ArcGIS vs QGIS: An educator's perspective

ArcGIS v QGIS: An educators perspective (2019 update)

In Opinion by admin8 Comments

This article is actually an update of one I wrote for a short-lived blog project back in 2014. As it’s still a hugely relevant topic, I thought it deserved re-visiting after 5 years of development.

When teaching GIS, a key decision is which software package to focus on? I teach a number of GIS modules as part of a broad geography curriculum, and it’s an issue that I often consider. Clearly a sound understanding of the principles of geographical data and analysis is essential, and this knowledge can be transferred by students regardless of the software they are using. But specialist GIS packages are complex things, and many job adverts will immediately demand an understanding of one or more specific packages as a minimum, or at least desirable, requirement. This post outlines some of the pros and cons I have encountered in teaching both ArcGIS and QGIS, as well as the broad response I’ve had from students about using the software and the benefits they’ve gained in terms of employability.

There are a wide range of commercial GIS packages available, but it’s fair to say that ESRI’s ArcGIS is widely seen as the industry standard and is the go-to package for most GIS educators. This has undoubtedly been to ESRI’s advantage over the years, with innumerable graduates seeing Arc as their best or only choice when working with spatial data. However, there’s also no denying that it’s not a cheap option. Commercial licenses for Arc can quickly run into the tens of thousands for large organisations, and even academic licenses don’t come without a price tag – plus we’re still catching up with the launch of ArcGIS Pro, which does’t appear to be included in academic licenses by default. In addition, not all institutions are able to make the software available to students for use on their own computers, which can be highly limiting in terms of encouraging student engagement beyond the classroom. There is now a home use programme, providing access to the full site of ArcGIS software for non-commercial use, including ArcGIS Pro. But at £105, that’s still enough to put students (and many others) off. The free trial option is still available, but keeps getting shorter and shorter. Back in 2014 it was 60 days – long enough to get stuck into a reasonably substantial university assignment. I thought at last checking it was now 30 days, but that appears to have reduced to 21 days at the time of writing – long enough for a taster, but nothing more.

That said, ArcGIS is a very powerful tool – or set of tools to be more accurate. The range of toolboxes available allow it to be applied to almost any area of study with relative ease, and the guidance and documentation available is consistent and high quality. Given that it’s unlikely to lose its place as industry standard in the near future it remains, in my opinion, something of an essential on the GIS curriculum. The recent rise of ArcGIS online also provides a versatile and simple to use foray into the potential of web mapping and online GIS which can be engaged with by students of all levels. A number of my colleagues have been taking advantage of story maps as a more interactive form of assessment, which draws on skills that cut across modules. I’ve also spoken to friends in the private sector who have been starting to use ArcGIS Online as a way of communicating results to clients, further increasing its value for anyone entering the workplace.

But at the same time employers are also starting to feel the pinch, and recognising the reduction in license fees they can gain by enhancing or replacing their proprietary GIS solutions with open source alternatives. As solutions such as QGIS become more mature it too is increasingly appearing as a desirable skill on job adverts, and no GIS education would now be complete without an awareness of the role played by the open source community – not just in desktop GIS, but also in toolboxes, database software and web mapping.

It wasn’t too many years ago that QGIS still felt like the poor relation to commercial packages, capable of carrying out analysis if you had the time and patience to figure it out. When I wrote the earlier version of this article, QGIS 2.0 had just been released and I observed that it was now feeling like a true competitor to commercial packages such as ArcGIS. With QGIS 3, things have taken another leap forward again. Working on a project recently to support local businesses in Shropshire I have run a number of workshops focusing on open source GIS and open data, with QGIS being one of the key focus areas. The interest has been abundantly clear, and not just from smaller businesses, but also large organisations and local government.

Obviously the key benefit is the cost. Open source software has no license fees, and it can be freely downloaded and distributed by institutions, lecturers, students and commercial organisations alike. This also overcomes that engagement gap for institutions who can’t make Arc available to students off campus, also making it more viable for longer projects and dissertations. The availability of a Mac version is an additional draw for students who prefer that environment, and something that ESRI have never come close to really providing.

In terms of its capability, the host of plug-ins available make it equally viable for many types of analysis, and superior for some. The tools may not always be as polished or we’ll documented as their Arc equivalents, but if anything the range of tools available is even greater. The inclusion of many tools which are only available at the higher levels of licensing in ArcGIS is an added bonus.

The Student Response
My approach to the issue recently has been to maintain ArcGIS as the main teaching tool, but with an increasing component of the work carried out in QGIS, as well as encouraging the use of QGIS when students want the option of working on their own machines, while trying to collect as much feedback as possible on their experiences with both pieces of software.

Responses so far have been largely positive on both counts. As students learn to work with ArcGIS first, many initially feel most comfortable working in this format. The transition to QGIS varies from student to student – some find it fiddly and will switch back to Arc at the first opportunity, others find it equally useful and embrace it as a useful alternative and like the opportunity to download and use it on their own machines while a significant number find it much more intuitive than ArcGIS and immediately embrace it as their tool of choice. Although ArcGIS is the established, commercial package it is certainly not without bugs and in certain situation QGIS has shown itself to be the quicker and less frustrating of the two, another key factor in determining how well students engage with the exercise. When using online web maps in particular, ArcMap grinds to a halt on our campus PCs, while QGIS will stream an OpenStreetMap base map without flinching.

The experience of teaching both has certainly been a positive one, and a number of students already have found it useful in employability terms, gaining either jobs or work placements which looked for skills and QGIS as well as more conventional ArcGIS experience. Having been teaching with QGIS for a number of years now, I’ve found myself increasingly expanding its role within my modules, not least in recognition of the fact that this is what the market seems to be wanting from new entrants. That said, I have no intention of removing ArcGIS from the curriculum, and much of the onus now is probably on me to ensure I’m fully conversant with some of the online features it offers and how these cann be incorporated into my teaching.


  1. I only basics of both but I noticed that exporting an image on the arcgis online is tricky. it would even often not load even on a gaming PC. I could load the geologic layer but the basemap isn’t printed with it. Also, no options for which part of the map you want. I suppose it is only a teaser for the end user.

    1. Author

      Yes, I think online is quite limited. It’s fine for showing things to people, but if you want to export or analyse things you need the desktop software!

  2. This is an amazing write up. I have used both ArcMap and QGIS , I have to agree with you that QGIS is a good alternative to ESRI products, Its cheap, faster and anyone can develop his or her own tools. It uses data of any formats from Shp,CAD,GeoJson, Json and many more compared to ArcMap.
    The QGIS online webmaps can be editted and customized to what someone wants to have,but esri you can not .
    Anyway Esri products are very powerful and with very good analysis and out put,that is why most of my maps and analysis are made by esri products.

  3. Nice write up. One thing I would note is that if the university has a site licence for esri software then true cost per user is between £1 and £5 per year. This permits home use on students laptops. Some unis make it available for free to students others charge close to the £105 fee which is there for any student not at a uni with a site licence.

    They are both amazing applications and having both on your cv covers all bases. Most importantly, knowing the basic principles of GI should give you a good start in our data saturated world

  4. I really like your write up and very much agree with you. In my place of employment, QGIS is the standard that many of us use. Some of this is due to our ESRI licensing costs but the fact that it is 64 bit with an overall analytical experience as good or better make it a valid choice. At this time we keep our ESRI license at a “Basic” level and use QGIS for the analyses that would normally require an Arc Standard or Advanced license. As you point out, some students of in our local college program have also appreciated the fact that they can install and use QGIS outside of the classroom and use it in tandem with other ESRI applications. On a related note, I am very interested and encouraged by the fact that ESRI appears to have a new, more reasonable subscription license available for ArcPro users.

  5. Great read. When you invest time and effort in learning it is good to spend that on open-source solutions like QGIS to ensure that your knowledge and knowhow is independent of commercial and proprietary solutions as much as possible. If you know QGIS you can always use that knowhow without having to worry about how much a commercial vendor might want you to pay for using that knowhow now or in the future.

  6. Great article!

    I haven’t used Arc for a long time now. But I hear murmurs from my friends who use it. Arc is tool-of-choice for new senior management. The organization buys it. It becomes entrenched in the organization. And then the cost of running it hits home. Its not the quality of the software they complain about, but rather the cost. Especially when they can see that there’s an equally stable and (for most users) equally functional open source alternative.

    I have run a small environmental GIS consultancy for years. Initially I could not afford Arc and so used a combination MapInfo, GRASS, and increasingly QGIS. I no longer yearned for Arc once QGIS became stable in version 1.8. Since then QGIS has been improving in leaps-and-bounds in terms of both usability and stability. In recent years I have found a great demand for QGIS classes. I now use QGIS to teach GIS to 7000+ enrolments in my online courses.

    The corporate GIS environment is quite different to the desktop environment that many researchers, students and very small organizations require. Commercial support and training are especially valuable to corporates.

    It is my opinion though, that too many people see GIS like footy teams – they support Arc, or QGIS, Mapinfo, or some other brand of GIS. It should not be like that. For many users a fully functional GIS is a “sledgehammer to crack a nut”. My observation is that many people use only basic GIS functionality such as data input, on screen visual query, spatial query and cartography. So they do not require sophisticated GIS anyhow.

    My personal soapbox topic relates to an absence of understanding of scale and data quality issues by many GIS professionals. I think that this is more important than the brand of GIS you use. Too many people see GIS in terms of the brand of GIS they’re using and the techniques and algorithms they use. Ultimately this can lead to pleasant looking believable maps.

    Over the years I have seen a number of instances where the GIS operator has no comprehension that their beautifully presented map is based on GIS map layers that have an inappropriate pedigree for the task. In one public forum, the “latest, most sophisticated, expensive GIS” that they used to create their very believable outputs, gave a controversial environmental proposal “authority”. The “expensive GIS” argument served them well. It made their beautifully presented rubbish GIS outputs that were based on rubbish GIS inputs, more believable in everybody’s mind…but that’s another topic!

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