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

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Advantages of a Merit-based Badge System

In a way, our approach is an online version of merit badges. An award badge system, whether traditional or virtual, provides two major types of incentives. Badges channel the natural competitiveness that many people exhibit into learning. For students that respond to such stimuli—not everyone does—the subconscious itch to obtain more recognition by acquiring additional badges can only be satisfied by learning more and demonstrating new skills.

A second type of incentive is found when a student equates possession of badges with increased marketability. The more badges, the more practical GIS expertise the student gains. Eventually that can translate into expanded career opportunities than someone who only participates in traditional courses.

The hierarchy of badges parallels that of each technical area. An area has three corresponding badges: basic, intermediate and advanced. At the basic level, students learn concepts by reviewing a collection of ArcGIS Help pages, supplemental readings, instructional videos and recorded training seminars. Intermediate badges involve building fundamental knowledge by completing webinars, web courses and self-guided tutorials. For an advanced badge, the student applies skills to real-world applications by completing unstructured, open-ended, self-guided case studies with a strong hands-on component.


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The badges are issued in PDF format so students can archive and print them. Students incorporate their badges into an online portfolio that documents their progress in the learning lab studies. Such an approach is necessary to maintain academic rigor and control, as without it there would be no way to tell who had complete the work and how much a student had accomplished.

Example Geospatial Learning Lab badge from American Sentinel University.

Example Geospatial Learning Lab badge from American Sentinel University.

American Sentinel already has a number of future developments planned for the badge system. These include an improved way for faculty to track student process, an automated badge delivery mechanism, single sign-in to link badges to student online portfolios, further integration of learning lab and badge topics into course content, and tighter two-way integration between courses and the Geospatial Learning Lab.

The Geospatial Learning Lab and the badge system are works in progress. But we think they are examples of an important direction that GIS education needs to take. Preparing students with the range of skills and experiences to start productive careers will require teachers and schools to use technology more effectively to enable and encourage learning.

About Dr. McElroy:

Dr. Stephen McElroy has been in the GIS field for more than 15 years, working as a GIS technician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Southwest Watershed Research Center and as a senior research specialist for the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy and the Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Arizona. He has also taught as an adjunct professor of geography at Pima Community College, West Campus, and the University of Arizona and served as geospatial technologies manager for Statistical Research, Inc., an applied research firm working in archaeology, anthropology, history and historic architecture. Dr. McElroy has extensive international travel experience in Latin America, Europe and India. He has published numerous articles on geographic and geospatial topics and is proficient in integrative research methodologies, the use of geo-spatial technologies in community projects geographic information systems and remote sensing.

Dr. McElroy holds a Ph.D. in geography from the joint doctoral program at San Diego State University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in Latin American studies from the University of Arizona and a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from the University of Cincinnati. He also holds a GIS professional certification from the GIS Certification Institute.


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