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COVID-19 Cases in the US Map
COVID-19 Cases across the United States.

Bang. The spring semester was cut short, everyone was sent home, and the fall semester is still morphing. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a reset in the way we think about teaching and learning. Distance learning is not new, of course, but forced distance learning on a global scale—that’s a different story. This causes disruption and tension in all disciplines but is more acutely felt in disciplines that are dependent on hardware laboratories, as in the case of GIS. Can we–educators and learners—adapt? Are we resilient? And will we be resilient when the next unannounced disruption occurs?

During August 2020, the University Consortium on Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) began a series of online panel sessions entitled Resilience in GIScience Education. During the preliminaries, the group quickly agreed on a very wide view of resilience, defining it as the overall ability to cope with and adapt to disruption. Because the first round of panels was focused on pedagogy, I made what I feel is another important clarification. The title of the session series (as well as “UCGIS”) deliberately refers to geographic information science (GIScience), not GIS per se, although many people will conflate them. But it seems useful to clarify whether any one of us is really talking about educating geographic information scientists (which is normally done at the graduate school level), or whether we’re talking about educating undergrads about the hows and whys of GIS. One learner may be planning to go on to a research career; another may want to graduate ASAP and go to work for a GIS company or government agency. One curriculum would normally focus on theory and methods (David Mark, 2003), the other on practice and problem solving. Student profiles and expectations are important to consider here.

There were some other fundamental questions as well. Is COVID-19 different from other disruptions? (I remember when the University of Iowa was flooded in 2008; and certainly, in Latin America, university classes are disrupted for months on end due to strikes.) Is the COVID-19 disruption somehow unique for GIScience? To what extent is resilience affected by social, institutional, legal, and societal norms?

These sessions moved from the pedagogic implications of COVID-19 and other disruptions to some of the more technology-related implications, and then to implementation of resilient GIScience education. The latter topics are where Esri’s education outreach team has much experience, having worked directly or indirectly with almost 11,000 university users over the past two decades. In the end, the topics are intertwined—pedagogy necessarily changes, as do the classroom environment and the manner in which courses are conducted.

In terms of equity, did all registered university students before COVID-19 have access to GIS? Historically, the GIS lab was the great leveler—every GIS student had access to the same computers and the same software—but only on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.  And only those learners who knew—or were allowed—to register for a GIS course could access the GIS. More recently, universities began installing GIS software in common spaces, such as libraries and study rooms, which is a big step toward resilience. Suddenly GIS was available at any time. Desktop software is now easier for students to acquire—via direct downloads or access codes from instructors—for installation on student-owned computers.

This reminds me that part of human resilience is insistence—speaking up and asking for a possible “yes” rather than assuming a “no.” The squeaky wheel gets the grease—or, in this case, the software.

In 1992, Michael Phoenix created Esri’s unwritten pledge that needy people in the education world would gain access to the software they need. Esri now offers free access to pandemic-affected (at-home) students who are not already covered by university software licenses.

But is that an equitable solution? Should we expect that every student owns a laptop with the requirements for modern desktop software? This is not totally realistic even in the wealthiest areas of developed countries. Saving many a GIS instructor, accessing GIS online is a trend that is at least five years old but has exploded in popularity during the COVID-19 crisis. The end user connects on almost any hardware via an internet browser, and the server in the cloud does most of the work. ArcGIS Online now has a sufficiently robust set of spatial analysis tools, so many introductory GIS courses can be taught on that platform today. Some instructors miss some of their favorite desktop tools, but the resilient instructors work with the available tools and move forward, and students whet their appetites for GIS.

But there are still underserved populations. Does resilience include a university or a government agency that covers the cost of hardware and internet connectivity for each needy student? Again, is GIS different in that respect to, say, graphic design or engineering fields? In any case, the GIS industry and the AAG are doing what they can to help people continue under difficult circumstances. See the COVID-19 pandemic-related Esri education resources and updates from the AAG COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force for more information.

We welcome the active collaboration of resilient educators and students so that we can all keep moving forward in helping solve geographical problems.

Michael Gould is the Esri Global Education Manager


UCGIS 2020 Global GIScience Conversations

Mark, D. M., “Geographic Information Science: Defining the Field,” in Foundations of Geographic Information Science, edited by M. Duckham, M. F. Goodchild, and M. F. Worboys (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2003), 1–18. doi:10.1201/9780203009543.ch1.