GI MSc on the way out 5

At last week’s AGI Foresight workshop Muki Haklay made the provocative statement that he expected Masters programs in pure GI to disappear within a few years and for GI to increasingly be taught as modules within other programs. Quite a few of the participants including several academics seemed to agree with him. When I tweeted this it prompted some rebuttal from my friends at Kingston pointing out that being able to drive a GIS package did not imply an understanding of geographic analysis.

A couple of days later and Peter Batty pointed out this post by Don Meltz comparing GIS to word processing. You probably would not want to take a Masters in word processing but you might want an MA in creative writing or journalism (especially if you fancy a career as an unpaid blogger).

It seems that the geography bit is going to come to the fore again.

5 thoughts on “GI MSc on the way out

  • Bish

    I think there is still a place for the specialist GIS degree. I started my degree in GIS at Kingston in 1999. Back then I was introduced to ArcInfo, and with it command line programming (my first and last bit of coding). In 2003 as I was graduating it was quite apparent that all of the command line code (I copy and pasted, as I’m just not cut out to be a developer) was left totally redundant. The world had moved on to point and click GUI’s. I thought Sweet! The theory I learned was becoming easier to put into practise. I could now see how the principles of spatial modelling and analysis that totally enthused me, could immediately solve business and social problems with a few clicks. The tech changes, but the principles remain with me to this day.

    I have to say the course set me up extremely well to progress into the industry (first public sector, then commercial) surely that’s the point? I wasn’t there to “learn how to use a package and get a job', but to ‘learn how to solve problems and get a job’. To solve problems I often had to use tools (command line back then). If the ‘…get a job’ part wasn’t in the course, I’d question why I was investing a significant sum of my own cash each year in tuition fees. Much like back in the ArcInfo command line days I never wake up in the morning and think to myself "I must write some javascript today".


  • Ken

    I think the debate is becomming clearer – it's the good old 'teaching vs training' debate that we've mulled over for decades.

    So it looks like we're singing from the same song sheet – there is no place for training based quals. If that's what people want then go take a 3 days course from one of the suppliers. Let's make sure quals focus on teaching concepts, theories, principles, debate as well as application etc etc.


  • Ken

    I agree with James and, as you'd expect (and as I tweeted last week upon hearing Muki's comments) have a slightly different take on the future.

    There is a place for qualifications in GI/GIS as there is in almost all walks of life for the reasons James notes. Clearly Kingston have a vested interest as a key player in developing generations of future GI savvy graduates-people whom employers can trust to go into the workplace and not only be competent but have insight, foresight and understanding.

    We have seen increasing numbers in the last few years at undergraduate and postgraduate level; this year has seen a massive increase and we think this is set to continue as GIS enters the School curriculum and more will be exposed to the basics at an earlier age – and, we hope, enthused to look at it as a stepping stone to a geolifestyle and a geocareer for which you'd probably need geoqualifications.

    Embedding in geography programmes is a tricky one. It makes a lot of sense BUT curriculums are already squeezed and one of the first things to go are 'techinques' courses such as quantitative analysis, cartography etc. Trying to find a place for GIS streams is not going to happen. We know from first hand experience at Kingston that getting other 'geo' programmes to embed some GIS is a tough nut to crack. There is also far too much to fit into a 3 year undergrad single hons in GIS at the moment so even we face a tough decision about what GI threads to do in our degree curriculum. The discipline is big and growing. There is space for GI qualifications and at MSc level we see many needing re-training and seeking qualifications as a career/CPD benefit.

    Interestingly, I go agree with Muki in the sense that certain institutions are good at some things and others should focus on different parts of academia…meaning that qualification 'providers' should be the focus at some places and not others. UCL are research driven. It's where most of their money comes from. Kingston gets the majority of its income through student fees. UCL have a good number of GI/GIS staff who concentrate on research and do little (if any) teaching. At Kingston, there are 5 of us who have large GIS teaching loads and research fits around that core business. We offer different things to the industry and that distinction should remain and be encouraged. The danger is a proliferation of courses that 'claim' to 'do' GIS when, in fact, they do little more than an introductory module or two. That danger means that graduates will come out of geography degrees with low levels of knowledge and understanding.

    There is already a shortage of quality in the GI graduate marketplace and if we dilute GIS education further by embedding into generic programmes(or if Muki is right) then that will only get worse. That's not to say we shouldn't encourage GI and GIS as a framework for other subjects to build upon…we have a lot to offer numerous disciplines if only they would open their eyes and be accepting. But we also have to maintain and develop our own academic domain.

  • Muki Haklay

    In order not to be misunderstood – I think that the guys in Kingston have a point as the principles will remain valuable for as long as computerised analysis of geographical information continues.

    I would expect that the MSc in GIS will evolve to focus on principles – for example, focusing on the technical principles for developers and the analysis principles for analysts.

    What I was emphasising is that the 'ArcInfo/Mapinfo/… driving license' model of the MSc in GIS is dead. So there will be MSc in something that relate to geographical technologies, but it won't be about 'learn how to use a package and get a job'.

  • James


    I think the discussion probably centres around the generic use of GIS to describe both the systems and the science behind them.

    I don't disagree that you could do a simple ESRI/PBBI training course and learn how to push the buttons in ArcGIS/MapInfo. Doing an MSc in button pushing would be like doing an MSc in Word Processing.

    The analogy is a good one – just because I can open Word and type doesn't mean I'll win a Pulitzer Prize. Similarly just because I can click around in the geospatial tools/wizards in Arc doesn't mean I'm actually producing relevant analysis on an appropriate dataset.

    Masters in GIS need to introduce a little of the button pushing (and usually do) as a practical means of demonstrating the theory and the science lying behind the scenes.

    So I agree an MSc in button pushing is obsolete but an MSc in what happens when you push those buttons, how to choose the right button to push and how to build what goes behind those buttons is still relevant and important.

    The Geography in GIS definitely has a place as does the Science in the Master of Science and the S=Science as far as I'm concerned.

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