There’s Merit in Using Competency-Based Badges to Teach GIS

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Stephen A. McElroy, the GIS program chair at American Sentinel University, outlines ASU’s online learning lab which uses a badge award system to promote GIS learning beyond the class setting.  

Geographic and geospatial information systems are often seen as cutting edge in business. Employing a wide array of technologies, including map-making, visualization, data management and statistical analysis, GIS helps executives and leaders with strategic, tactical, and operational planning and decision making.

Given the focus on technical acumen and ability in a field growing so quickly that companies have difficulty hiring enough qualified people, you might think that the process of teaching GIS would be as similarly dynamic. But it isn’t. Many GIS courses have employed the same techniques and strategies as most of higher education. Although there have been advances, particularly in the area of online courses and degree programs, the delivery of post-secondary education has been in a rut.

American Sentinel University’s geographic information systems program has experimented with a new supplemental approach: the combination of an online learning lab with a badge award system to recognize and document skill mastery beyond the normal coursework in GIS-related classes. The Geospatial Learning Lab is available to students in all GIS degree and certificate programs and supplements the dozens of courses that are part of the current GIS course curriculum. In addition, the lab serves the broader university because it provides a mechanism to help implement geospatial thinking across all the curricula.


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In creating this expanded offering, we worked to do the following:

  • encourage self-motivation;
  • demonstrate that professional education in GIS is ongoing;
  • foster greater curiosity;
  • enhance the traditional educational experience; and
  • add creativity and innovation  to disrupt a dulling sense of routine.

Geospatial Learning Lab at American Sentinel University

The learning lab creates the medium in which the badge system can work. The geospatial learning lab is a space that brings together resources and materials in a way that facilitates development of an active learning community. It is essentially a specialized intellectual commons in which tools for experiential learning, experimentation, and discussion among students and faculty are available. Students can find advanced tutorials and case studies, GIS data downloads, and geospatial innovations to gain more in-depth instruction for high-level and specialized tasks. The lab is a one-stop shop that allows students to explore a given topic in greater depth outside of the classroom environment.

Screenshot showing the home page for the Geospatial Learning Lab at American Sentinel University.

Screenshot showing the home page for the Geospatial Learning Lab at American Sentinel University.

At the heart of the lab is the concept of competency-based learning. Students acquire skills through the mastery of content. There are 10 technical areas, including image analysis, spatial statistics, 3D visualization and analysis, geoprocessing modeling and automation, geodatabases and topology, and surface modeling and terrain analysis. Each of the areas is divided into a three-tiered system: basic, intermediate and advanced.

Competency-Based Badges to Teach GIS

Students voluntarily undertake learning that is supplementary to courses. However that raises the question of the way in which American Sentinel can track and evaluate work done outside the confines of a course. The answer is simultaneously new and old: our badge system.

There is nothing new in the concept of giving a student an award for a demonstration of topic mastery. Every gold star given out in elementary school is an example. Many students are motivated by a competitive sense as well as a desire to acquire learning for its own sake. The concept continues in middle and high schools through academic awards and honor societies. In college, the awards may be less frequent, but there are societies that recognize achievement in particular fields as well as academic honors for greater levels of work and learning.

GIS topics that form the online badge system.

GIS topics that form the online badge system.

The badge system uses this well accepted and understood motivational method and puts it into a new context that has come to be known as gamification. Modern business applications have begun to use characteristics and techniques of computer and video gaming to motivate adults to perform tasks and learn. Challenges help engage people in the subject matter. For example, market analyst firm Gartner has estimated that within the next few years, 70 percent of global 2000 organizations will run at least one gamified application.

Next up: Advantages of a merit-based badge system.  


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