With a Little Help From Our Friends: Implementing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in K-12 Schools


Daniel P. Donaldson

The first International Conference on GIS in Education, held in July 2000, underscored the current renaissance in geography education and a more
far-reaching reality about American education as well. The commitment to produce geographically-competent students has been the constant driving force in geography education. Yet, as its proponents enjoy the rebirth of K-12 geography education, they must also acknowledge that—while the subject matter of geography education may have remained similar over time—the modes by which geographic concepts are learned and taught in the classroom have changed, often significantly. Indeed, while geography education has “returned” to the school classroom, it has come back in the context of a society that expects learning to be accomplished in concert with modern learning technologies, chiefly the computer. But obstacles are posed by wide differences in the variety of computer technology available in American classrooms.

Among the most exciting developments in geography education today is the geographic information system (GIS), a tool that enables students to examine layers of geography in ways that can reveal fascinating and unique patterns and processes. Yet, the world a GIS can illustrate is being obscured by numerous barriers to its implementation. Successful use of GIS in classrooms depends not only on the requisite hardware and software infrastructures, but also on a host of institutional and personal information networks. This article draws on survey research to identify the most significant infrastructures needed for successful GIS implementation in K-12 education.


GIS in Context:
Technology and K-12 Education

Each year, our society becomes more entrenched in high technology. While the school classroom may not be the primary testing ground for most modern innovations, it has not escaped the attention of a country that wants its schools to produce graduates who are well prepared to function and flourish in an increasingly high-tech world.1

For many decades, researchers have grappled with the question of whether computers and other elements of high technology make a positive and appreciable difference in learning.2 The debate continues. However, acknowledging the strong demand for the use of new technologies in almost all facets of society, most researchers have chosen to reframe the debate rather than to insist on resolving it.3 The question “Does high technology improve leaning outcomes?” is thus transformed into “How can the capabilities of high technology be used to positively effect learning?”

Educators at all levels must choose among an increasingly complex and diverse array of technology solutions for the classroom. Audio, video, and text are now packaged in ways hardly imagined just one decade ago. Supporters of these teaching materials cite their ability to accommodate diverse learning styles and speeds, to support a constructivist learning environment, and to simply make learning more fun.4 However, the capabilities of these technologies and the desire to incorporate them into the learning environment do not guarantee their implementation. Many researchers have pointed to formidable barriers in implementing computer technologies in K-12 classrooms.5 Success in doing so will depend largely on the following factors:


Geographic Information Systems

Geographic information systems (GIS) evolved out of the need to process, store, manipulate, and display burgeoning amounts of spatial information. In fact, any piece of geographical data—from the location of street lamps to block-level voter registration—can be better examined with a GIS than with almost any other tool. The promise of GIS lies in its ability to merge digital geography layers (such as U.S. states or counties) with digital attribute information in a computer environment that offers enhanced capabilities for retrieval, storage, manipulation, analysis, and visualization. Moreover, this promise exists both within and without the explicit domain of the geographer.

The information contained in a GIS is not in itself unique. Rather, the uniqueness of GIS lies in its ability to integrate pieces of existing spatially-referenced information in unprecedented ways. Some go so far as to say that, based on the new perspectives offered by GIS, it might even constitute a new discipline.6 Whether or not this is a realistic assessment, there is little doubt that GIS offers great benefits in the constructivist, holistic model upon which it is based—a perspective that is gaining attention among educators.7

Many geography educators hold that enhancing geography education must include integrating spatial technologies such as GIS.8 GIS research has in turn expanded to include theoretical and practical questions about its place in the framework of K-12 education,9 since lack of such understanding would undermine the potential of the tool itself.10 Likewise, if GIS is to evolve into a significant force in education, more thought needs to be given to how it is implemented and used in classrooms. Most geography educators concur that successful GIS implementation will not be possible without a combination of (1) acknowledgment of its usefulness by teachers and administrators; (2) a concomitant level of financial support for this technology; (3) the provision of teacher training; and (4) the creation of networks to supply teachers and administrators with the entry-level and advanced information they need to implement GIS.


What Are Educators Telling Us?

Without question, people are talking about GIS. From K-12 classrooms to the television series “The District,” GIS is being considered at more levels, by more people, than ever before. Yet, to what degree are schools ready to implement GIS? The answer to that question is complex and depends upon an array of institutional and behavioral factors. The following discussion is based on two recent surveys of educators, one in Ohio and another in Oklahoma.11 In each case, a random sample of 250 public K-12 schools were sent a survey requesting information on their level of GIS readiness among other issues involving the use of technology in classrooms. The average response rate of both surveys was 40 percent. Objective and subjective responses were tabulated for analysis (see Tables 1, 2, and 3). The following are some of the responses to the surveys.


Computer Infrastructures

When asked to rate the importance of computers to the overall educational goals at their respective schools, respondents reported an average value of eight on a scale of ten (Table 1). That value indicates that computers are indeed making their way into  he culture of education at the schools surveyed. Eighty percent of all respondents indicated that the majority of the classrooms at their school contain at least one computer for student use. Furthermore, ninety-three percent of all respondents said their school contains a computer center or like facility dedicated to computer applications. Of all the computers existing in classrooms or laboratories in these schools, eighty-two percent are PC-based machines, although some Macintosh systems are in use. While it may seem trivial to request information on the type of computer used, it is indeed a significant factor when determining the current potential for GIS use. In fact, the lion’s share of all GIS software in schools and industry is produced by Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), which has stopped developing new versions of GIS for the Macintosh platform.

Teacher training in new technologies was seen as key to their successful implementation in the classroom. As one respondent put it, “How can they [teachers] be expected to lead students into places they have not been?” Ninety-eight percent of respondents reported that teachers at their school receive at least one in-service technology training session annually, while fifty percent reported more than three technology training opportunities in any given year. While this suggests positive ground for introducing GIS training, the consensus among survey respondents was that the amount of in-service training now available is not enough.

When asked about the importance of pre-service technology training (including GIS), the response was strong and clear. “Essentia#148; and “vita#148; were words commonly used. Most respondents noted that, as more curriculum series incorporate elements of computer technology, the need for new teachers to be technologically proficient right out of school is increasing dramatically. Most went on to suggest that pre-service training in technology should include learning not only how to use a tool, but how to apply it in meeting content standards.

Respondents were queried with regard to how much funding their school had to acquire, upgrade, or maintain existing computer stock. Sixty-seven percent reported that their annual technology funding for such purposes is more than $5,000, while nearly 45 percent reported annual budgets of more than $10,000. Just over 30 percent of all respondents indicated that their technology budgets were under $5,000 annually. Furthermore, 94 percent of respondents indicated that their current level of technology funding will at least remain the same, while 56 percent expected a moderate increase in future years.

Discussion. As with the implementation of most computer technologies, GIS will require a fair level of funding if it is to make strong inroads in American education. However, while desirable, it is not necessary for every student to have a computer in order for significant benefits to be realized. Indeed, one of the strengths of GIS in the school classroom is its ability to foster collaborative efforts. Today, a computer with the capability of running any number of GIS packages will cost an educational institution approximately $1,000. The literature is replete with examples of schools doing amazing things with GIS technology, whether with one or many computers.12

Based on several indicators, the ground appears to be fertile for GIS implementation in the schools surveyed. Indeed, the majority of respondents indicated that (1) computer use is important to the overall educational goals of their school, (2) the majority of these schools already possess at least the minimum computer capabilities needed to introduce GIS, (3) most of the teachers at these schools have at least one technology training opportunity per year, and (4) most of these schools have technology funding adequate to implement and support at least a rudimentary GIS program. Moreover, considering the growing array of free GIS resources (see esri.com), it is unlikely that lack of computer funding will create a barrier to GIS implementation for teachers who believe this technology can make a positive difference in teaching and learning. Yet a bountiful harvest requires more than fertile ground.


GIS Awareness and Use

When asked about their familiarity with GIS technology and a selection of prominent GIS packages, only 11 percent of all respondents reported having any such knowledge (Table 2). Only two schools surveyed, or less than 4 percent of the total sample, saw GIS being used anywhere on their campus. Considering the low proportion of respondents who had even heard of GIS, the low number of schools using GIS is hardly surprising. What is surprising is the fact that so few educators surveyed have even heard of GIS.

The interest is there. When asked if they would like information about GIS and how to use it at their school, 95 percent of respondents said “yes.” However, some respondents who declined the offer of free GIS information, and even some of those excited about its prospects, expressed doubts about using it. A typical statement: “I still have students who cannot write a simple sentence. How are they going to learn to use something like GIS?” Those who are educated about GIS will agree that GIS technology is not necessarily intended for only the most advanced students. Rather, GIS is a tool for students of all types and levels: often engaging those who are otherwise less than interested in traditional modes of learning. Evidently, GIS information and support is not making its way to many K-12 teachers.

Discussion. It has been rightly noted that developments in K-12 education often have significant impacts on college or university education, and vice versa.13 Much of that discussion focuses on the important role of college or university geography programs in preparing geography teachers and disseminating geography information and support. This survey provides a clear illustration of the need for post-secondary educators with GIS expertise to actively engage in pre-service and in-service teacher training. For if busy K-12 teachers are not excited about GIS and fail to see it as valuable for their students, GIS development and use in school classrooms will proceed slowly at best.

One study has suggested that a strong linkage already exists between classrooms that have successfully implemented GIS, colleges and universities, and geography alliances.14 That study noted that many secondary school teachers had, in fact, received their GIS training from seminars or workshops either sponsored or hosted by local universities. ESRI’s “GIS University” is an ongoing program with just such a mission, but without the scope for K-12 marketing. Moreover, expecting teachers to go to the sources of GIS information is not likely to achieve the goal of large-scale GIS implementation. Thus, a glaring question remains unanswered: if most K-12 teachers lack knowledge of GIS, where ultimately will they get it? This question is of the utmost importance to the future of GIS in the schools.



The overriding question guiding this study has been, “Are K-12 schools ready for successful implementation of GIS?” The answers given by respondents suggest that “ready” has more than one meaning. Clearly, the implementation of GIS in schools requires significant computer resources. However, one should not become overly fixated on the level of computer stock in considering the prospective role of GIS in K-12 education. Indeed, while most schools surveyed value computers, have the capability to expose students to at least some level of GIS, and will likely be able to support that effort into the future, there exists a weak link at a critical juncture. While computer training opportunities for teachers exist to some degree at all schools responding to the survey, it appears that few or none include information and training about GIS.

In the summer of 2000, the University of Central Oklahoma offered its first GIS training course for K-12 educators. The response was overwhelmingly positive. One might expect a similar response from most teachers, but this survey suggests that information about GIS is simply not making its way to them. Who will be charged with this task? The most realistic and powerful delivery mechanisms for GIS are universities and regional geography alliances, which can provide pre-service teacher training, in-service workshops, GIS Day activities, and informational mailings as paths to the successful implementation of GIS programs. But college faculties and alliance leaders need to more fully recognize the relationship between K-12 classrooms and post-secondary education if GIS is to flourish in the schools.



1. Daniel P. Donaldson, “Public High Schools’ Ability to Support GIS: An Ohio Case Study,” Geographical Bulletin 41, no. 2 (November 1999): 91-102.

2. Richard E. Clark, “Reconsidering Research on Learning From Media,” Review of Educational Research 53, no. 4 (Winter 1983): 445-459.

3. Robert B. Kozma, “Will Media Influence Learning: Reframing the Debate,” Educational Technology Research and Development 42, no. 2 (1994): 7-19.

4. Melvin M. Bowie, “Media Utilization in the Classroom,” Drexel Library Quarterly 21, no. 2 (Spring 1985): 105-125; Paul C. Adams, “Teaching and Learning with SimCity 2000,” Journal of Geography 97, no. 2 (March/April 1998): 47-55.

5. Christy L. Faison, “Modeling Instructional Technology Use in Teacher Preparation: Why We Can’t Wait,” Educational Technology 36, no. 5 (September/October 1996): 57-59; Richard H. Audit and Joshua Paris, “GIS Implementation Model for Schools: Assessing the Critical Concerns,” Journal of Geography 96, no. 6 (November/December 1997): 293-300.

6. Michael Goodchild, “Spatial Information Science,” Proceedings of the 4th International Geographical Union (Columbus, OH: 1990), 3-12.

7. Barbara A. Boyer and Penelope Semrau, “A Constructivist Approach to Social Studies: Integrating Technology,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 7, no. 3 (January/February 1995): 14-16.

8. M. Duane Nellis, “Technology in Geography Education: Reflections and Future Directions,” Journal of Geography 93, no. 1 (January/February 1994): 36-39.

9. Daniel Z. Sui, “A Pedagogical Framework to Link GIS to the Intellectual Core of Geography,” Journal of Geography 94, no. 6 (November/ December 1995): 578-591.

10. Donaldson.

11. Ibid.

12. Environmental Systems Research Institute, GIS in K-12 Education. ESRI White Paper (1998). (www.esri.com)

13. Robert B. Bednarz and James Petersen, “Reform Movement in Geography Education: A View from the Summit,” Journal of Geography 93, no. 1 (January/February 1994): 61-64.

14. Donaldson.


Daniel P. Donaldson is an assistant professor of geography in the Department of History and Geography at the University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond.


Table 1. Computer Infrastructures

Average or proportion of total responses noted in parentheses

How would you rate the importance of computers in the overall educational goals of your school (1–10)?



Approximately what proportion of the classrooms at your school have computers in them?

100-90% (71%)

89-75% (9%)

74-50% (9%)

49-25% (4%)

<25% (7%)


Does your school have a “Computer Center” or a similar room dedicated to computer applications?

Yes (93%) No (7%)


Approximately what proportion of the computers at your school are PC-based?

100-90% (73%)

89-75% (9%)

74-50% (0)

49-25% (7%)

<25% (11%)

Approximately how many annual in-service computer training opportunities are available for teachers at your school?

5+ (20%)

3-4 (33%)

1-2 (45%)

0 (2%)


Approximately how much money is allocated annually for either adding new computer stock or upgrading and maintaining existing stock?

$20,000+ (27%)

$19,999-10,000 (17%)

$9,999-5,000 (25%)

$4,999-1,000 (20%)

<$1,000 (11%)


How would you categorize the amount of future computer funding at your school?

Significant Increase (11%)

Moderate Increase (45%)

Remaining the Same (38%)

Decrease (6%)



Table 2. GIS Awareness and Use

Average or proportion of total responses noted in parentheses


Until now, had you ever heard of a Geographic Information System?

Yes (11%) No (89%)


If you have never heard of GIS, are you interested in learning about and using GIS in the classroom?

Yes (95%) No (5%)


Are any students at your school using GIS in the classroom?

Yes (4%) No (96%)


Table 3. Future Directions for Teacher Training in GIS

Responses noted in quotations throughout the text


As you see it, what are the most significant barriers to incorporating new technologies (including GIS) into the classroom?


Finally, please comment on the importance of pre-service (college and/or university) teacher training in the areas of computer use (including GIS) in the classroom.