Teaching Geospatial Technologies to All



Given the presumption of a science (GIScience) behind the systems (GIS), and behind geospatial technologies in general, this workshop will challenge participants to consider what conceptual basis could guide users from any discipline in their choices and uses of specific spatial computations - and consequently should be taught in introductory courses to GIS and geospatial technologies.
Participants will envision how to use an explicit conceptual basis to transform how and to whom geospatial technologies are taught in higher education. We seek to answer the questions: What would it take to make learning geospatial technologies and GIS as commonplace in higher education as learning statistics (and statistics software) is today? In other words, what are possible “core concepts” behind geospatial technologies that could or should be imparted to any willing learner, regardless of discipline? And, more daringly, what concepts would help learners understand how to use GIS or other geospatial technologies to answer spatial questions?
GIS are commonly presented as sets of tools for analyzing, “capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth's surface”. However, these descriptions do not explain what types of questions can be answered with a GIS, nor how users should translate these questions into software commands. A teaching emphasis on data models (such as raster or vector models) narrows that gap, but remains too concerned with representations and procedures, and not enough with conceptualizations nor with questions themselves.
Determining how to teach geospatial technologies to all requires agreeing on a conceptual foundation that is meaningful and engaging for learners across disciplines. Unlike attempts to define a canonical form of geographic information or to reorganize GIS commands bottom-up, core concepts of spatial information can relate user questions directly to information system contents. For example, the field or network concepts each come with relatively well-defined “core computations” that make sense on them (say, map algebra and routing). One set of such core concepts has been gradually adopted into the undergraduate GIS curriculum at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and is beginning to transform and simplify the dominant image of GIS and spatial computing on campus and beyond.
The aspiration behind this workshop is to start a conversation among scientists from multiple disciplines about how advances in the theory of geographic (or, more generally, spatial) information can be used to bridge the gap between users and systems at a conceptual level.


This workshop will explore core concepts to teach when introducing geospatial technologies, regardless of the learners’ disciplinary backgrounds. Striving for a set of core concepts is motivated by the observation that statistics is taught successfully across academia using a solid conceptual foundation (measurement scales, probability distributions and their parameters, confidence intervals, statistical tests).
Can spatial computing be taught with a similarly strong conceptual foundation, rather than mainly as software training? And if so, what concepts would likely make geospatial technologies more accessible across academia? The workshop will specifically explore how certain concepts guide the choice of spatial computations to answer domain questions, similar to how measurement scales (nominal, ordinal, interval, ratio) guide the choice of statistical computations to answer primarily non-spatial domain questions. This link between concepts and, ultimately, the choice of software commands, is the key innovation to be pursued in the workshop.

Planned outcomes

We propose to produce a special issue of an international journal, with papers resulting from the workshop, and in response to a pre-workshop manifesto to be written by the workshop organizers. The journal will be selected from those covering geography or geosciences education (e.g., Journal of Geography in Higher Education) or those addressing IT/software education (e.g., IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies). The journal and other specific outcomes of the workshop deliberations will be decided with all participants in the last session of the workshop.


We intend for this workshop to last a full day with two three-hour sessions. The morning session will start with introductory presentations by the organizers, followed by presentations from participants and organizers on proposed conceptual foundations and their associated computations. The afternoon session will identify and analyze specific gaps between spatial questions and geospatial technologies, through plenary and breakout group discussions. The workshop will conclude with a discussion of group work findings, and how the workshop inputs and findings will be organized for an archival publication. Program modifications are possible, based on participant suggestions before and during the workshop.

Session I (9:00am - 12:00pm)
Lunch Break (12:00 - 1:30pm)
Session II (1:30 - 4:30pm)

Workshop Material


Contact person

Werner Kuhn, UCSB Center for Spatial Studies

Organizing committee

Werner Kuhn, Department of Geography, University of California, Santa Barbara
Karen Kemp, Spatial Sciences Institute, University of Southern California
Christoph Brox, Institute for Geoinformatics, University of Münster
Sara Lafia, Department of Geography, University of California, Santa Barbara
Thomas Hervey, Department of Geography, University of California, Santa Barbara
Behzad Vahedi, Department of Geography, University of California, Santa Barbara
Jingyi Xiao, Department of Geography, University of California, Santa Barbara