Improving Learning and Applying GIS in Interdisciplinary Research

I guess I’m not alone in either struggling with GIS (Geographic Information System) technologies, or seeing colleagues struggle to effectively use it. When the GIS does not work, or when learning resources use jargon that the would-be GIS users do not understand, they tend to blame themselves. This should not be the case – though never intentional, badly designed systems, materials or practices should be held accountable and either improved or completely rethought. These problems exist, regardless of discipline, when using GIS.

My professional experience includes working in private, public and academic sectors, across a variety of industries, and I have seen this same issue continually arise – enthusiasm turning to frustration when people cannot do what they want to do with the GIS, so they abandon the technology. As GIS professionals, I believe we have a duty to do better and promote the overall understanding of GIS and associated materials, to improve the likelihood of success and uptake. It is my hope that through my research, we can learn how to better support an increasingly diverse range of GIS users, foster that enthusiasm for GIS and create a better and more inclusive community of practice with and around GIS.


Patrick Rickles helping an interdisciplinary researcher learning GIS

My recently published article, titled “A suggested framework and guidelines for learning GIS in interdisciplinary research”, is based upon my PhD research and has been written with co-authorship and support from my supervisors, Claire Ellul and Muki Haklay. In the article, I share elements of my PhD work which focused on how people go about learning to use GIS, particularly in the context of interdisciplinary research. From this work, I make recommendations on how these results can be used, going forward, to improve the process of learning GIS for future learners.

To begin, I had to first understand what interdisciplinary researchers were doing with GIS and the issues they faced that might affect uptake. These preliminary findings were discussed in Rickles & Ellul (2015), which identified challenges and suggested solutions in interdisciplinary research, as well as a theoretical understanding of learning approaches. Based on an evaluation of prominent interdisciplinary studies using GIS, and observations of an interdisciplinary team’s use of GIS, the relevance of those challenges and suggested solutions were reviewed to support a learning approach. The knowledge gap and time constraints were the most common challenges, with building relationships and training often suggested as solutions.  Problem Based Learning (PBL) – where learners restructure their knowledge to solve real world problems as part of a collaborative process with other learners and/or educators – was put forward as a viable approach for learning GIS in interdisciplinary research.



Modified Technological Pedagogical and Content Knowledge (TPACK) framework for learning GIS in interdisciplinary research

This article provides updates to and further enriches that initial research. An online survey of interdisciplinary researchers provided verification of the issues uncovered in the first article, with interviews providing a more in-depth exploration of what those issues may mean in a practical sense. An overview of those findings shows that interdisciplinary researchers are using GIS to create, analyse and visualise information; that they are using ArcGIS and QGIS desktop platforms as well as web GIS platforms such as Google Maps/Earth and ArcGIS Online; and that they are using informal learning methods (e.g. internet searches, watching a video, asking a more experienced person). The findings also suggest a more structured learning approach may be supportive of the learner, but PBL can be time consuming for both the learner and educator. Therefore, Context Based Learning (CBL), which recognises the importance of the context of the problem domain for the learning activity, but allows for materials to be created in advance, may be a more appropriate approach. Combining these elements, which modify the Technological, Pedagogical and Content Knowledge (TPACK) framework, guidelines and a specific framework are suggested for educators to use to support interdisciplinary researchers learning GIS. My further research has applied these in a practical setting using a learning resource titled “GIS Lessons for You” (, to test the guidelines and framework. The results will be published as part of my PhD and potentially as a future article.

Patrick Rickles is a PhD student in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at University College London, and is also an Implementation Analyst for the Department of Communities and Local Government.

Rickles, P. & Ellul, C. (2015). A preliminary investigation into the challenges of learning GIS in interdisciplinary research. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 39(2), 226-236

Rickles P., Ellul C., and Haklay M. A suggested framework and guidelines for learning GIS in interdisciplinary research. Geo: Geography and Environment, 2017; 4 (2), e00046 (open access)


One thought on “Improving Learning and Applying GIS in Interdisciplinary Research

  1. Pingback: Improving Learning and Applying GIS in Interdisciplinary Research | Geography Directions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s