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.