NCGIA Core Curriculum in Geographic Information Science
Unit 160 - Teaching and Learning GIS in Laboratories
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 160 - Teaching and Learning GIS in Laboratories
1. Introduction - the laboratory class
Some form of 'hands on' work is a feature of most GIS curricula.
In the US, such work is often referred to as a laboratory class
whereas in the UK, it will usually be called a practical.
The essential idea behind a laboratory class is that, rather than being
taught, students teach themselves and each other.
GIS is often seen as a technical, practical subject so that aims and objectives
or intended leaning outcomes will specify some form of laboratory work.
In no other area of instruction is it as important to match what is done
with the intended learning outcomes as if it is for laboratory classes.
Laboratory classes are expensive to establish so it is important to 'make
'Tell me, I forget,
Nowadays we tend to think of the laboratory class as a necessary feature
of most higher education, but it has not always been so. The book by David
Boud and others (Boud et al., 1986) makes it very clear that the
laboratory class as we now know it was only introduced into Universities
in UK towards the end of the nineteenth century. The objective was not
to learn practical skills as such but was to help students learn scientific
theory by repeating some of the classic experiments of science. It was
thought that by 'looking over the shoulders of the great scientists' knowledge
and comprehension would be improved, as in the Chinese proverb:
Show me, I remember,
Involve me, I understand'
During the twentieth century additional motivations for laboratory work
have been added:
The acquisition of direct skills. In GIS these might be using a digitiser
or scanner, importing data into a system, georegistering different data
sets, data base searching, executing an analytical strategy and so on.
At an advanced level it might also include learning to program using either
a system macro-language or a standard high level programming language such
Gaining familiarity with equipment and software. In GIS this will involve
learning the specific commands or interface to a system.
Using the laboratory class as a training ground for independent enquiry
by students in which the theory is applied to new situations. In GIS this
will involve using a system to solve a real problem.
Learning to record, evaluate and report results. This will introduce project
Often laboratory work is undertaken in groups, so that the acquisition
of group work skills is an added motivation.
There are several problems in laboratory work in GIS:
An inability to 'see the wood for trees'. In overcoming what can often
be very difficult practical problems we lose sight of the intended learning
The expenditure of a lot of effort for what at times can
be seen to be marginal educational gain. This effort is counted in very
long learning curves, both for teacher and taught, to become familiar with
rapidly evolving and changing systems. Any direct systems knowledge acquired
in class is likely to date very rapidly indeed.
An understandable obsession with the tools used at the expense of the understandings
gained along the way. This has been called the 'Gearfreak syndrome'.
Much laboratory work using GIS can be very automatic (do this, then do
Because the contribution of the individual student is sometimes difficult
to isolate, laboratory work is difficult to assess.
Gold et al. (1970, pages 36-7) argue that the change from objectives
which were to do with understanding theory to those which emphasise skills
and training can be taken too far and that skills and techniques can be
taught without the use of a laboratory possibly at much less cost.
2. Styles of Laboratory Work
There is no one single model of a laboratory class. A variety of types
of class can be recognised (Brown and Atkins, 1988, 99-100):
Demonstrations, designed to illustrate theory taught in lectures
or to display particular skills. These can be given by the instructor,
by teaching assistants, or by the students themselves. In GIS there are
a number of examples of system use from vendors, and from national and
other mapping agencies. A very large number of these demonstrations are
now available on WWW or on CD-ROM.
Controlled Exercises. These are tightly controlled pieces of
work that are wholly devised by the instructor that yield known results.
In GIS, good examples are the series Getting Started in GIS (Langford,
1991) and the UNESCO Workbook materials developed by the IDRISI project.
Structured Enquiries. These are 'lightly structured experiments
which may require students to develop their own procedures and/or provide
their own interpretations of the results' (Brown and Atkins, 1988, page
99). In GIS a structured enquiry might involve providing students with
a data set and an objective but leaving the choice of procedure to them.
This kind of laboratory class can often be produced by 'open ending' some
aspect of the materials. By 'open ending' is meant giving students freedom
to chose either the data set (see Unwin, 1980 for an example in statistical
analysis), objectives or procedures.
Open enquiries. These require students to identify a problem, formulate
it clearly, develop appropriate procedures, interpret results and consider
their implications. In GIS the complexity of any enquiry is likely to be
such that this involves virtually the entire system development process.
The approach is probably best suited to advanced work in groups.
Research projects. A research project is one that is based on a
long experiment, or series of experiments. Project topics might be selected
by the students, instructors, or, possibly most appropriately in a GIS
context, in collaboration with some local industry or authority. For example,
in 1996 students following the Master's course in GIS at Nottingham University
(England) worked for most of the year with representative of a local police
authority to prototype a crime pattern analysis system using and evaluating
different GIS system tools as they went along. The results were of use
to the authority and the students gained a great deal of useful experience
in project planning and management.
As we move from demonstration to project, so there is a change in the amount
of independent work that is expected of the student :
(Based on Brown and Atkins, 1988, Table 5.3, page 99)
||Given part or whole
||Open or part given
||Open or negotiated
There is also a change in the appropriateness of these various types of
laboratory class to standard educational objectives:
Demonstration: Good for knowledge and perhaps comprehension. Moderate
for application and analysis. Poor for synthesis and evaluation.
Exercise: Good for knowledge and comprehension. Moderate for application,
analysis and synthesis. Poor for evaluation.
Structured enquiry: Good for application, analysis. Moderate for
knowledge, comprehension and synthesis. Poor for evaluation.
Open enquiry: Good for application, analysis and synthesis. Moderate
for comprehension and evaluation. Poor for knowledge
Research project: Good for application, analysis synthesis and evaluation.
Moderate for comprehension. Poor for knowledge.
It is clearly sensible to match the laboratory class style to the intended
3. Types of GIS laboratory class
Computer-free classes. If the aims and objectives/ intended learning
outcomes are solely to do with knowledge and comprehension of theory, these
can often be addressed by laboratory exercises that do not involve any
'hands on' computer work at all. examples include:
Simple pencil and paper exercises using artificial data to illustrate concepts
such as co-ordinate rotation and translation, converting a simple line
map into a series of relational tables, map overlay and so on.
Map interpretation and appreciation of the type often seen in 'old fashioned'
texts in geography and cartography.
Desk top GIS design studies
Use of videos about GIS applications
'Field trips' to local GIS installations
These have the advantage of being relatively cheap to set up and highly
focussed on the particularly concepts involved. They can also generate
useful materials for student assessment.
Learning about GIS in a computer environment. Much of (1) can be
automated and/or supplemented by computer based learning (CBL) resources
of one sort or another. Several multi-media GIS instruction systems have
been developed such as the GIST tutor (Raper, 1992) and the GeoCube. Similarly,
the (UK) Geodata Unit at Southampton University has produced a series of
computer resources to provide illustrations of many standard GIS operations.
The World Wide Web now contains numerous other examples of this type of
material. Developing this type of CBL material is both difficult and costly
and materials brought in from outside (or on WWW) may not be entirely suited
to the curriculum, but as WWW develops, so it is inevitable that this type
of resource will be used more and more. It is not easy to evaluate this
type of laboratory class because often no tangible product is obtained
that can be assessed.
Using a GIS to teach GIS theory. There are many resources available to
enable direct use of a GIS in teaching, including several vendor-produced
workbooks (see WWW sites for current details). This is probably the most
common approach in GIS laboratories. It has the advantage of linking theory
to practical use of a system, most probably with 'real' data. The disadvantages
are those of the extra effort involved in learning a system, the cost of
provision of such a system and the costs of preparation of the related
teaching materials. This type of laboratory class is often 'closed' offering
little opportunity for students to do anything except issue the 'right'
commands. Often data capture is ignored, yet in the real world this is
often the most troublesome and expensive part of a GIS project. It may
be that this type of class makes GIS use look too easy!
Learning to do GIS in a project. If the intended learning outcomes involve
student exposure to 'real' GIS use and the acquisition of skills in GIS
use, then the best type of laboratory class is the extended project. In
this, either singly or in groups, students work though the entire GIS project
cycle from problem definition, data selection and acquisition, system establishment,
analysis and reporting. This type of project can be set up with varying
degrees of instructor input. The problem can be specified in advance, students
can be provided with a choice of data, and it is even possible to offer
a choice of proprietary system. A GIS project offers opportunities for
work closely related to the real world and in groups where management skills
become important. Such projects are very demanding of staff time and energy
and should not be undertaken lightly or without some control on student
access to staff. A device that has been used successfully in several classes
is for the instructor to play the role of GIS consultant whose time is
rationed by a notional funding allowance.
Note that the skills needed as a teacher to set up a successful laboratory
class are very different from those involved in lecturing. In addition
questioning, listening and responding
supervising the work of others
teaching demonstrators, and
4. Setting up the laboratory
Setting up the physical laboratory facility to allow any type of GIS laboratory
class will involve some major investment decisions.
There is already a considerable literature on how to set up a GIS laboratory,
including some useful case studies developed by the NCGIA.
It is not easy to generalise, since local circumstances (budget, staff
available) and needs (type and level of course, number of students, intended
learning outcomes) vary enormously.
In the early days GIS laboratories were very expensive to establish. Hardware
and software costs have fallen dramatically, but 'liveware' has become
more expensive and. increasingly, data acquisition costs can be significant.
In an ideal world, the laboratory would exactly match the intended teaching,
but this is only rarely possible:
Laboratories must serve several courses, including possibly courses that
are not about GIS at all.
Most institutions will need to service several levels of GIS course. The
environment needed for an introductory freshman course in GIS is unlikely
to be the same as that needed for graduate school classes and research.
Often, the provision has to be set within an external environment controlled
by faculty or institutional rules relating to the purchase and maintenance
of hardware and the delivery of software. The need for GIS to use very
large volumes or data may well, for example, make use of a college wide
server/client network difficult and lead to clashes between the institution
and the GIS unit.
Proprietary GIS systems offer different licensing arrangements and educational
discounts that may strongly influence the decision as to which to use.
In UK, for example, there is a single agreement that makes ARC/INFO available
to all institutions in higher education at very low cost. In turn, use
of this system might then influence decisions on hardware platforms needed,
data formats and availability, associated instructional materials, and
A checklist of things to think about in setting up a GIS laboratory is:
Space. Is a room of sufficient size available? Remember that in
addition to the computers there is a need for space for digitisers, plotters
and printers, paper and maps, as well as for workspace away from the machinery.
The general environment. This is often neglected, but an important
component of a successful GIS laboratory are the power supplies, tables
and chairs, carpets, display boards, window blinds and so on. Most countries
have a set of sometimes mandatory Health and Safety Regulations that specify
how computers should be set up and run. Like any other laboratory, a GIS
laboratory should be a pleasant place in which to work. Pay attention to
issues of safety and security. How will students gain entry to the laboratory?
When, and under what conditions?
Networking. Whatever the technology to be used it will be necessary
for all the machines to have good network access and this will be in place
for a much longer time period than any specific set of machines. How will
the network be served and how will disk storage be rationed and controlled?
Hardware. Although this is what most people think hardest about,
it can be argued that hardware purchase will be a minor part of the total
costs. Compare, for example, the salary costs of the professors setting
up and running the laboratory class with the cost of a PC or UNIX workstation!
Nowadays, many GIS laboratories will be a mixture of PC and UNIX based
machinery sharing the same network and transferring data between platforms
as necessary. In costing any GIS facility it will be necessary to amortise
the hardware costs. This involves making some guesses as to the effective
lifetime of any equipment. Computers do not wear out in any conventional
sense: they rapidly become obsolete and it is in the industry's interest
to shorten this time as much as possible by new releases of operating systems
and processors. For the kind of machinery needed for GIS, a 'half-life'
of around three years seems appropriate!
How many platforms? How long is a piece of string? There is very
little evidence on how many platforms are needed in a GIUS laboratory and
this to an extent depends on the types of class that are envisaged. For
a supervised class, then it is possible to operate with two or three students
working on each machine (but remember to provide space and chairs!), but
for general project work then the ratio of students to machines can be
somewhat higher. For what it is worth, a 1980 report on university computing
in UK recommended a ratio of one workstation for every ten students but
this has gradually been reduced to a strategic target of one for every
Software. It goes without saying that you will need at least one
GIS system (see above), but do not forget any associated software that
will be necessary both for teaching and research such as RDBMS, Office
tools, WWW browser, image processing and so on. As with the hardware, so
GIS software rapidly becomes out of date and similar comments apply. There
is a (dated) review of GIS from an educational perspective by Fisher (1989).
Liveware. All the evidence is that an efficient GIS laboratory,
even one used solely for teaching, must be managed and supervised by full-time
support staff. Although there is a temptation to do it yourself, it is
NOT sensible for faculty to take on these responsibilities which will clash
with other teaching and research activities. Not only do support staff
have to be in place, they must also be trained and involved in the preparation
of the classes they will be called on to supervise. In the longer term,
some form of career path within the institution or department should be
provided. It is probable that the single most difficult resource issue
in setting up a GIS laboratory will be providing this support.
5. Good Luck!
Nobody said it would be easy! But
If you get them right, good laboratory classes will vastly enhance your
6. Reference Materials
6.1 Print References
Beard, R. M. (1970) Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Harmondsworth:
Bloom, B.S. (ed., 1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives I: Cognitive
Domain, New York: David McKay.
Boud, D., Dunn, J. & E. Hegarty-Hazel (1986) Teaching in Laboratories,
London: SRHE/NFER Nelson.
Brown, G. & M. Atkins (1988) Effective Teaching in Higher Education.
Chance, J. & A. Jenkins (1997) Curriculum Design in Geography.
Cheltenham, England: Geography Discipline Network, Gloucester and Cheltenham
College of Higher Education (see also
Chickering A.W. and E.F. Gamson (1987) Seven Principles for Good Practice
in Undergraduate Education, Racine, WI: Johnson Foundation.
Coulson, M.R.C. & N.M. Waters (1992) Teaching the NCGIA curriculum
in practice: assessment and evaluation. Cartographica, 28(3), 94
Douglas, D (1988) Hardball and softball in geographic information systems,
Operational Geographer, 6, 42-11.
Fisher, P. F. (1989) Geographical information system software for university
education and research. Journal of Geography in Higher Education,
13, 69 - 78
Gold, J.R et alia (1990) Teaching Geography in Higher Education:
a Manual of Good Practice Oxford: Blackwell.
Goodchild, M.F. (1985) Geographical information systems in undergraduate
geography: a contemporary dilemma. Operational Geographer, 8, 34
Goodchild, M.F. (1991) Just the facts, Political Geography Quarterly,
10, 192 - 193.
Hall, G.B. & M.H. MacLennan (1990) Video support in teaching about
geographic information systems: a review of six videotapes. International
Journal of Geographic Information Systems, 4(1), 87 - 95.
Jenkins, A. (1992) Through a model darkly: an educational postscript. Cartographica,
23(3), 103 - 108.
Kemp, K.K. (1992) The NCGIA Core Curriculum evaluation program: a review
and assessment. Cartographica, 28(3), 88 - 93.
Kemp, K.K. and A.U. Frank (1996) Towards a concensus on a European GIS
curriculum: the international postgraduate course on GIS. International
Journal of GIS, 10(4), 477-497.
Kemp, K.K. & Fiona M. Goodchild (1992) Evaluating a major innovation
in Higher Education: the NCGIA Core Curriculum in GIS. Journal of Geography
in Higher Education, 16, 21- 36
Kemp, K.K. & M.F. Goodchild (1992) Developing a curriculum in GIS:
the NCGIA Core Curriculum project. Cartographica, 28(3), 39 - 54.
Langford, M. (1991) Getting Started in GIS. Leicester: Midlands
Regional Research Laboratory, booklet and disks.
Nyerges, T.L. & N.R. Chrisman (1989) A framework for model curricula
development in cartography and geographic information systems. Professional
Geographer, 41, 283 - 293
Openshaw, S. (1991) A view on the GIS crisis in geography, or, using GIS
to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, Environment and Planning,
Series A, 23, 621 - 628.
Poiker, T.K. (1985) Geographic information systems in the geographic curriculum,
Geographer, 8, 38 - 41
Raper, J. (1992) Using computer demonstrators and tutors in GIS teaching:
lessons from the development of Geographical Information Systems Tutor,
28(3), 75 - 87
Samet, H. (1989) The Design and Analysis of Spatial Data Structures.
Reading, Ma.: Addison-Wesley.
Taylor, P.J. (1990) GKS, Political Geography Quarterly, 9, 211 -
Thompson, D (1992) G.I.S. A view from the other (dark?) side: the perspective
of an instructor of introductory geography courses at University level.
28(3), 55 - 64.
Toppen, F.J. (1992) GIS education in the Netherlands: a bit of everything
and everything about a bit? Cartographica, 28(3), 1 - 9.
Unwin, D..J. (1980) Make your practicals open ended. Journal of Geography
in Higher Education, 4(2), 39-42.
6.2 Web References
Unwin, D.J. et alia (1990) A syllabus for teaching geographical
information systems. International Journal of Geographical Information
Systems, 4(4), 457 - 465
Educational resources to do with GIS are rapidly being made available
to anyone who has access via WWW, and the URLs etc. are changing
all the time. Good places to start a search for materials are
For educational issues in geography there is a good site, maintained by
the Geography Discipline Network at http://chelt.ac.uk/gdn.
7. Review and Study Questions
Outline what is meant by the term 'curriculum' and list some possible approaches
to curriculum design.
Most of the published GIS curricula are based on the specification of the
content to be taught. Set down a case against this approach.
Why should designing a curriculum for GIS be particularly difficult?
Design and justify a GIS curriculum for any group of students with which
you are familiar.
Why do GIS courses include laboratory classes?
Outline the problems that will emerge in setting up a GIS laboratory and
the necessary resources to overcome them.
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/u160/u160.html,
posted January 15, 1998.
The correct URL for this page is:
Last revised: January 15, 1998.
to the Core Curriculum