power
It may well be that GIS course designers are not totally free to design
as they see fit. In many countries the GIS teaching might be part of some
specified national, even international scheme in which others have specified
many aspects of the curriculum 'in power'. An example is where the instruction
is part of a professional development or continuing professional development
scheme such as those operated by some of the professions.
3.4) Design building on teacher motivations
A seemingly radical approach to curriculum design that may be far more
common than instructors like to recognise is a design, which simply builds
on the motivations, experience and interest of those delivering the course.
Purists will argue that this will give an unbalanced view of GIS, but there
are several arguments in its favour. First, the instructor will be knowledgeable
and enthusiastic and hence teach 'better'. Secondly, this enthusiasm may
well be transmitted to students who respond by working harder and with
greater commitment. The final result could well be a better experience
than that of a course given by instructors less at ease with the material
and less enthusiastic. This type of curriculum at BA/BS level often leads
good students directly into Graduate School, but this is likely to be a
some cost in general awareness of the field for those who do not.
3.5) Design for resource availability
Given that there is a large number of GIS education resources such as machine
tutorials, CD-ROM, WWW sites, published pencil and paper exercises, text
books and vendor instruction manuals it is possible to design a curriculum
that builds on these resources. In USA, it is relatively common for introductory
classes to be based very closely around a standard, specified course text.
There is a different tradition in UK, but the logic of this approach is
beginning to be more widely accepted. It has the advantage of providing
a clear 'map' of what is to be covered and in what sequence, allows students
time to work on the materials out of class and thus reduces the number
of steps in what above was called the pedagogic transformations.
3.6) Student centered design for individual needs
Finally, and possibly the most challenging approach of all, student-centred
design that begins by an examination of individual student needs and
attempts to provide course materials to meet them. The problem with this
model is that only seldom do educators 'listen to the learner' and, even
if they did, it is by no means clear that students would have a correct
perception of the field. The student's learning environment is a complex
one that includes far more than just the formal programme of instruction.
It includes interaction with other students, browsing the library, talks
with parents, and so on. It should be apparent that this approach must
recognise that students adopt very different learning styles, so that what
is good for one may be totally inappropriate for another.
The importance of feedback and critical evaluation. These six approaches
to curriculum design are theoretical models. Any one of them is unlikely
to be followed in its entirety, either as a 'top down' or as a 'bottom
up' system. In practice, almost everyone will chose a middle out
strategy that designs by refinement of a central core of materials that
most probably already exist. The important point is that there is a design
and that all the elements of the curriculum system have been thought about.
4. Some dilemmas for GIS curriculum design:
GIS and the curriculum
In common with many new technologies, GIS has a number
of characteristics that make formal curriculum design difficult:
Speed of development.
GIS has evolved very rapidly relative to the speed at which developments
can possibly be incorporated into curriculum structure. This has had a
number of consequences. Until recently, it has meant that there has been
a shortage of faculty/instructors able to teach about it. Normally, in
education there is a reasonable supply of qualified educators willing to
enter into it. These instructors are able to draw on models of curriculum
practice based on their own experiences or have a background in research
and applications that leads to a pretty clear idea of what should make
up a curriculum. None of these conditions is met in GIS education.
Education or training?
GIS is usually introduced as a technology or an industry that is technology
driven, yet it rests on top of many years of work in spatial information
science (SIS). This 'education or training' debate permeates almost
all the curriculum. It clearly must influence the overall aims and objectives,
but it also affects the modes of delivery and the content that is offered.
The dilemma is to choose between education in the concepts of SIS and training
in the use of a specific system. In part this is to do with the levels
of skill needed for a variety of possible future involvements with GIS,
from operative to system designer (see Toppen, 1992 for a typology of GIS
careers). No single curriculum could hope to meet all these requirements.
GIS or xIS?
where x can be S (spatial), L (land), M (Management) or even a redefined
G (geoscience). There are a number of different conceptions of the field
of GIS, depending on the background and prejudices we bring to it. For
better or worse, the use of the word 'geographic' has meant that responsibility
for education in GIS has mostly rested in academic Departments of Geography.
This is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because many of
the antecedents of GIS, such as computer-cartography, remote sensing and
spatial analysis, were firmly located in the same place and have remained
so. It is a weakness because many of the technical underpinnings of GIS
(geometry, data base management) are difficult to teach in the same context.
Again, no one single approach can hope to meets all these needs. From a
curriculum design point of view, it is doubtful if anyone from a purely
geographical background is able adequately to balance the material that
goes into the curriculum or to specify educational aims and objectives
that fully address what a complete education in GIS should provide.
Breadth or depth?
For a full education in GIS, students need the breadth of vision to understand
not only the scientific and societal problems to which it might be applied,
but also the complex managerial, legal and ethical questions that might
arise from this use. At the same time, they must also have the depth of
understanding to be able to play what Douglas once referred to as the 'hardball'
version of GIS (Douglas, 1988). In the hardball version it is necessary
to know about and apply concepts from data base management, computer programming,
and so on, to real world problems with the inevitably 'messy' data. In
his view, teaching students about the use of GIS using a 'filled' raster
system is essentially playing the 'softball' variation, 'played on a smaller
field, with a larger, more easily handled ball ... designed for summer
camps and picnics where everyone can take part'. There is nothing wrong
with softball, provided we do not pretend that it is hardball. and this
is not simply a question of curriculum content. Most of the basic concepts
of GIS are capable of being dealt with either as a shallow concept or in
depth. For example, raster storage, regarded by Douglas as softball, can
equally be approached at a depth, which is distinctly 'hardball' (see for
example, Samet 1989). Balancing breadth against depth may well be the most
important curriculum design problem of all.
Hands on or hands off?
In producing a curriculum for GIS, it is almost certain that students will
need to access as powerful a system as is possible within the usual budgetary
constraints. Although desirable as an end in itself, 'hands on' has some
unfortunate consequences, which are discussed in the next module of this
section on Teaching
and learning GIS in laboratories.
Option or integrator?
A fifth dilemma concerns how we relate GIS to the rest of whatever curriculum
we happen to teach. At least two models are possible:
GIS is a sub-set of some other discipline, to be taught as an elective
within the context of a course in some other 'real' discipline. The difficulties
that this view is creating for academic geography can be seen in the interchange
between Taylor (1990), Openshaw (1991) and Goodchild (1991). The obvious
weakness of this model is that it tends to generate teaching in breadth
rather than in depth and risks marginalising the entire enterprise.
GIS is a cover set integrating materials from parts of several other disciplines
into one distinct science of spatial information that is worthy of study
in its own right.
About GIS or with GIS?
Finally, although a lot of people are teaching and learning about
something called GIS, far fewer seem to be teaching with it, that
is, using GIS better to teach some other discipline (see Thompson, 1992).
5. Conclusion: What does a good
curriculum look like?
Designing a curriculum for GIS is not a simple matter and there is no single
'best' answer either in the form of the curriculum or even the methodology
adopted for its design. A final question we might ask is whether or not
it is possible to determine if the result is any good. One way is by always
including a careful student of the course once it has been given. Evaluation
of this sort is essential and should always be treated seriously, allowing
sufficient time in class for any survey questionnaire to be filled out
and with the results carefully summarised. It is good practice to post
a notice giving the results of the evaluation and providing an instructors
Is it possible to anticipate whether or not the curriculum meets its aims?
One simple test to apply makes use of the set of guiding principles
of good education proposed by the American Association of Higher Education
(Chickering and Gamson, 1987). According to these a good curriculum should:
encourage staff/student contact
encourage co-operation between students
encourage active learning
provide prompt feedback on performance of both teacher and taught
emphasise `time on the task'
respect the diverse talents and ways of learning brought to the course
by the students
display a clarity of aims and objectives
make use of the educational literature.
The golden rule seems to be always to remember that WE ARE NOT JUST
TEACHING GEOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION SYSTEMS BUT WE ARE ALSO TEACHING STUDENTS.
We are very interested in your comments and suggestions for improving this
material. Please follow the link above to the evaluation form if
you would like to contribute in this manner to this evolving project.
To reference this material use the appropriate variation of the following
David J. Unwin, (1997) Curriculum Design for GIS, NCGIA Core Curriculum
in GIScience, http://www.ncgia.ucsb.edu/giscc/units/u159/u159.html,
posted January 08, 1998.
The correct URL for this page is:
Last revised: January 08, 1998.
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