Teaching GIS in the Web

  1. Abstract
  2. Overview
  3. The Organization of the Materials
  4. The Research Problems
  5. Lecture and Discussion Notes
  6. Enfranchising Students
  7. Lessons Learned
  8. Looking to the Future
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. Literature Cited
Note: The file contains links to low-resolution versions (in color) of the four figures to improve access time across the Internet. High resolution, black and white versions have been printed for the manuscript. A paper counterpart of table 1 has also been prepared.


The Geographer's Craft is a two-semester course introducing GIS and geographic research methods using active-learning, problem-solving techniques. All of the materials for the course were developed in hypertext form in the Worldwide Web. The organization of this electronic textbook and laboratory manual is explained and related to principles for using the Worldwide Web to enrich GIS education. Teaching strategies are discussed as well as lessons learned in developing hypertext courseware. The value of enlisting student participation in the development process is stressed. Note is made of the ways in which Web-based materials may lead to the emergence distance education programs in GIS. The project homepage is Key Words: education, GIS, hypertext, Internet, Worldwide Web.


The Geographer's Craft Project was begun at the University of Texas in 1991 as a two-part experiment in GIS education. It was developed first to test a new idea for organizing introductory training in GIS and second to prototype hypermedia instructional materials in the Worldwide Web (Dana 1995, Foote 1994). Both parts of the experiment respond to challenges posed for GIS education by the recent, rapid innovation in information technologies. These innovations have greatly expanded the range and power of techniques used in geographic research while, at the same time, making these techniques easier to learn and use. The challenge here is to insure that students develop the conceptual dexterity and methodological flexibility to apply these techniques to the research problems they may face in their future professional careers. The growth of the Internet poses another challenge. It is changing the ways in which GIS professionals gather raw data, engage in background research, collaborate and communicate with colleagues, and share the results of their investigations. The Geographer's Craft has responded by creating entirely new course materials in hypertext form, on-line in the Worldwide Web. This suite of materials has emerged over the past five years into a comprehensive "electronic" textbook and lab manual in GIS.

The Geographer's Craft is organized somewhat differently than other introductory courses in GIS. It is a two-semester, eight-credit course (GRG 859A and GRG 859B) comprised of lectures, discussions, labs, and small-group meetings. Its principal difference lies in the way students gain experience with geographical information systems, spatial analysis, cartography, remote sensing, and field methods. Rather than teaching these methods separately, the Geographer's Craft employs a problem-solving approach in which students learn these techniques, sometimes concurrently, as they address realistic research topics. The idea is to use engaging topics to teach broader lessons about how researchers and practitioners conceptualize theoretical and practical problems and then approach them with appropriate methodological tools. The real goal of each project is to sharpen the students' analytical reasoning abilities while building their proficiency in a variety of technical skills.

The thirty-odd upper-division students who enroll in the course are presented each term with two or three research problems. The problems are varied, ranging across physical and human geography, so that students gain a sense of the different sorts of problems geographers face in their research. The topics are also selected to raise a variety of technical and methodological problems that can be introduced, discussed, and solved in context. In this way, students learn by example how researchers gather evidence about natural and human processes; create maps and databases to model real-life situations; employ GIS to analyze spatial, temporal, and functional relationships; and present their findings in cartographic, graphic, written, and spoken forms. Students gain experience working with different research techniques and software systems, but they also develop a practical sense of why technical issues such as map scale, accuracy, precision, and projection are important to their work. Most importantly, they gain a sense of how computers and information technologies can support reasoning about real-life natural and human phenomena. By the end of the year, students work in teams to carry out an independent research project that they publish in the Worldwide Web and present to the class.

All materials for the Geographer's Craft were developed in hypertext form in the Worldwide Web. There were two reasons for this choice, the first very practical. The Web seemed an ideal way to provide students with background material, data, and interactive assistance. I had always wanted to provide students with better study materials than I could assemble in the course packets I had previously prepared for my classes. I could finally create in the Web materials that really fit the subject matter of geography. Color diagrams and maps, air photos, and remote sensing imagery could all be woven into the materials, annotated as necessary, and linked in hypertext form one to another. Slides and graphics that the students were shown in class could now be placed on-line so that they could be viewed again outside of class. The Web also provides access to a wealth of primary and secondary materials that can be woven directly into the course materials. When we discuss data sources, students can visit the United States Geological Survey or the Bureau of Census to see exactly what is offered as well as its technical documentation. The best part is that these materials are available on-line whenever the students need them. Even if they are in the middle of running GIS software, they can open a Web browser in another window and access useful reference material.

Apart from these practical considerations, there was a second more abstract reason for developing materials in the Web's hypertext format. In my first encounter with hypermedia materials almost ten years ago, I was impressed by the way text, graphics, sound, and video could be arranged to mirror the conceptual objectives of the topic under discussion. Effective hypertext materials are not created simply by pasting together text and graphics and adding as many links as possible. With careful thought, the materials can be shaped to express the underlying argument and conceptual organization of an argument. This shaping occurs at all levels of hypertext design--the use and placement of graphics, the organization and division of text, the positioning of links and annotations, and, in fact, the layout of every page. Yet, once arranged in this way, hypertext invites students to go further, to explore topics independently and follow their curiosity and hunches. This means that hypertext allows me to offer guidance and advice while at the same time encouraging my students to develop their own independent study strategies. Furthermore, conventional educational materials such as books, films, and videos are organized linearly from start to finish. Excerpts can be used out of sequence, but these materials implicitly guide the user along a predetermined path. Hypertext materials allow students to create their own non-linear paths through materials in intuitive and creative ways. Indeed, hypertext supports the types of associative thinking common to the research process and the search for a solution to a problem.

Although the majority of materials students use in the Geographer's Craft are now provided on-line, I think it is important to note that they are still asked to read materials that are not available on-line. This includes one conventional textbook The Craft of Research by Booth, Colomb, and Williams (1995). Optional texts recommended to students are Monmonier's Mapping It Out: Expository Cartography for the Humanities and Social Sciences (1993) and Geographic Information Systems: A Guide to the Technology by Antenucci, Brown; Croswell, Kevany, and Archer (1991). Other materials are placed on reserve so that students can read key chapters from Aronoff's Geographic Information Systems: A Management Perspective (1989), Burrough's Principles of Geographical Information Systems for Land Resources Assessment (1986), and Huxhold's An Introduction to Urban Geographic Information Systems (1991). Students who wish to learn more about the Web are encouraged to buy one or more of the excellent guides now available commercially. The same applies to HTML publishing concepts covered in the class. Some of the best sources are available on-line, but some students feel more comfortable purchasing a book.

The Organization of the Materials

The Geographer's Craft homepage ( ) is the point of entry to the project ( figure 1 ). Divided into four sections, the page provides direct links to the primary materials used most frequently by students and access to a number of subsidiary resources. The first section contains general information about the course including the syllabus, schedules for the fall and spring semester, student and staff directories, and rules for lab access. The materials in this section, particularly the course schedules, immediately provide a sense of how these hypertext materials differ from their paper counterparts. The schedules are more than static lists of dates and topics. In hypertext form they link directly to the readings, assignments, and supplemental materials assigned during each week of the course.

The class and staff directories are also very important features of this section. Electronic mail is used extensively in this course for communication, collaboration, and the submission of assignments. The directories provide an easy to find list of e-mail addresses for everyone in the course as well as for all of the teaching assistants and laboratory staff. Most students have learned how to use the university's free electronic mail system before they enroll in the course, though their experience is usually limited to informal communication with friends and family. They require encouragement to use e-mail effectively for "professional" communication and collaboration. From the first weeks of the course onward, the students are set tasks that require them use e-mail often in their work. Without such encouragement, use of e-mail tends to trail off after a burst of activity early in the first semester. It is important to introduce the students to common rules of "netiquette" early so that they are aware of some of the problems and pitfalls of Internet communication.

The student directory also contains links to student homepages. I note below how important it is to involve students in Web publishing from the very start of the course so that they can develop their skills throughout the year. I am finding that a growing number of students already have experience creating personal homepages before they enroll in the course. Experienced or not, all the students are given space to create their own homepage for the course in the first two weeks of the semester and maintain them for the duration of the year. They use the space to publish the results of two projects and to experiment with Web publishing.

The second section of the Geographer's Craft homepage contains links to lecture and discussion notes; exercises and problems; and questions from past exams. The materials in this section have consumed most of the development work. The "Lecture and Discussion Notes" comprise an on-line textbook in GIS and geographical techniques. The "Warmup Exercises and Problems" can be viewed as a hypertext laboratory manual. Since both of these areas are so important to the project, they will be discussed in separate sections below. For now, the last feature of this section is the link to "Study and Examination Questions." This is an archive of questions used on previous years' exams. I should note that, even though I sometimes exams in the Geographer's Craft, I do not use them every semester or every year. The weight of student assessment has gradually shifted over the past two years almost exclusively to evaluations of student projects. Written exams are effective however for promoting mastery of some important concepts and principles. Shorter quizzes are now sometimes employed for this.

The third section of the materials provides background resources and help files. Foremost among these is an extensive list of Web resources in GIS and geography. The students contribute to this list as part of their work and also gain credit for spotting errors and outdated links. An on-line glossary and general bibliography were also early features of this section, though we now link to Ohio State's GIS bibliography rather than maintain one of our own. Tipsheets and help files are also maintained in this section largely as a complement to the extensive help files provided with most of the application software used in the class. The tipsheets provide a little extra help and guidance with frequently used commands and note problems and errors that students are likely to encounter. Also noted are issues that arise from the software, hardware, and network configurations of our lab, such as now to access network and large format printers and information about our anonymous ftp server.

The final section of the homepage provides links to projects students have published in the Web over the past several years. As the course is currently organized, students complete two major Web projects during the year. During the first semester, each student picks a contemporary geographical or environmental topic to research in the Web. The project gives them an opportunity to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the Web as a research tool. They are forced to confront the varying quality and completeness of information and to present their findings in hypertext form. The students pick their topics early in the semester and present a short proposal on-line. They then work on the project through the semester and present their report as their last assignment. During the last month of the second semester, students divide into teams to investigate a research topic related to their interests in GIS. Each team presents its findings in the Web. Some projects work well, others less so. All are maintained on-line from semester to semester so that students can see what was accomplished in each offering of the Geographer's Craft. This provides them with ideas for their own projects as well as a sense of the standards they need to attain or surpass in their own work. Indeed, the overall quality of these Web projects seems to be rising continuously. New, easier-to-use Web publishing tools help to explain some of this improvement, but the students seem to benefit also from visiting projects left on-line from previous semesters.

The Research Problems

The research problems form the core of the course. The point has been to select interesting topics that capture the attention of students while both reinforcing ideas addressed in other geography courses and expanding the student's intellectual horizons. The topics range from the local to international scale and intersperse contemporary problems with historical case studies. The problems are, of course, scaled in difficulty through each semester. The first are guided exercises with copious notes that help students gain facility with the software systems they are learning. Subsequent problems gradually shift responsibilities to the student. By the end of the first semester will have independently designed and created a GIS database to solve one of the classroom problems. By the end of the second semester, teams of students will have framed independently an entire research problem of their own choosing.

One of the problems used quite frequently involves having the students take the role of political consultants to develop a campaign strategy for a hypothetical Texas gubernatorial candidate ( figure 2 ). GIS and mapping software is nowadays used to develop such campaign strategies using electoral and demographic information and students study some of the tactics employed in recent national and state races. The hypertext provides background information about these strategies, explains the changing electoral geography of Texas, lists background readings, and contains links to data sources. A recently developed module prepared with the help of one of my colleagues, Professor Sonia Arbona, has the students examine the spatial and environmental correlates of the 1991 cholera epidemic in Perú ( figure 3 ). Here students gain a sense of the research challenges faced by medical geographers and why this cholera pandemic is of such great concern. Again, links to data sources are woven right into the text of the module. Over the past four years many other modules have been developed. Some of the most popular have involved analyzing archeological remains of a Greek colony at Metaponto in Italy from 600 BC; mapping the habitat of endangered avian species in a wildlife refuge near Austin, Texas; studying the effects of urbanization on environment in a local watershed; assessing the effects of technology on environment through the surveying of "machine space"; reconstructing in three dimensions the town of Greytown, Nicaragua; and measuring perceptions of safety and danger on the University of Texas campus. One or two new projects are developed each year so that topics can be rotated regularly.

Lecture and Discussion Notes

Fourteen modules serve as the chapters of the Geographer's Craft electronic textbook ( table 1 ). These cover the major topics addressed during the year, although a few additional modules are planned. Originally some of this material was going to be wrapped into the modules outlining the research problems. It proved more effective to divide this material into separate modules so that the content could be linked as needed from any of the research problems. The individual modules have been designed so that they can be used in lectures or for individual student study. Woven into the materials are links to relevant Web sources from all around the world. Here the Web really proves its worth. When discussing geodetic datums, students can visit NOAA immediately to learn more about concepts mentioned in the module ( figure 4 ). In the Data Sources of GIS module, discussion of commonly used digital file formats leads directly to the Bureau of Census, the USGS, and many other providers. This direct access to on-line sources is one of the greatest strengths of using the Web as an educational medium.

Enfranchising Students

One of the most important lessons I learned from the Geographer's Craft is to get the students themselves involved in contributing to and building the course materials. The Worldwide Web is far more than a just a new medium for "delivering" course content. The Web enfranchises students in electronic community that breaches the bounds of the traditional classroom. Early course evaluations revealed a perception by students that they were no longer simply beginners enrolled in an introductory course, but rather participants in the larger GIS community. They were able use the Web and e-mail to reach out directly to data providers, other academic programs, and GIS professionals as they worked on their research projects. When they published their findings in the Web, they were rewarded with comments and suggestions from all over the world. They could see how their work made a contribution to the larger world of GIS. Students have been very active collaborators in the creation of the Geographer's Craft materials and their enfranchisement has been cultivated in a number of ways.

Hypertext is a new medium that requires skill to use effectively. Some of our earliest strategies for converting conventional paper course materials into hypertext form have altered radically based upon suggestions by students. My preconceptions as an instructor about how to build the materials were often at odds with the way students used them. Listening to student comments and watching how they used--or did not use--the materials was an eye-opening experience. I think some of our best materials were developed in stages with ample time for feedback. Experience gained with each module improved the next.

Students have also been instrumental in collecting Web sources that have enriched all of the materials. Students are encouraged and rewarded for finding new materials that contribute to the course materials. This means that, from the very start of the course, students are asked to become active, critical users of the Web. Rather than browsing aimlessly in the Web, they have clear goals for locating high quality resources that pertain to their studies. They publish these in collaboration with other class members and link them to existing course materials. The same can be said of the independent research projects that the students develop in teams during the second semester of the course. These often lay the foundation for projects addressed by the entire class the next year. In some cases, the students lay out these new projects in hypertext form so that students in future years will benefit from their work.

The most important key to enfranchising students is, however, providing them a place in cyberspace that they can call their own--a homepage where they can publish their work and share their findings. Students quickly grasp the notion that they are no longer preparing their assignments for the instructor's eyes alone. Knowing that their work will be viewed by classmates and, potentially, Web users anywhere in the world, they exert care in what they publish and take pride in what they accomplish. Nothing reinforces this sense of being part of the larger GIS and scientific community than when students receive feedback and messages from Web users outside the university who have viewed their work. Students now return long after they have finished the course asking if they can improve and upgrade their Web projects, a situation that never arises with conventional term papers and projects.

Lessons Learned

The Geographer's Craft project was begun in 1991 with the course first offered under its own title and with a substantial body of hypertext teaching materials in 1993-94. Since the start of the project over $200,000 in NSF funds have been invested in equipment and salaries for the project in addition a great deal of institutional support from the University of Texas, including funds to staff, maintain, and upgrade of the computer laboratory where the class meets. Almost two dozen research assistants, teaching assistants, and graduate and undergraduate students have been involved directly or indirectly in developing and improving the modules that are now on-line. Creating effective Web teaching materials does not necessarily require this level of investment, though it certainly helped to speed up the process of development. Whereas most of the Geographer's Craft materials were developed in the two year period between 1994 and 1996, authoring might have stretched to three or four years in the absence of extramural support from the NSF. Irrespective of the investment, much has been learned about teaching GIS in the Web that applies to courseware development projects of any size.

Perhaps the most important lesson is to develop a staged plan for courseware, one that can be accomplished stepwise over several semesters or years. Developing this plan involves thinking through the goals of the GIS course first, and then deciding how to develop materials that support these goals. I envisioned the Geographer's Craft from the start as a year-long course in which students would master topical materials as they solved problems. This meant that the major thrust of development revolved around creating two sets of interdependent modules, those introducing the research problems and modules providing overviews of topical and technical issues. Other instructors teach GIS differently. In some cases, exercises are created to reinforce concepts addressed in textbooks. Here, the development effort would revolve around creating a hypertext laboratory manual of exercises rather than the lecture and discussion notes prepared for the Geographer's Craft project.

Once goals are set, a plan can be developed that involves creating hypertext materials one unit or module at a time. There is much to be gained from adopting a modular approach to hypertext development both from the point of view of the instructor and of the student. For the instructor, creating modules one at a time is an ideal way to gain facility with hypertext authoring. In the case of the Geographer's Craft, some of the first modules were adapted from sets of class notes that had been distributed to students in printed course packets. As I gained a sense of the capabilities of hypertext authoring, I worked with my research assistants to substantially rewrite materials as we converted them into hypertext form. Links and cross-references were woven directly into the discussions and graphics inserted to reinforce key points. Through time, we were also able to increase the interactive character of these modules.

Some of the best features were developed through a process of experimentation, another good reason to develop modules in steps. Each time my development team developed a new module we tried it out with students in lecture and lab. We found, for example, that it was too easy to become lost in some of the longer modules. They had to be reorganized into shorter sections with more elaborate navigational aids. Graphics were redesigned, moved, added, and eliminated based on feedback from the students and teaching assistants. This empirical approach to design paid off in substantially improved modules and greater facility with hypertext capabilities.

This testing also pays off for students. This was the first time they had encountered an electronic textbook and laboratory manual. They were as unfamiliar initially with using the hypertext format as I was with hypertext authoring. Introducing the materials a module at a time helped them gain much-needed experience. At first, students are tempted to print everything they found since they were far more comfortable with traditional paper materials. Gradually, this tendency passed as they learned that the materials were of greatest use to them on-line with their links alive and active. A good deal of shaping is involved in getting the students to use the Web effectively. They have to develop the ability to assess resources critically, just as they would library and bibliographic resources.

Developing materials using a stepwise, iterative approach will also reveal how best to organize the component files and this is a very important issue. The Geographer's Craft project now employs several thousand interlinked text and graphics files. Organizing these into a unified, logical whole can be a daunting task. My development team found that decisions regarding file structure and organization were a constant compromise between the conceptual organization of the materials and the practicalities of student use. Large files had to be divided and subdivided again. Graphics had to be indexed and stored close to the text files in which they are employed. We found it essential to define systematic conventions for naming and organizing files, creating subdirectories, and assigning links. Improvisation leads to constant headaches if substantial revisions are needed. Periodic maintenance of the materials is also a necessity. We check the links in all of our files once a semester to make sure they work correctly. Web addresses are stabilizing, but care must still be exerted to eliminate dead links and add new resources as they become available.

Looking to the Future

All of the materials prepared for the Geographer's Craft are being maintained on- line and can be used freely by anyone studying or teaching GIS. We ask only that, when used, the authors and the Geographer's Craft project be cited. We monitor the activity of our webserver on a weekly basis. As of late fall 1996, over 100,000 files a week were being called from the Geographer's Craft materials. Only 3-5,000 of these calls are made by students at the University of Texas. The rest are from educational, commercial, government, and military users around the world. Most requests come from countries that have extensive Internet connections and from the English-lanuage world, but usage has been recorded from almost every country connected to the Internet. Some of the individual modules, such as those on the GPS system, map projections, coordinate systems, and geodetic datums are called thousands of times per week.

We have also performed searches to find URLs outside the University of Texas pointing to our files. The GPS module is perhaps the most widely used and a recent search listed almost 900 external links to this file. Some are from personal homepages, but a majority of the links are embedded in teaching materials offered at other universities. We were surprised by magnitude of this external demand. When we first began to publish in the Web it was largely for our own convenience; it was faster to prepare materials using HTML than with standalone hypermedia authoring systems. But, within six months of our first files going on-line, external file calls were outpacing our own use.

These figures speak to the tremendous potential of the Web to promote GIS education. Viewed as an experiment or prototype, the Geographer's Craft gives an indication of how easily GIS educators and professionals can share educational materials and collaborate to develop more. A concerted effort to plan and develop an integrated set of educational materials could pay tremendous dividends both in the quality and compass of available GIS teaching resources. In some respects this sort of collaboration is already underway. The Virtual Geography Department Project ( ) was begun at the University of Texas in 1996 as a direct result of experience gained creating the Geographer's Craft. Over the three years of the project, geography faculty from all over the United States will be visiting Austin for summer workshops to plan and develop materials to span the entire geography curriculum. One working group has already formed in the area of geographic information science and geographic techniques. Sponsored by the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia under the leadership of Brian Klinkenberg, this Web page ( ) will serve as a clearinghouse for educational materials in GIS. Other resources will also soon be available on-line including the new Web edition of the Core Curriculum in GIScience ( ) now being assembled by the NCGIA at the University of California Santa Barbara, as well the NCGIA's project to develop a GIS core curriculum for technical programs ( ). In addition, educational resources developed by individual faculty are appearing at a rapid rate all around the world, as are new data sources. The UCGIS is also likely to play a role in cultivating high-quality, on-line educational resources in GIS.

The potential of such collaboration is very high. It would mean that instructors can share the cost in time and money of developing effective educational resources in GIS. They could share their best materials and make use of the best produced by others. Such opportunities also raise the question of distance education in GIS. Experiments are already underway in the United States, Britain, Austria, and the Netherlands to offer tutorials, courses, and certification programs in GIS in the Web. There is no reason why such efforts cannot be expanded as materials grow. Distance education would be of particular value to GIS professionals wishing to update or enhance their skills. It would also allow courses in GIS to be made available in regions of United States and world not well served by institutions of higher education. Finally, distance education could strengthen existing programs by enabling specialized courses to be shared among departments. I might send my students out in the Web to study terrain modeling and cartographic animation with faculty at other universities since no classes on these topics are offered in my department. But, at the same time, I do offer an interdisciplinary course with a colleague in anthropology on GIS in archeology that might attract students from other universities. Many issues must be resolved before distance education of this sort is widely available, but it may be a reasonable next step for GIS education in the Web.


For their contributions to the Geographer's Craft Project, I would like to thank Dr. Sonia Arbona, Alison Baird, Holly Behr, Lance Christian, Kirsten Connelly, Shannon Crum, Peter Dana, Donald Davis, Allison Goldberg, Chris Halloran, Keene Haywood, Jennifer Helzer, Chris Hindmarsh, Donald Huebner, Margaret Lynch, Katrin Molch, and students of the Geographer's Craft. The project was supported by NSF grants USE-9250310 and DUE-9354476. Figures were prepared by Shannon Crum.

Literature Cited

Antenucci, John; Kay Brown; Peter Croswell; Michael Kevany; and Hugh Archer. 1991. Geographic Information Systems: A Guide to the Technology. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Aronoff, Stan. 1989. Geographic Information Systems: A Management Perspective. Ottawa: WDL Publications.

Booth, Wayne, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams. 1995. The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Burrough, P.A. 1986. Principles of Geographical Information Systems for Land Resources Assessment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dana, Peter. 1995. Home on the Web: The University of Texas Builds a GPS Site, GPS World (November): 44-51.

Foote, Kenneth. 1994. The Geographer's Craft: A New Approach to Teaching Geographical Methods in the Liberal Arts Curriculum, The Pennsylvania Geographer 32 (July): 3-25.

Huxhold, William. 1991. An Introduction to Urban Geographic Information Systems. New York: Oxford University Press.

Monmonier, Mark. 1993. Mapping It Out: Expository Cartography for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Converted 11 January 1997. KEF.