Learning in a Geospatial World (Spatial Tech Column)

28 Feb, 2007 By: James L. Sipes

Classes offer general knowledge as well as certification opportunities.

As the world becomes more georeferenced and GIS integrates with our day-to-day lives, the number of potential GIS users wanting to learn more about geospatial technologies also increases. Learning about GIS can be a daunting task because the technology is very complicated, changes constantly and has almost infinite potential uses. Fortunately, interested individuals have many opportunities to learn about GIS and geospatial information. The key is finding the approach that works best for you.

 In this article
In this article

Learning Types

Because of GIS' interdisciplinary nature and its variety of uses, users come from many different backgrounds with diverse learning needs. Beginning students want to learn the basics of GIS, and experienced users want to learn about more advanced applications. Many GIS practitioners are trained on the job and lack a broad theoretical knowledge base of geospatial information. Even students in high, middle and elementary schools are learning GIS.

Instructor-led courses typically include lectures as well as hands-on exercises in a traditional classroom setting. These courses are the best choice for anyone who's a little squeamish about learning alone. Having an instructor with you helps to address potential issues in a timely manner. Many colleges and universities offer traditional courses in GIS that count toward formal degrees or certificates.

Online training courses are popular because you can pick and chose what information you learn, and you can take courses at your convenience. The downside of online courses is that you don't always have the opportunity for live discussion, and I've always found that to be a critical part of the learning process.

Some online courses are led by instructors and others are self-paced. Self-paced programs are best for motivated learners who know what they want to learn. Many people who need GIS training are employed full time and unable to attend a traditional classroom setting. These users typically have a good background with computers, so online courses are a logical choice for learning about geospatial information. Because high-speed Internet connections are becoming commonplace, many GIS courses use animation sequences and video conferencing, as well as multimedia presentations.

One new learning tool gaining in popularity is the pod-cast. ESRI's Web site provides information about subscribing to different podcasts. An instructional series focuses on training and education, and a speaker series includes discussions with GIS users, business partners and ESRI staff. One recent instructional series podcast explored editing with sketches and sketch constraints in ArcGIS.

Several online classes use some type of Webcast in which an instructor presents information and participants can interact via messaging. I'm a big fan of Webcasts and Web workshops because you can watch a demonstration and get immediate response to questions.

Opportunities for Learning

There's certainly no shortage of options for learning about geospatial technologies. Virtually every developer of GIS software provides some means to learn its software. For example, Trimble offers online tutorials that teach about its products as well as general GIS issues.

Intergraph takes an integrated approach to teaching geospatial technologies by providing a broad view of the technology instead of focusing just on software applications. The Intergraph courses provide approximately 60 hours of instruction within a ten-week period. Students completing the course receive continuing education points towards GISCI (GIS Certification Institute) certification and GeoMedia Professional User certification. For those who don't currently use Intergraph products, the company provides the software needed to take a particular class.

Avatech is one of the largest Autodesk authorized training centers, and it offer courses for MapGuide, Map 3D, and Civil and Survey. Avatech gears its online training for specific organizations, and it customizes courses to meet the particular needs of an organization. Most of Avatech's classroom training courses are fairly extensive and take two to four days to complete.

ESRI's Virtual Campus is one of the most comprehensive programs available for Internet-based GIS learning. It offers a set of self-paced tutorials and lessons; each course takes two to four hours to complete. Some of the courses focus on broader geospatial issues, but many focus on learning ESRI software. Students can have real-time interaction with an instructor during live training seminars. The live training seminars are designed to cover specific issues regarding geospatial information and are particularly beneficial for experienced users who want to augment their existing knowledge base. Continuing education units for Virtual Campus courses are available through some university programs.

ArcLessons is an Internet-based resource developed by ESRI in which users can share lessons for using GIS in the classroom. Most of the lessons have been developed by teachers for use in their classroom. The lessons are geared for different age groups—some are for college students, while others are more suitable for elementary school kids.

The Old College Try

Many educational institutions offer some type of GIS degree or certificate program. Penn State University's World Campus GIS certificate program is composed of four courses, each involving 40 to 80 hours of student activity. The program offers both baccalaureate and master's degrees. Each course is offered four times a year, lasts ten weeks and is equivalent to one traditional three-credit university course.

University of Southern California (USC) offers a GIS distance-learning program that incorporates courses from ESRI's Virtual Campus. Students pay USC tuition and receive an ESRI course certificate after completing the course. Many universities around the country take a similar approach and use ESRI's courses to teach their students about each ESRI product. Students in the USC Distance Learning program work in a virtual classroom known as Blackboard. Within Blackboard, students can download files, chat, submit papers and check their grades. Faculty and students communicate with each other via e-mail and live discussions.

The Department of Geomatics at the University of Melbourne, Australia, has developed online learning tools to enhance the teaching of GIS. The GIS self-learning tool uses a number of Internet-based interactive multi-media modules that cover everything from introductory to advanced GIS concepts.

The University of Montana's EOS Education Project intends to "teach the teachers." The program provides Internet-based courses and hands-on workshops that help provide teachers with the information they need to incorporate geospatial technologies into their classrooms.

The University of Utah offers a noncredit distance-learning program known as GIS for Professionals. One track is intended for new users, and the other is for more advanced users. The Birkbeck College School of Geography, University of London, United Kingdom, offers a master's of science in geographical information science using a system titled GIScOnline. Tufts University (Medford, Massachusetts) offers its students an opportunity to take several online courses through ESRI's Virtual Campus free of charge. It also has semester-long courses taken for academic credit as well as short, noncredit workshops that focus on specific GIS techniques and technologies.

University of California, Riverside Extension offers GIS Summer School during which you can take enough courses to receive GIS certification. The eight-week program consists of ten individual courses, and students can take some or all of the courses. A few of the classes are held online, but most of the program is hands-on, so people must come to the campus.

Find a Class, Learn

GIS curricula are constantly changing, and new courses are being offered because of the rapid changes in the geospatial world. If you're interested in learning about GIS programs and classes near you, a good source of information is ESRI's database of academic GIS programs (

James L. Sipes is a senior associate with EDAW in Atlanta, Georgia, and the founding principal of Sand County Studios in Seattle, Washington. Reach him at

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