AGI Education Lecture: Professor Dave Unwin

Monday, May 29, 2006 at 13:30:02

I attended an evening lecture last week organised by the AGI (hosted by UCL) as part of their “education” series. Professor Dave Unwin presented a provocative talk entitled “Masters of GIS? Educating the GI labour force.”

Worry was a major theme of the presentation; should academics be concerned about employers, are we teaching the right curricula, who are the main users of GIS, what are employers asking for and where should we be going? There were lots of questions about the future direction of GIS in the workplace.

Current surveys suggest that (in the UK) over 70% of current GIS practicioners have geography (and related) degrees, yet there has been a ~30% decrease in student numbers in geography in schools, during a period of increasing demand for GIS specialists and (in the US anyway) further predicted increases. Spatial literacy (however it is defined) is a major concern; with relative ease of use of modern GIS, increasingly large numbers of employees routinely use it. Whilst it is a good thing that spatial data is widely available and usable, this creates problems of misuse/abuse. In the same way that many do not understand statistics and unwittingly misuse it, so we are seeing the same effect within GIS.

Professor Unwin also mentioned that geography has a raised profile in US schools, partially riding the “wave” of popularity in GIS. Yet in the UK GIS is not embedded in the curriculum; in contrast nearly all levels of commerce and research use it as the primary means of interfacing with geographic data and concepts.

This really is a worry for the UK and something we should be taking very seriously. Whilst businesses often have unrealistic ideas about GISers, as educators we need to understand the marketplace and where it is going. At a national level there is a responsibility to embed spatially literacy early in the curriculum and make sure that students take these skills through to higher education and employers.

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