UCGIS White Paper

Learning with GIS, Learning About GIS

Revised version June 20th, 1997


Instruction with geographic information is likely to become more prominent at all education levels as spatial literacy and computer skills continue to be emphasized as national goals. There is recently, too, somewhat of a shift of emphasis from teaching to learning , defined as the construction of knowledge or expertise. Improvement in student spatial learning can be enabled by fostering changes in instructional delivery methods and environments, exploiting modern educational paradigms , and by emphasizing problem-solving over technology, incorporating GIS skills and technology as background tools . Specialized instruction for interested individuals in GIS system design and in spatial inference and other forms of reasoning will insure that demands for qualified professionals continue to be met (Gerber, 1995; Hill, 1995).

In this paper, GIS refers to techniques and technology (GISystems), and to theory, inference and reasoning (GIScience). Both are based upon a foundation of geographic information, which incorporates geospatial data and the interpretations and knowledge gained from observation, description and measurement. Sui (1995) details the linkages from GIS to educational curricula to serve both purposes.

Learning with GIS describes a curriculum that emphasizes environmental topics and that utilizes geographic information to study them. Here, the GIS component is implicit rather than explicit. Important skills may include observation, description, and measurement; however the focus is upon the topical content of the application, as opposed to the GIS skills or theory. This role for GIS can and should be integrated at all levels of education, to sustain geographic literacy at the earliest possible age. Learning about GIS (in contrast) involves topics of computing, data management, analysis and display. Such modules can and should be integrated at strategic points in the educational track, and as elective curricula in higher education.


Our objectives are:

* to argue for incorporating both emphases into American education. In
learning with GIS, students are exposed to GIS transparently, while studying specific environmental problems. In learning about GIS, students focus directly on the theory and methods of GIS;

* to demonstrate that both types of learning will improve our nation's spatial literacy, will diversify skills of students entering the global labor force, and will improve the general tenor of American education; and

* to present specific action items for accomplishing the integration of the two into the curricular mainstream as quickly as possible.

Learning is the core activity shared between education and research. Just as new knowledge is created by researchers as a result of active engagement with problems, theory, and data, so too is expertise most effectively created among actively-engaged students. We seek to use GIS to enrich science as well as to provide the general population with opportunities to develop spatial literacy.


This white paper is positioned at the intersection of three elements likely to affect instructional delivery systems over several years. The first element involves a shift in learning paradigms; the second acknowledges technological advance; and the third draws upon research in pedagogy and in theories of spatial relations. The elements include:

1. an increase in active and authentic learning in many American classrooms;
2. developments in GIS, information and hypermedia technology; and
3. improved understanding as to the process of spatial reasoning.

By active learning we mean a setting in which students engage in tasks of data analysis, field-work, and problem-solving. An integral part of an active classroom experience is focused on asking and answering specific questions. By authentic learning we mean a constructivist process in which students have some measure of accountability and responsibility for the decisions about how they learn. Students who are vested in decision-making about their learning should in principle learn at a self-structured pace that encourages curiosity, critical thinking and problem solving (see Barstow et al., 1994 for examples).

In the general educational community, active and authentic learning with computer assistance are distinguished from traditional positivist lectures and rote memorization learning paradigms. The nature of GIS lends itself naturally to asking questions, compositing maps and imagery to answer them. GIS involves iterative steps toward problem solutions, which can be redirected at most stages. Students can decide which geographic information to integrate, and which criteria they should add to a model. These in turn lead to improvements in spatial reasoning about environmental process and pattern.

From the perspective of formal education our mission is to discover if active authentic GIS learning is an effective way for instructors to help students reach a deeper understanding of phenomena in a specific domain. Active learning can be effective whether the learning is about or with GIS.

Active and Authentic Learning Environments . The recent trend to "Think Globally, Act Locally" can be seen in many schools, where students learn by studying issues in their local community. Local issues are real in students' minds, and the realism makes it easy to vest an interest in learning; GIS support can augment this interest (White and Simms, 1993). At Boulder High School in Colorado for example, science teacher Steve Wanner's class is studying political and economic forces in a commercial district (called "The Hill") abutting their school and the University. Students interview local merchants about business volume, and local police about the fluctuations in district crime rates throughout the year. They collect traffic counts of pedestrians and cars; they identify single- and multi-family residential patterns; and they utilize PC-based GIS software to organize and map their field data and attributes. These students are gaining active and authentic understanding about local urban dynamics concurrent with enhancing problem-solving and spatial reasoning skills. We believe that active learning of this and other kinds should be explicity fostered.

At this pre-collegiate level, implementation of active and authentic learning environments requires a good deal of infrastructure support from a local GIS vendor, from the GIS intern program at the University, and a lot of extra work for the instructor and for the high school staff. This burden could be reduced, and the likelihood of successful outcomes increased, if appropriate software tools and instructional modules were available. Similary, for post-secondary education, effectively exploiting active learning is time-consuming for instructors absent suitable resources (Thompson et al., 1997). (The UCGIS white paper on Supporting Infrastructures provides context and details about many aspects of the infrastructure).

Developments in Technology . Hypermedia and information technology can contribute to active and authentic learning in subtle ways. The power of hypermedia in presenting information is well-understood from research in many disciplines. Presenting information in multiple media tends to increase user engagement with the material. In a classroom dividing information among several media can reduce the complexity of the overall message; human sensory systems excel at concurrent multiple tasks. We can simultaneously listen to music and read, for example (Lachman, Lachman, and Buttenfield, 1979). Internet developments will play a major role in students' active participation. Where Internet access is available, students can download data or (as in the GLOBE Project) they can contribute data to a national database. (Internet-based educational resources are discussed in the UCGIS white paper Emerging Technologies for Delivering GIS. In general, the discussion of the broad spectrum of electronic futures in that white paper is pertinent to instructional delivery with or about GIS).

Advances in GIS technology are perhaps less well-understood, but no less consequential for pedagogic application. One very important advance is a result of research on Open and Distributed GIS, which should permit transfer of data and applications from one GIS package to another, without necessarily going through import, export or other reformatting operations. Open GIS technology should allow not only students but also teachers to place more attention on topical issues and less time struggling with GIS system syntax and set-up.

Better Understanding About Spatial Reasoning . Teaching a sensitivity to the geographical consequences of zoning, land pricing, toxic waste, and a host of other environmental impacts requires more than passive reading or hearing about events. Logical reasoning skills develop through disciplined observation, description, and measurement (Papert, 1980). For environmental problems, data sets tend to be quite large and difficult to manage without automated support. Problem-solving lies at the heart of GIS use, and GIS technology is designed to organize, analyze and foster interpretation of spatial information.

Spatial reasoning skills can be taught with development of pedagogically-oriented GIS software. At present, pedagogic GIS software ARE not common, and learning curves for current GIS products are steep for instructors and students alike. If instructors are to be effective and if learners are to be productive, for subject domains in which spatial reasoning is important, and even if using only data from a GISystem in a non-spatial context, then appropriate toolboxes and knowledge-bases are required. These include not only tools to foster good record-keeping practices and personal productivity, but also guidance about visualization methods, spatial statistics, and spatial problem-solving procedures. (Attention to some of these topics also figures as important in discussions of the white paper on access and equity).

Importance and National Benefits

Perhaps it is axiomatic that improving education is a national priority, but where does improvement of spatial-reasoning education stand? Spatial reasoning underlies adult understanding of voting matters like land development, transportation investment, or reforestation, as well as being a general skill that can be applied in many vocations. The increasing utilization of geographic information in many fields may be based on pragmatic grounds, but surely there has been a serendipitous benefit in opening people's eyes to the power of spatial reasoning.

We see the national benefits as bringing:

* better problem-solving skills to students at an earlier classroom level;
* improvements to life-long learning that people appreciate the role of spatial reasoning;
* informed contributions by citizens to their local and global
* strengthening of connections between research and education by
immersing students in tasks that require spatial reasoning; and
* bringing more competitive skills to the national and international workplace.

Priorities for Research and development

In the coming one to five years, modules designed for learning with GIS should be developed and tested in classroom settings at all educational levels.  In many learning environments, learning with GIS should take first priority. Ironically, the state of most GIS software will make this difficult to accomplish. Although vendors are sensitized to the challenges to instructors of installing and learning packages, the fact remains that even at university levels, maintenance of a GIS laboratory requires at least a half-time staff member, which is beyond the resources of most pre-collegiate environments.

In the same one to five year period, we envision the high demand at post-secondary levels for course modules designed to learn about GIS to continue or increase. Delivery of trained GIS analysts and instructors should begin to ease the pressure for learning with GIS. At present, learning about GIS is available only in upper level university courses specializing in GIS system
design, and research centers working on GIS theory and applications.

Action Items

I. Creation of GIS software to allow content-focused active and authentic spatial learning.

Geographic information system tools and related resources must be viewed as context-dependent. Just as GIS applications may be designed to be most effective for a particular problem domain, it should be possible to design a GIS toolbox for pedagogic purposes. In addition to tools for personal productivity and good scientific practice, we need tools for enabling good spatial reasoning. Curricular materials should be designed to foster learning skills development along a path from data to information to knowledge to understanding. We need pedagogic tools to aid visualization, to teach spatial structure, and empower students to solve environmental and societal problems in and outside the classroom. Moreover, we must recognize that learning is undertaken within the context of particular scientific disciplines.

PROPOSED Actions to achieve this goal :

* Develop a pedagogically-oriented GIS toolbox to enhance uses of digital geospatial data and spatial reasoning capabilities to serve the cartographically and geographically naive person.
* Implement and test the toolbox in curricula at multiple educational levels.
* Validate the GIS toolbox by means of peer review, and review by prospective instructors and students at all levels of education.
* Encourage the creation of value-added products based on an evaluates generic toolkit.

We suggest that the toolkit(s( be developed by university research and development teams in collaboration with software vendors, and public and private sector organizations. This software, placed in the public domain, should be endorsed by the UCGIS,Media materials publishers could be encouraged to develop and market learning resources, with revenues/royalties being used to support upgrades and revisions. Educators provide conceptual frameworks; vendors provide product-development expertise and metatools; publishers can sponsor developments of value-added products and dissemination.

II. Create resources to assess GIS-based learning environments.

Educators and administrators who fund curriculum development projects want to know if innovations have had effect. Conventionally this involves instructors assessing students and students evaluating instructors. Additional information on effectiveness can also be garnered by students' self-assessment. Last, we need assessment instruments to measure the learning outcomes for contexts in which pedagogically-oriented GIS might be judged appropriate.

PROPOSED Actions to achieve this goal :

* Create and validate instruments to measure baseline information on students' visualization skills, spatial skills and cognitive abilities.
* Identify procedures for measuring skills and outcomes for learning with GIS and learning about GIS.
* Cross-validate these procedures with the baseline instruments.
* Prioritize a research agenda to formalize principles for teaching how spatial reasoning and problem-solving expertise develop.
* Establish longitudinal assessment programs to understand the potentials and limitations of GIS theory and technology upon improvement of spatial reasoning and spatial problem-solving skills.

Even while all research thrusts identified as priorities by the UCGIS are pertinent to objectives of the learning with/about GIS, some are especially significant. The topic of cognition of geographic information is important for the development of better knowledge about spatial learning. The item, spatial analysis in a GIS environment, has immediate relevance for the development of a toolkit that embodies spatial reasoning. Studies within the rubric of the future of spatial information infrastructure get right to a major component of learning, the access to geospatial data. The research thrust of GIS and society relates directly to the need to place learning with GIS in a societal context, especially in view of general citizen-oriented objectives mentioned earlier.

III. Disseminate modules and experiences regarding adoption, adaptation and job placement.

Continued systematic advance in any area of pedagogy depends upon good scholarship and record-keeping. Documentation of creation, validation and experiences in adoption should be encouraged insofar as possible. Institutions must be willing share evaluations of courses and curriculum(a) as they become available. Validated learning modules should also be available for exchange and distribution. Particular learning modules will not be effective in all learning environments, and metadata for modules documenting the lineage of experience should be disseminated with curricular materials.

PROPOSED Actions to achieve this goal:

* Establish a clearinghouse for exchange of modules for new instructors, along with validation data tagged to specific education levels.
* Fund opportunities for prospective faculty exchanges, including doctoral students and teaching post-doctorate positions.
* Fund opportunities for existing instructor retraining for pre-collegiate and collegiate teachers, faculty exchanges, training institutes, and in-service programs for other (non-traditional) instructors .
* Set into place mechanisms for fostering adoption, such as funded sourcebooks guiding new instructors on how and where to get help.

Although it is important to develop a research agenda for better understanding the outcomes of spatial learning, the immediate sharing of ideas, tools, and experiences should be encouraged. Indeed, we suggest that the initial energies be devoted to the creation of a clearinghouse to be followed by workshops and training institutes. Focused full discussions of a research agenda could occur at the next meeting of the UCGIS, June 1998.


Today it seems that good educational practice includes opportunities for active learning, encourages authentic learning, provides prompt feedback from instructors, fosters personal productivity for students, communicates high expectations, respects diverse talents and ways of learning, and helps learners construct increasingly powerful levels of understanding (AAHE, 1987; Bednarz et al, 1994). In part our mission is to foster the development of personal learning laboratories, but more generally it is to discover if active, authentic GIS learning is an effective way for instructors to help students reach a deeper understanding of phenomena in a specific domain at any level of education.

It is also recognized that the process of building a pedagogically-oriented GIS remains a challenge. Numerous basic and applied research questions pop up. We present a view from the pragmatic perspective of improving current pedagogic tools. In what sequence should the different types of spatial reasoning be taught? How can qualitative spatial reasoning tools be implemented? What are the cognitive prerequisites for setting specific spatial reasoning tasks? How can learning outcomes be measured unobtrusively? What tools are needed for students to self-assess their progress? How should a GIS interface function in order that self-paced students can navigate successfully?

It is our contention that progress towards effective and efficient education utilizing geographic information will facilitate problem-solving and spatial reasoning. But teaching and learning with such tools and resources involve more than access to a software toolbox and data. Additional relevant aspects to optimizing learning environments range from the physical configuration of a classroom to bringing opportunities into classrooms for students to tackle local issues.

Recent developments and ongoing research in GIScience have the potential to guide the design of pedagogically-oriented GISystems. In this way, geographic information can drive the engines behind the scenes and the interface at the foreground as students at many levels explore and discover many different subject areas, and test ideas about spatially distributed phenomena, in a truly interactive, individualized, engaging environment.

Selected Bibliography

American Association for Higher Education (1987) Seven Principles of Good Educational Practice.

Barstow, D., Gerrard, M.D., Kapisovsky, P.M., Tinker, R.F., and Wojtkiewicz, V. (eds.) 1994 Proceedings First National Conference on the Educational Applications of Geographic Information Systems (EdGIS). Washington, D.C. Cambridge, MA: TERC Communications 27-29 January,1994.

Bednarz, R.S. and Peterson, J. F. (eds.) 1994 A Decade of Reform in Geographic Education: Inventory and Prospect. Indiana, PA: National Council for Geographic Education.

Geography Education Standards Project, 1994 Geography for Life: National Geography Standards. National Geographic Research and Exploration. Washington, D.C.

Gerber, R. 1995 A geographical education for life based on technological and graphic literacy. Geographical Education, vol. 8(3): 50-56.

Hill, A.D. 1995 Geography standards, instruction and competencies for the new world of work. Geographical Education, vol. 8(3): 47-49.

Lachman, R. Lachman, J.L. and Butterfield, E.C. 1979 Cognitive Psychology and Information Processing : An Introduction. New York : Halsted Press.

Papert, S. 1980 Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. Cambridge Mass: Basic Books, Inc.

Sui, D.Z. 1995 A pedagogic framework to link GIS to the intellectual core of geography. Journal of Geography , vol. 94(6): 578-591.

Thompson, D et alia. 1998 Towards a framework for learning with GIS: The case of UrbanWorld, a hypermap learning environment based on GIS. Transactions in GIS, vol. 2(2): 151-167.

White, K.L., and Simms, M. 1993 Geographic Information Systems as an Educational Tool. Journal of Geography, vol. 92(2): 80-85.

Authors: Derek Thompson, (University of Maryland) and Barbara P. Buttenfield (University of Colorado);

Bibliographic selections: Michael N. Solem and Joseph J. Kerski (University of Colorado);

Additional contributors (via the UCGIS meeting, Bar Harbor, Maine, June 1997): David DiBiase (Pennsylvania State University), Arthur Getis (San Diego State University), Daniel Griffith (Syracuse University), Geoffrey Jacquez, and Karl Longstreth (University of Michigan).