Educational Policy and GIS:
Accreditation and Certification

prepared by Nancy J. Obermeyer, Indiana State University
and Harlan J. Onsrud, University of Maine

June 1997

1. Introduction

1.1 Education in the area of geographic information systems is a complicated proposition. Not only are geographic information systems used in a vast array of applications but knowledge about the technology is available from a broad assortment of educators that includes universities, community colleges and GIS vendors. Similarly geographic information science topics are addressed throughout a broad range of academic programs. With the rapid proliferation of geographic information systems in the late nineties, the education of GIS practitioners is not a trivial matter.

1.2 This paper represents an effort to stimulate debate on educational policy for GIS. The paper begins by describing the objectives of UCGIS in taking a position on educational policy in the field and then provides some background on this issue. Next the paper describes the benefits and drawbacks of taking a variety of educational policy positions. The paper discusses conditions under which it might be appropriate to set standards of excellence for certification of GIS professionals and provide a means to formally recognize those individuals that voluntarily aspire to and reach these standards. Whether a program of certification of GIS practitioners should be developed is controversial. Similarly the value of developing a new accreditation program for geographic information science or engineering programs is debatable. Establishing a program of mandatory professional licensure based on minimum competency standards is less controversial. A large majority of the UCGIS membership appears to be opposed to striving for mandatory professional licensure for GIS practitioners. The benefits and drawbacks of certification, accreditation, and licensing are presented. The paper concludes by suggesting priority areas for research and action in establishing an educational policy for GIS.

2. Objective

2.1 The objective of the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science in establishing a position on educational policy and GIS is to develop a framework for GIS education that will guide GIS educators and those who hire GIS practitioners. In so doing, UCGIS hopes to establish a means to ensure that there will be an adequate pool of qualified GIS practitioners to meet current and future needs, and to provide guidance to organizations that need to hire competent GIS practitioners. These objectives are consistent with the overall mission of the UCGIS to improve and enhance instruction in GIS, and to promote responsible use of the technology generally.

2.2 The need for an educational policy in GIS has never been greater. The declining costs of computer hardware, software and peripherals, combined with the increasing ease of use of the technology and its increasing power has resulted in a rapid increase in the number and variety of GIS users. The increased implementation of GIS includes the development and sale of increasingly specialized GIS, which affects the nature of GIS educational needs. As well, the growth of the community college system within the U.S., along with the growing use of various "distance-learning" technologies, points to a rapidly changing post-secondary education system in the U.S. as we near the new millennium.

2.3 Meanwhile, the movement within the GIS community to make the technology more accessible to a mass market as a tool for achieving a variety of personal, business and organizational objectives, acknowledges the increasing diversity of GIS users. Any educational policy must incorporate these trends. Therefore, educational policy addressing the needs of GIS practitioners will need to be broad-based, flexible, and inclusive if it is to achieve the underlying goal of ensuring that the GIS practitioners of today and tomorrow will be qualified to carry out their responsibilities.

3. Background

3.1 Five years ago, one of the hot debates within the GIS community was the need to ensure the qualifications of GIS practitioners. The proposals for remedying this need included mandatory licensure, development of a voluntary certification process, accreditation of GIS programs, and development of a code of ethics. While each proposed strategy has its costs and benefits, none of them motivated members of the GIS community to act in a concerted way on what seemed at the time to be a growing need. Now, in 1997, the University Consortium on Geographic Information Science, with its diverse members and clientele, may be an organization with the broad-based support to develop and articulate an informed educational policy and implement actions in support of that policy.

3.2 The need to develop an educational policy for GIS as one means to ensure the qualifications of GIS professionals is hardly trivial since the technology is used in a wide -- and growing -- number and variety of applications. Over the years, GIS itself has metamorphosed dramatically from its early days as a primarily custom-built technology available only to the wealthiest and most cutting-edge users, a relatively small group. Broad-based but still rather costly general purpose GIS followed, many of them still somewhat difficult for the average person to use. Increasingly, however, GIS vendors are carving themselves a slice of the GIS market by developing specialized-use GIS whose key selling points are their relatively low cost and their increased ease of use for specific purposes (which may come at the expense of both breadth and flexibility in terms of applicability of the program). Demand continues to increase for individuals who can further advance the tools and techniques of geographic information science as well as apply them to a wide range of social problem solving.

3.3 Success in applying GIS to a specific use often depends on knowledge of the technology, knowledge of geography and spatial analysis, and knowledge of the application area within which the tools and techniques of geographic information science are being used. Success in adapting the technology over time to meet changing needs or circumstances requires exposure to an even broader range of knowledge.

3.4 Because universities, community colleges, private firms and vendors all provide education in GIS, they may be viewed as competitors in providing GIS education. And, in light of the financial gain to be made in exploiting the market for GIS education, there is some validity to this view. On the other hand, their roles may be viewed as complementary. In reality, all educational providers benefit from participating in carrying out an educational policy that results in a technologically proficient, substantively knowledgeable, and ethical group of GIS practitioners. The ability to develop these characteristics among GIS practitioners will only strengthen the already growing demand for such professionals.

3.5 In addition to acknowledging the different GIS education providers, it is critical to recognize that organizations implementing GIS will have specific requirements and limitations that will place corresponding requirements and limits on the educational choices they make for their own GIS team. For example, some organizations implementing GIS may best benefit by hiring a graduate of a university GIS program with perhaps a double-major in a geographic information science and a specific application area of value to the organization's mission. Other organizations implementing GIS may best benefit their operation by educating existing staff-members through distance education techniques or perhaps in a more piece-meal fashion such as through occasional short courses backed up by software documentation and calls to the vendor's technical support staff. Many alternative education options exist. Evolving GIS education policy must acknowledge the full range of GIS experiences, and facilitate productive and cooperative interaction among the relevant actors.

4. Benefits and Drawbacks

4.1 The potential benefits and drawbacks of certification of individuals, accreditation of GI science or engineering programs, and professional registration are addressed in the following paragraphs.

Certification of GI Practitioners

4.2 Certification is typically a process in which a candidate meets a specified set of criteria defined by a certification board. Certification may be vary narrow, such as certification that an individual has accomplished a specific training course, or can be very broad and at a very high level. Certification in some instances requires knowledge typically acquired at the Ph.D. level and through long experience in a discipline. Certification of individuals in a field is typically instituted by professional organizations. For instance, ASPRS certifies photogrammetrists at various levels and ACSM certifies technicians at various levels and in various categories. (Note: Although ASPRS certifies photogrammetrists it has not perceived a sufficient need to certify remote sensing specialists.) Certification, similar to an academic degree, is something that individuals voluntarily pursue. Neither certification nor an academic degree in a specific field is typically a requirement of the law for an individual to be employed in a specific discipline, nor in most instances should it be.

4.3 Certification is typically of greatest benefit to those individuals without an academic degree in the discipline or knowledge domain in which they are working or desire to work. Certification is an indication to employers that the applicant or employee has attained a level of education or training in an area that those without the certification or an academic degree in the field probably don't have. Certification also helps identify those skills and knowledge domains that are most valued by employers in the discipline if one is to be considered competent in the specialization that the certification addresses.

4.4 The demand for instituting certification of geographic information specialists must come from those working in the discipline or those desiring to work in the discipline who would like a certification route to acquiring competence in the discipline. Or the demand might come from employers who believe that existing education programs aren't meeting the education needs of their employees or their businesses.

4.5 UCGIS members, which consist primarily of universities, do not appear to have a strong enough vested interest in certification to initiate or manage such a program. The research and university academic community has as its primary interest and mission the improvement of its own in-depth and comprehensive programs so that an academic degree speaks for itself. If the goal of certification is primarily continuing or supplemental education, many in the academic community believe that improvements in distance education techniques will better meet these continuing education needs than establishing certification programs. If there was a clamoring by novices or employers within the discipline to institute certification of GI practitioners, UCGIS or individual professors at UCGIS institutions would be willing to advise and support such an initiative by one or more professional organizations but UCGIS would be inappropriate as the lead institution in instituting a certification program. Thus, an initiative on certification of GI practitioners is deemed a very low priority at this time.

Accreditation of Geographic Information Science and Engineering Programs

4.6 Geography academic programs are classified as liberal arts programs in the U.S. and as such do not go through a program accreditation process. Science and engineering academic programs do typically go through such a process. Programs in which geographic information science and engineering courses are taught that experience accreditation include surveying engineering and similarly named engineering programs (e.g. Spatial Information Science and Engineering), other engineering programs (e.g. Civil Engineering), planning and architecture programs, computer science programs, and various natural science programs (e.g. Forestry, Biology, etc.).

4.7 Accreditation standards for academic programs are often established through a joint effort of academics who wish to bring distinction to the level of the program they are offering and representatives from professional organizations that would like to increase the caliber or consistency of knowledge that can be expected of graduates of accredited programs. Accreditation criteria are established primarily for undergraduate science and engineering programs and far less frequently for graduate programs.

4.8 At the current time accreditation criteria are being established for undergraduate degree programs in "Information Systems." Numerous undergraduate degree programs already exist in this area and a demand has arisen to achieve some consistency among the evolving programs.

4.9 At the current time, we know of few or no academic degree programs in "Geographic Information Science" or "Geographic Information Science and Engineering" in the U.S. Those that arguably do exist are already covered by accreditation criteria in a closely related field of science or engineering. It seems premature to advocate a new category of program accreditation until such time as a body of undergraduate programs exist that have similar missions and identities. accreditation of "Geographic Information Science and Engineering" programs would seem to draw on some of the same criteria currently embedded in the accreditation criteria for surveying engineering and similarly named engineering programs (e.g. "geomatics"), information system programs, and natural science programs as well as some of the knowledge domains currently addressed in many geography programs.

4.10 The Mapping Science Committee of the National Research Council has initiated a study on how the disparate degree programs teaching various GI science and design topics might be brought together under a single GI science and engineering academic program. UCGIS members should become actively involved in contributing to, reviewing, and critiquing this study. Until that study and similar studies are accomplished in addition to the establishment of actual geographic information science and engineering programs, it seems highly premature to move forward in establishing specific accreditation criteria.

Professional Licensing of Geographic Information Science Practitioners

4.11 Professional licensing is justified under the police power of the U.S. Constitution only in the interests of protecting the public "health, safety, and welfare." Otherwise, individuals in society are free to choose any vocation they desire and pursue that vocation in the competitive marketplace. If people make mistakes in their vocation and damage others, the courts resolve who should bear the burden of the losses. Professional licensing means that only those meeting the requirements for licensure are allowed to make their livings carrying out the activities defined by the licensing legislation. The level of competence required to become licensed is defined by law as the minimum level of competence required in order to protect the public health, safety, and welfare.

4.12 While professional licensing is predicated on a legal standard of minimum competence, many academic programs aspire to excellence in the knowledge to be acquired by their graduates. For this reason, licensing is often viewed as a constraining factor in allowing a discipline to grow and develop over time. If academic programs adapt their coursework to cover areas that ensure that graduates will meet minimum competence licensing standards or adapt their programs to meet accreditation criteria that are static or focused on the past, students may be harmed in their ability to meet the high demands of the evolving marketplace upon graduation. For this reason, many academic disciplines have chosen to let the marketplace define the value of their university graduates even though it could be argued persuasively that inferior skills in the particular discipline places the public in jeopardy to a far greater extent than lack of skills in some disciplines that have gained mandatory licensing for their practitioners.

4.13 There seems to be a large majority opinion among UCGIS members that expansion of current professional licensing laws to specifically include GI specialists is inappropriate. However, we would encourage current licensing boards for engineering, architecture, and other design professions to consider the dangers to the public from inappropriate use of geographic information tools and techniques and consider expanded education and examination of design professionals in this domain to ensure that such harms are avoided or minimized.

5. Priority Areas for Research and Action

There is a distinct need for research in the area of GIS educational policy. In the following paragraphs, we suggest several areas for research or action by UCGIS or others.

5.1. Accomplish baseline studies

There is an immediate need to assess the current state of affairs in GI science and engineering education. Are the current avenues for GI education meeting today's needs? Are there enough competent GI science professionals available for hire? If newly designed and identifiable GI science and engineering programs are offered, will students come? Do organizations understand the type of GI science and engineering education that will best meet their specific needs? Do educators understand the GI science and engineering knowledge areas needed most by society in general and those that are in greatest demand by the marketplace? Baseline studies are needed to help answer these questions.

5.2. Accomplish surveys of programs currently addressing GI knowledge domains

There have been several surveys of institutions of higher learning to learn more about geographic information system education activities at that level. A first step in assessing the current state of affairs could include a literature review of all such surveys that have been performed to date. In addition, there should be an effort to survey 2-year and community colleges, and GIS educational programs available from vendors (including their technical support). These surveys and additional studies of existing programs should attempt to identify commonalties and differences among the various programs available from the various providers of education. In addition to requesting information on the hardware/software available to students, the education of the instructors, and the course subjects, there should also be an effort to gather information systematically about the relative attention paid to the various knowledge components of GI science and engineering programs.

Included among the questions might be: What educational approaches do various educators use? How effective have various approaches been? What approaches seem to work best, and in what situations? What courses, what approaches, what course contents have produced competent or most valued GI practitioners? We must come to these analyses with an open mind recognizing that there are many different teaching and learning styles and that each teaching or learning style has value in certain circumstances.

5.3. Accomplish surveys of GI practitioners

Another component in an assessment of the current state of affairs must include an examination of the geographic information education experiences of GIS practitioners. This is an area that heretofore has gone largely unexplored in any comprehensive way. Who are the people who are primarily responsible for the actual implementation of GIS in organizations? Who are the designers advancing new tools and techniques in the marketplace? How have they acquired their knowledge about GIS? From manuals? From vendors? From post-secondary institutions? At what level of university education and in which fields? From some combination of these or other sources? Is their education primarily in GIS, or in a discipline that is related to another organizational mission of their employer?

Research on the GIS education experiences of practitioners should in some way be linked with a survey of organizations using GIS. One goal in doing this might be to ascertain the level of success and/or satisfaction the organization has realized with its GIS implementation. Research might also include information on the approach the organization has chosen to achieve GIS expertise in its applications. Does the organization hire a GI science or engineering professional and then help him or her to develop substantive expertise on-the-job? Does the organization actively facilitate education in the spatial analysis component of GIS? Does the organization hire a professional with substantive expertise in some other field and then educate that person in GI application, science, or engineering areas? Surveys of practitioners and their firms would help answer these questions.

5.4. Contribute to other GI science and engineering education studies

To avoid duplication of effort, UCGIS should collaborate with other organizations such as the National Research Council and professional organizations to support their efforts. For instance, UCGIS might encourage the NRC to address the issues raised in items 1 through 3 above in their ongoing NRC study. If they fail to adequately address the issues, UCGIS might take on the tasks itself or encourage its individual university members to do so.

5.5. Additional issues requiring study

Additional issues that might warrant further study include the following:

A. Use of Technology in GIS Education

GI educational policy should seek to learn more about the ways that modern technologies can be employed to help people develop their understanding of geographic information systems. Increasingly, distance education based around a variety of media (including television, and computers) is becoming a reality. In particular, we should be aware of the use of technology to bring knowledge to increasing diverse and dispersed populations. Indeed, distance learning using the internet, video delivery techniques, and other aspects of computing technology seem to lend themselves to helping people learn to use GIS proficiently.

B. Experimentation and Case Studies: Prescriptions

Once we have a sense of the current state of affairs in GI science and engineering education, it will be necessary to set about understanding what approaches work in certain circumstances and why they seem to work. Controlled experiments using human subjects are one important means to develop recommendations for various GI education strategies. In addition, case studies comparing the experiences of GIS users (especially organizational users) with different educational backgrounds might help to learn more about what educational approaches are most valued and those that aren't.

C. Certification, accreditation, and licensing

For the immediate future, the recommendations made in the body of this report relative to certification, accreditation, and licensing should be followed. However, the current conclusions should be continually reevaluated in the light of changed social circumstances over time.

6. Conclusion

6.1 The GIS community is in the best position ever to develop a policy on GIS education. The UCGIS brings together a wide variety of people and disciplines, whose unity enables it to assume the mandate for this important responsibility. The need for further study on education policy issues is strong, given the rapid proliferation of GIS and the rapidly changing education marketplace.


Craig, William. 1993. A GIS Code of Ethics. URISA Journal, Spring 1993.

Obermeyer, Nancy J. and Pinto, Jeffrey K. 1994. Managing Geographic Information Systems (New York: Guilford Press).