Friday, October 21, 2005

Top 10 Most Common Student-Encountered GIS Problems

I have been working with and teaching undergrad and grad students GIS for 4+ years now and have compiled a list of the 10 most frequent problems that they encounter. In my current position, I spend about 15 hours per week holding office hours in the main GIS Lab on campus, where students, staff, and faculty can visit for GIS assistance, and rarely do I have a free moment. (Well, perhaps during intercession.) I often find myself explaining the same concepts and pointing out the same resources over and over again, so I wanted to pull together this list. ESRI ArcGIS is the main software application used on campus and so many of the examples below refer to this application.

This list is ranked with number one being the most frequent problem.

  1. Problems with Spatial References

    • Too often students ignore it entirely. I put some of the blame onto ESRI ArcMap, whose powerful on-the-fly projections lull students into not giving enough consideration to the spatial references of their files. Precision is sacrificed, and of course when the analysis portion of their project begins, errors will start creeping in.
    • Students often have trouble understanding the differences between defining a spatial reference and actually applying one..

  2. Too task-focused / Not management oriented

    • Projects are often begun without a clear plan or idea of what they are out to accomplish or which data sources they will need. Now, I understand that this is common among college students, but the troubles students will run into are exponentially higher with GIS-involved projects than with papers based solely on print materials. If their research rests upon a particular dataset, it is disastrous if they find this out after many hours of work.
    • Files are often named poorly and disorganized within numerous folders among countless older versions. I can never stress how vital it is to properly organize GIS data files as even they will not remember which files are actually being used in their projects.
    • Poorly saved .MXD ArcMap project files. I also blame ESRI a bit for this. The default in ArcMap is to save the relative path of the data files in the project file. This can be changed to the full-path, but this is feature is not in an intuitive place for students to find.

  3. False Assumptions

    • The number 1 false assumption is the belief that all the datasets they need is inside the GIS software or on the CD included with the book (whichever book is assigned for their class).
    • The assumption that there are no GIS products out there beyond ESRI. For example, students who work at non-profit organizations would like to be able to join TIGER shapefiles to Census data to support grant applications, and are not optimistic about ArcMap's pricetag. There are some fantastic easy-to-use free applications out there.

  4. Trouble Finding Data

    • Some students cannot find the data they need. This is understandable. GIS data is very dispersed and while there are several good efforts, there is no single 1-stop shopping.
    • Now, some students actually purchase data. This frustrates me a bit. Why? Because 9 out of ten times (perhaps even more) the data is freely available. I hate to see freely available data redistributed for a fee without even any added value. The times when the data is not freely available? Well, we might have already have purchased it. If not, then perhaps the library can purchase it and then the entire campus will have access.

  5. Poor Understanding of Relational Databases

    • Students who have never dipped their hands into the innards of a relational database before are at a disadvantage when learning and using GIS.
    • Cardinality principles are essential
    • An understanding of field types and what they can hold
    • Microsoft Access is a single-user database system. Ensuring that a personal geodatabase is not being used by another application or set to read only cause students a lot of troubles.

  6. Trouble with File Conversions

    • Converting .e00 files. Yet another problem I will lay at the doorstep of ESRI, version 9.0 in particular. The conversion tools involving ArcInfo Interchange files are extremely hidden in ArcCatalog. I do not know whether this tool is more accessible in version 9.1.
    • CAD to Feature problems. A great geoprocessing tool exists, but the concept of using a bridge between the CAD and a feature class is a difficult concept for our architects and civil engineers who want to use the capabilities of ESRI software.
    • Importing uncommon raster formats

  7. Insufficient Understanding of Statistics

    • Students have an idea about the type of analysis they want to do but do not have the background in statistics to do it properly.
    • Examples include spatial regression or kriging. Between ESRI and and GeoDa, we have the tools for many complex statistical operations without having to export the data into a statistical package, but a background in statistics is necessary to obtain relevant results.

  8. Confidence Problems

    • The nature of being a student (for many students) is that they are not confident enough in their ability to figure it out. I try to impress upon them how nobody knows it all, and that after learning the basics of GIS, most of it is non-stop troubleshooting and figuring things out. Students should not give up when they face a new GIS problem. The need to persevere because, in my opinion, that is what it's all about.

  9. Problems with Cartographic Principles

    • So focused on the data and the analysis that not enough thought about the symbols used, layout, map audience, placement, font, etc... It is a shame when students develop a beautifully developed GIS project and the maps included in their powerpoint or in their papers are practically unreadable.

  10. Technology Reluctances

    • A good example is the reluctance to touch anything that even resembles command-based or scripting languages. Some students have a fear similar to that of needles.


perrygeo said...

Right on the money! I spent 5 semesters as a Teaching Assistant for GIS courses at Humboldt State University and I have never seen such concise and accurate summary.

Once they get over the lack of confidence and fear of technology, the rest usually come easily. I've found that the best way to avoid problems is to spend a large amount of time up front with file management. We had 3 hours of lab time devoted to moving files, saving mxds, naming data, etc. It really deserves more hours than that.

I've also found that enforcing good note taking is essential. It's so easy to forget the details in the course of a project. Spend time up front to make sure students know how to thouroughly document their processing steps. Making students turn in a page description of the process also helps them retain the overall intent of the lesson.

I think it also helps if lab excercises are not "cookbooks" that can be blindly followed without being understood. These do more harm than good. Make the general outline clear but have students learn to use the docuementation to fill in the details.

Nice work!

Anonymous said...

On the issue of assuming that "there are no GIS products out there beyond ESRI" there is also at least one cost effective commercial alternative - Manifold System.

Dylan Beaudette said...

Nice summary. I would also like to chime in on how utterly useless some of the ESRI cookbook style examples in books like Getting to Know ArcGIS are. Furthermore, due to the high level of abstraction present in some gis products, students spend more time learning about clicking on the right button rather than why they are clicking on a button at all. I feel that this point is especially valid for all of the 'wizzard' style approaches that are so prevailient these days.

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