Geographic Information Systems: The Missing Educational Technology

By Daniel C. Edelson, Ph.D.

May 27, 2014

Author’s note: On May 27, 2014, Esri, the market leader in Geographic Information Systems technology, announced a commitment in support of President Obama’s ConnectED Initiative.  Esri will provide free access to ArcGIS Online to all elementary and secondary schools in the United State.  Under this pledge, schools will receive the same advanced mapping software used by government and business at no charge.  This essay was written in recognition of the enormous benefit to education represented by Esri’s historic contribution.

It is still fashionable to decry the lack of technology in American schools, but the reality is that the use of computers is now commonplace in schools all across America.  Unfortunately, it is still all too common for schools to use computers to replicate outdated educational approaches, or worse, to chase after fads that offer limited educational benefit.

However, between the extremes of old wine in new bottles and too-good-to-be-true silver bullets, there is a growing middle ground of computer applications in schools that reflect the unique benefits of computing technologies for teaching and learning.  One promising class of these applications is modeling and analysis tools.

Modeling and analysis tools enable students to manipulate and analyze dynamic representations of phenomena.  These tools can be found across the curriculum—in the form of simulations in the sciences, spreadsheets and graphing calculators in mathematics, and programming and design software in the technology curriculum.

When students work with modeling and analysis tools, they develop two important forms of understanding in tandem.  On the one hand, they learn about the phenomena themselves.  When a student manipulates a computational model of a falling object in physics, she has the opportunity to learn about the underlying physics concepts through forms of direct interaction that are not possible in a physical lab or through traditional representations, like equations and static diagrams.

At the same time, they are learning skills and practices.  When the physics students modifies parameters in a physics simulation and observes the effects, she is learning to conduct inquiry in a way that is critical to not just physics, but all the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.  The value of learning practices like these was recently recognized by a National Academy of Sciences panel in their recommendations for the Next Generation Science Standards.

Unfortunately, one critically important class of applications has been overlooked in the integration of modeling and analysis tools into the curriculum.  This is the class of tools for modeling and analyzing geographic phenomena, often referred to as geographic information systems (GIS) or geospatial technologies.

In a nutshell, GIS tools present data about the location and spatial distribution of things in the world in the form of interactive maps, and they provide powerful functions for asking questions and analyzing what-if scenarios with those data.  When the military prepares a battle plan, when Starbucks decides where to put a store, when transportation planners determine where to put a bus route, and when the Forest Service assesses fire risk they all use geographic information systems.

Geographic information systems combine interactive mapping with a database and analytical tools that are optimized for exploring geographic relationships.  They allow users to identify optimum locations and routes—where should we put a landfill? How can we transport our materials to the manufacturing plant?— and to model alternative scenarios—what if a 100-year rain storm occurs in July?  How would response times be affected by closing that fire station?

There are many reasons that the value of GIS as an educational technology has been overlooked, including the systematic neglect of geo-education, the portion of the curriculum where students learn how the world works, which includes geography, earth science, environmental science, and ecology.  However, we cannot afford to continue to leave GIS behind for reasons that are as compelling as economic competitiveness, national security, and environmental sustainability.

Here are some of the ways GIS can be used in the K-12 curriculum:

  • In earth science, students can GIS to plot earthquakes and volcanoes, and use data about the depth of earthquakes and relative locations of volcanoes to locate and categorize faults.
  • In environmental science, students can use GIS to evaluate the feasibility of using wind, solar, and biomass as energy sources for electricity generation in specific locations.
  • In ecology, students can use GIS to model the impact of habitat conversion on the plants and animals that live nearby.
  • In civics, students can use GIS to predict the impact of demographic changes and redistricting on election results.
  • In history, students can use GIS to explore the relationship between economic development, transportation routes, and large-scale population shifts, like the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South beginning in the late 1800s.
  • In geography, students can use GIS to examine how well theories like Christaller’s Central Place Theory explain the distribution of cities and towns in the real world.
  • In service learning, GIS can be used to map a community’s assets and identify underserved locations.

The important thing about all of these uses of GIS is that it combines the two forms of learning that I mentioned earlier.

When students use geospatial modeling and analysis tools to investigate plate tectonics, they are developing a deeper understanding of plate tectonics because they are engaging in authentic, first-person investigations.  The technology facilitates that learning because it enables them to interact with the phenomena through dynamic, three-dimensional representations that take the familiar form of maps.  (While learning through inquiry is not new, modern graphics make complex processes much more accessible to learners than they ever have been.)

In addition to learning content more deeply, students are also acquiring essential 21st century modeling and analysis skills.  They are learning to use database queries to ask questions of data.  They are learning to use mathematical functions and logical combinations to explore hypothetical scenarios, construct explanations, and make predictions. Finally, they are learning to construct maps and other visual representations to communicate findings to others.

While the examples above are drawn from the middle and high school curriculum, GIS and interactive mapping are not just for older students.  Students in primary grades can use them to create maps of their schoolyards, neighborhoods, and communities.  These experiences help them to develop fundamental spatial reasoning skills that will benefit them throughout their lives.  As they progress through the grades, students can use GIS to work through problems involving scale and density, two very important and challenging concepts in mathematics that are essential to the natural and social sciences.

The idea of incorporating GIS into schools is not new.  Progressive geographers and educators have been experimenting and advocating for nearly as long as GIS has existed.  However, there have always been obstacles… user-interfaces that are too complicated for students, software installation and administration that is too challenging for school technical staff, lack of awareness among educators and administrators.

Fortunately, the steady march of technical progress has improved the usability of GIS software to the point where it can be introduced in the elementary classroom.  GIS in the cloud means that schools no longer need to install or administer software.  That just leaves the obstacle of awareness, but in 2014 there is no excuse for ignorance of the power and promise of GIS as a learning technology.


Daniel Edelson is vice president for education at the National Geographic Society and directs National Geographic’s Center for Geo-Education.  He has conducted research and written about the use of GIS in education for more than 20 years.  He has developed several GIS tools specifically for use in schools, and he is the author of both high school and middle science textbooks that use GIS to support inquiry-based learning.  Follow him on Twitter at: @NatGeoEdelson

Information about Esri’s contribution to the ConnectEd Initiative can be found at

National Geographic’s Education Portal offers dozens of free resources for learning with and about GIS.  They can be found here.



8 thoughts on “Geographic Information Systems: The Missing Educational Technology

  1. As a social studies educator, I love the possibilities that GIS gives teachers both in their own classrooms and working with colleagues across disciplines. Herding all the right cats to get a GIS program set up in a school seems a bit daunting, though. I would love to see some testimonials from classroom teachers on how they started using GIS in their classes, the obstacles they encountered, and how they worked around them.

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