Advancing GIS in tertiary education in a time of budget cuts

September 12th, 2019, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT, Featured: PositionIT

Esri South Africa’s GIS Education Summit on 10 September 2019 looked at ways to advance GIS education at tertiary level. Dr Michael Gould, Esri’s international director of higher education, shared some best practices and resources with lecturers from various South African universities.

Dr Gould recommended, as best practices, that lecturers start using geodatabases and feature services instead of shapefiles, as these offer more functionalities. With webservices and data libraries such as Esri’s Living World Atlas becoming the standard, there is no more need to download data, he said. Using licensed copies of the latest version of the company’s software helps prepare students for the industry with the latest capabilities and technologies available.

Esri South Africa’s Lauren Sweidan and Verosha Naidoo with Dr Michael Gould.

The company also offers a wealth of educational resources in various formats: there are the Esri Press workbooks, such as the third edition Getting to know Web GIS, or Understanding GIS: An ArcGIS Pro Project Workbook. Dr Gould said the former can be used by lecturers to teach, while the latter includes practical exercises for students. The titles are also available as ebooks, and can even be rented from Esri Press on a monthly basis.

Besides workbooks, there are web courses offering videos and hands-on training, portals such as learn.arcgis.com with thematic web exercises for anyone, ArcGIS tutorials for developers, as well as several open online courses.

Comments during the discussion session indicated that higher education budget cuts put software license budgets in the balance. This, Dr Gould acknowledges, is a worrying global trend. He suggests using GIS software beyond the GIS and geography departments as one solution. Possible wider applications are mapmaking and analyses for departments such as engineering and planning, or using it at in university’s administration for asset management and safety planning. This approach allows for internal cost recovery, and is permitted by educational licenses.

Esri South Africa’s GIS and remote sensing specialist Sean Cullen presented the remote sensing in ArcGIS workshop.

Gould further recommended promoting GIS by establishing GIS centres, ideally at universities’ libraries, as they serve many people and because GIS fits in with libraries’ information services. It’s already a trend, he says, as more librarians are signing up for GIS training with the company. Universities with GIS centres which render geospatial services such as preparing maps and graphics for other departments are standard in the US, he said, and has proven successful in promoting GIS.

Data and services moving online also highlight the urgent need for ICT infrastructure and connectivity to enable educators and provide students with access to crucial resources in their training.

Verosha Naidoo, the education and community head for Esri South Africa, opened submissions to the Esri Young Scholar Award nominations, which close on 15 March 2020. The programme, which has been running since 2012, is open to all South African students who are 30 years and younger, of any discipline. The submissions don’t have to be academic, but should have a geospatial aspect which uses Esri software to address a South African problem in a creative way. The prize is an all-paid trip to Esri’s annual User Conference in San Diego in July 2020, and the chance to present their work at the conference.

The meeting further included two workshops: one on Survey123 for ArcGIS and another on remote sensing using ArcGIS. The summit concluded with Fulbright Scholar Jeff Lash from the University of Johannesburg’s showing the lecturers the National Geographic Giants Maps education initiative. It teaches school pupils geography and map reading skills on a large, foldable map of the continent on which they can walk and complete exercises – which the lecturers then tried for fun.

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