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Principles for software selection in geospatial courses

When geospatial educators think about shaping curriculum, students ought to be the top priority. I’m convinced that most educators want what is best for their students even if there may be disagreement on how to get there. In this piece, I outline what I see as guiding principles in selecting software rather than advocating for a particular software stack or concept emphasis. While resources like the UCGIS Body of Knowledge and Geospatial Competency Model are tremendously useful in shaping curricula, these tend to be concept-focused, and there may be more than one way to achieve their goals. I have a particular inclination on how to approach geospatial methods, but that’s not what I plan to discuss here. Rather, in the paragraphs below, I outline what I view should drive software decisions rather than dwell on specific software programs themselves.


Teaching concepts is more important than teaching software

Software programs will wax and wane, but the concepts are here to stay. Occasionally software gets in the way of teaching the concepts. In that instance, there’s no other choice than to teach software. But software should not be the sole – or main – focus of a geospatial education.

Students should be highly competitive for jobs immediately after graduation

Regardless of how individuals feel about various tools, students face a realistic challenge that they must get a job after graduation, and hirability is one of the major factors students weigh before selecting a major. This means it is crucial to teach with industry-standard tools that employers are familiar with. Students should be proficient with these tools to, at the very least, get their foot in the door. That said, not all jobs are created equal, and helping students land a job should not be seen as an end goal. Rather, the focus should be on helping students get jobs which are fulfilling, high-paying, and possess the opportunity for advancement. This is related to the principle which follows.

Students should be well-equipped for the job market of the future (i.e. 5-10 years from now)

Landing a job is important, but it would be doing students a disservice to simply train them for entry level positions. Beyond equipping students with the skills to land a job, it should be considered how cutting edge and emerging approaches will help students toward long-term employ-ability and the job market of the future. Certainly some of the conditions for advancement will depend on what students learn on the job (i.e. after their formal education), but equipping students with cutting edge methods and tools now can help them get a significant leg up on other entry level employees. For this reason, teaching present industry standards remains important, but under some conditions may not be not enough.

Again, while my intention here is not focus on specific software programs, it is worth clarifying what I mean by “emerging approaches.” This is in reference to scripting, cloud-based approaches, and NoSQL which notably deviate from traditional “point-and-click” methods of QGIS, ArcGIS Pro, and similar programs. The specific choice in software for emerging approaches is another conversation.

Courses should be scaffolded so that the barrier of entry matches the level of the course

Students will lose interest if course topics are too technical or if they can’t see the applicability of software procedures. Educators must keep in mind the prerequisite knowledge that students come in with prior to their courses. For this reasons, lower level courses should use software with a lower barrier of entry, and upper level courses should only use software with a higher barrier of entry if necessary for communicating advanced concepts.

Instructors should teach toward their strengths

There is a plethora of geospatial software with important applications for industry and research, but it’s not practical for students to learn dozens of different programs, particularly if it is only done in order to acquiesce to instructors’ tastes. Some courses serve as a prerequisite to others, and the need for scaffolding along with the need to balance various faculty strengths is one of the major challenges in designing geospatial curricula. Due to this, a certain level of consistency is required in the curriculum, at the very least in an introductory GIS course. That said, in upper level courses with no sequel, software consistency isn’t as necessary. And while I personally see a certain software stack as ideal, I certainly don’t envision others teaching this way simply because it is the best choice for me!

Students should be equipped with the skills to critique societal structures and historic systems of oppression

Ethical conversations should not be neglected in geospatial methods courses, and a geospatial ethics component is vitally important to a well-rounded education. Where appropriate, the roles of various actors on the geospatial scene should come under scrutiny. However, relative to the other principles listed here, this one is far less important. The content focus of geospatial courses ought to be on using the tools rather than simply critiquing them. In large part due to the need to equip students with practical skills, the driving force behind software selection ought to be grounded in workflow-based decisions rather than ethical ones. Critical GIS has done a tremendous amount of good for the field, but students must be able to enter the field with an adept and marketable skillset before they can change it.


This piece sums up principles which I believe should guide software selection in geospatial courses. The ultimate focus should be on what is best for students, both in the short term and in the long run. Tool selection should not be made simply based on moral issues, vendettas against a particular company, or personal/research preferences wholly spilling into teaching. As for which tools best achieve these principles and how, that’s a separate issue altogether.