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School students’ perceptions of the nature and value of GIS: Implications for curriculum development and pedagogical practice

Written by: Grace Healy  Nicola Walshe
9 min read

Geographical information systems (GIS) are a powerful tool for the visualisation and analysis of geographical information (Fargher , 2017) – for example, combining population density and flood risk data to support environmental planning. There has been a global increase in GIS use in secondary schools over the past ten years, mainly due to the perceived benefits it provides. Bednarz (Bednarz , 2004) summarises these by outlining what she identifies as three competing yet complementary justifications for incorporating GIS into secondary education: firstly, the educative justification that GIS enhances teaching and learning in geography, in particular through the development of spatial literacy; secondly, the workplace justification that GIS plays the role of preparing children for the information economy; and finally, the place-based justification, or the argument that GIS supports the study of local communities. Although we suggest that there is a need for more specific research to support these assertions, there is now general agreement that GIS has a significant place within the geography classroom. The 2014 National Curriculum for Geography in England states that pupils should ‘interpret a range of sources of geographical information, including… using GIS to view, analyse and interpret places and data’ (DfE, 2013), and examination specifications require the use of GIS.

Despite these benefits of GIS, geography teachers still often shy away from engaging with GIS in their classrooms. It can be seen as being too technically complex, too difficult to integrate into an already busy curriculum, too time-consuming, or simply impossible to do in departments with limited access to computing devices (Hong , 2017). However, there has been very little research undertaken to consider school student experiences of GIS; this seems significant when these are potentially key in the successful integration of GIS into school geography. Research has shown that students’ ideas around geography are multifaceted in nature (Hopwood, 2009), but previous studies around students’ perceptions of school geography have not included a focus on GIS.

Context and methodology for the research

In response to this, we have undertaken longitudinal research to explore how a programme of GIS integrated within an A-level examination course develops students’ perceptions of the value of GIS, their engagement with it, and its impact on their geographical knowledge. The research was undertaken at a comprehensive 11–18 school in England with one class of 16–17-year-old geography students (with one student declining to take part in the study). The study was framed as an interpretive case study and data-collection methods included: questionnaires, interviews, naturalistic observation and in-depth analysis of students’ work. Such small-scale research is limited in scope and, by nature, both provisional and contestable. This article will report on one strand of the research, which focuses on exploring students’ initial perceptions of the value of GIS. For this part of the study, the data collection included questionnaires and individual, semi-structured interviews. In the interviews, students were asked to define GIS and consider how it was related to their geographical learning.

Analysis of questionnaire and interview data was achieved through using the CAQDAS programme, QDA Miner Lite. A process of open coding was undertaken, through which a set of classification categories emerged from the data.

What are geography students’ perceptions of the nature and value of GIS at the beginning of their A-level course?

In order to elicit students’ understandings of GIS, we asked a range of questions, both directly (e.g. had they heard of GIS, could they define it?) and indirectly (in particular, a list of applications that students were asked to judge as GIS or not GIS). Of the 15 students, only two said that they had heard of GIS. However, we then asked students to elaborate on what they thought it might relate to. As illustrated in Figure 1, the most commonly held belief about GIS is that it is something computer-related. Students also frequently mentioned that GIS might be a type of map, and there were a few comments on how GIS might be related to place.

Figure 1 is titled "Students' initial perceptions of GIS". It shows a survey chart to the question "What is GIS?". The horizontal axis of the chart is labelled "Number of mentions". The vertical axis lists six different answers. They are from top to bottom and in order of the most number of mentions: "Computer-related", "Places", "Map-related", "Presents information", "Specific given example (e.g. Digimap)" and "Helps analysis of data".

We will now briefly set out two vignettes to exemplify the range of student perceptions of GIS: Saneem and Pasima. When asked about her attitude to new technology, Saneem said that she embraces it, and in the attitudes to technology survey she agreed with a number of statements seeing technology in a positive light, for example: ‘I would consider a job in a technological role’, and ‘technology is something schools should teach about’. Saneem was one of only two students who claimed to know anything about GIS; she described it as ‘a software program designed to store geographical information which can be viewed or analysed’, giving the example of ‘Googlemaps’. Saneem not only had experience of GIS, but she also had a positive attitude to technology and its potential uses.

In contrast, Pasima’s questionnaire and interview responses suggest a lack of confidence in her technology use. In her interview, she said: ‘I don’t really like technology, I just get a bit scared if I’m going to mess something up, but if someone properly teaches me how to do it then I’ll be fine.’ In the attitudes to technology survey, she agreed with statements such as ‘I do not understand why anyone would want a job in technology’, ‘you can study technology only when you are good at both mathematics and science’. She said that she did not know what GIS is and would not hazard a guess as to what it might be. In this way, Pasima not only had no existing perception of what GIS is, but she articulated her feelings towards technology in a negative way, seeing it as something that is beyond her academic capabilities.

Following an initial lesson, which involved introducing students to GIS, students created maps within Esri’s ArcGIS Online (cloud-based GIS platform with free access for schools)  to address the geographical aspects of their chosen place (e.g. location, locale and sense of place). Interestingly, Saneem constructed some initial maps within ArcGIS and then wrote this up within a Word document, despite the considerable scope for presenting the data in a more sophisticated way through ArcGIS online. Pasima, who had been less confident about using GIS, engaged well with the task, completing her maps of Cambridge within ArcGIS Online, which included mapping crime data for the area and integrating geo-located descriptions within her maps.

There seemed to be role reversal, with Pasima growing in confidence and developing her GIS skills, whilst Saneem opted out of using GIS, which was apparently at odds with her initial perceptions of what it would be like. Pasima was then able to draw links between her geographical data sets, supported by their visualisation within ArcGIS Online, whereas Saneem was unable to effectively analyse her geographical data due to the way in which she chose to present these without GIS; this ultimately hindered the quality and scope of Saneem’s discussion around the geography of her chosen place, illuminating the transient nature of students’ perceptions and attitudes towards GIS, as well as the resultant impact on their geographical learning.

Implications for curriculum development and pedagogical practice

The first point of reflection from these initial results, is the importance of addressing student misconceptions. Nearly half of the students thought GIS was ‘just a map’. Therefore, an explicitly critical approach to teaching GIS may help students, primary-aged and above, to better understand not only maps within GIS but also maps more broadly.

The second point relates to a need for students to see the purpose of GIS. In the questionnaires, they were asked why they think GIS is in the A-level syllabus; the most common response was that it provided information about places, then that it was for coursework, and finally that it was applicable to all subjects in geography. Moving forward, we need to better develop our pedagogy, ensuring that students can understand why they are being asked to engage with GIS, in order to better motivate them to do so. To address this, within our study, GIS became an integral part of students’ Year 12 fieldwork, with industry experts from Esri leading preparation and analysis with the students (Healy et al., 2018). The school also became involved with the GeoMentor programme (set up by Esri UK and the Royal Geographical Society), which engages industry-users of GIS with schools and students. This provided the opportunity for students to be introduced to how GIS is used by real-world geographers. Hopefully this, along with teachers using GIS more in their teaching to model its use, will provide avenues for students to more clearly see the relevance of GIS, both to their A-level studies and on a wider scale.

The third point is the tension between engaging students with technology versus using technology to engage with geography. For some of the students, use of GIS in their initial place-based story map appeared to detract from the geography, rather than adding to it. GIS is included on many A-level exam specifications as something to be ticked off a checklist. This is leading to GIS being perceived merely as a skill, rather than being harnessed as a tool to develop deeper geographical knowledge and thinking. We need to develop a pedagogical approach that uses GIS to contribute to students’ geographical knowledge; for example, developing interactive maps within GIS might support students to engage with significant national debates on social inequality through census data (Maude , 2018); (Walshe , 2018) or to make sense of the causes and effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami (Fargher , 2018).

The final point relates to the challenge of developing pedagogies that will continue to challenge and stimulate Saneem’s thinking, whilst also supporting and nurturing Pasima, both academically and attitudinally. We think that this is important to consider right at the beginning of a school’s journey with GIS, to ensure that it does not reopen a digital divide.

In conclusion, for the full potential of GIS to be realised, there needs to be clarity for students around the nature of what GIS is and the extent to which it can be of value when used within their studies. For curriculum development and pedagogical practice, it is necessary to ensure that the primary objective in shaping the teaching of GIS is its contribution to developing students’ geographical knowledge and thinking. Further research would be beneficial to examine the distinctive pedagogies that are needed to effectively embed GIS across the primary and secondary geography curriculum.


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