Discipline-Based Education Research

A new approach to teaching and learning in geospatial intelligence


Education and Training as Personalized Learning

Training is for certainty, education is for uncertainty, and we are living in increasingly uncertain times.” This statement emphasizes the important role of education in times when training, a skill and task-oriented endeavor, is gaining increased attention. Education starts early in life and equally provides the arts and science behind the process of completing tasks. As we witness rapid transformation in the multidisciplinary field of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), training and education are expected to complement each other. We educate people for critical thinking and train them to expand their knowledge base for increased performance. Combining both throughout one’s career is especially valuable in addressing the problems of “being educated but poorly trained” or “well trained and poorly educated.”

Today, rather than identifying occupation-specific knowledge and skills, the field of GEOINT uses USGIF’s Essential Body of Knowledge (EBK) to define “what it means to be a GEOINT professional … across multiple occupations.” As identified by the GEOINT enterprise (government, industry, and academia), the EBK was developed with input from a wide range of professions and provides a basic reference for anyone interested in or practicing the profession of GEOINT to include, but not limited to, GEOINT analysts, geospatial analysts, business market analysts, public health specialists, advanced visualization specialists, economic development specialists, emergency preparedness specialists, environmental scientists, geodetic surveyors, biologists, geospatial data stewards, etc. While GEOINT evolves into a stand-alone discipline that incorporates other disciplines, such as computer science, environmental science, physics, mathematics, etc., “geo” is fundamental in providing students with geographic knowledge and skills during both GEOINT education and training.

In such a fast-changing environment, the focus is more on preparing future GEOINTers and/or retraining current GEOINT practitioners than creating lifelong learners. Unfortunately, beyond some limited computer-based data collection and analysis, little to no efforts have been made in studying how these major technological transformations have affected or may affect the way students adapt to the shift toward a more cross-occupational and STEM-focused GEOINT discipline as compared to traditional geography. Moreover, while traditional students enter this new era of hard, data-focused geospatial sciences, returning students (including adult learners) find a very different world as compared to their earlier education. K-12 AP Human Geography education, which still falls under the social sciences and rarely sees any type of cross-pollination, is a good example of this educational gap.

To address such challenges, this article discusses the intermingled roles of education and training aided by observations of how teaching and learning occur (or should occur) while preparing the next generation of GEOINT practitioners. The article introduces a new concept to the GEOINT Community: Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER).

  • This article is part of USGIF’s 2018 State & Future of GEOINT Report. Download the PDF to view the report in its entirety and to read this article with citations. 

The Case for DBER in GEOINT

DBER is an emerging concept focused on studying how students learn the knowledge, concepts, and practices of a particular discipline such as geosciences, engineering, physics, chemistry, or astronomy. Much like the dynamic and large array of geospatial components that increasingly draw from or are being drawn into a variety of disciplines, DBER is also a collection of relevant research fields rather than a single unified field. High-quality DBER involves knowledge of the science, of the learning and teaching in that discipline, and the science of learning and teaching more generally.

There is a clear distinction between education specialists whose primary focus is on teaching and DBER scholars who conduct research on teaching and learning within an established discipline. Until it was embraced as a subfield of study within several STEM disciplines, DBER concepts were mostly used by “border crossers,” which remains true in many cases today. DBER is an emerging field with a growing network of scholars. While most DBER programs are housed within a single academic department, DBER is typically conducted by interdisciplinary teams.

GEOINT is essentially built on a similar framework as DBER. The GEOINT EBK created its blended set of competencies that incorporate tasks from a number of more established disciplines such as geography, earth science, computer science, engineering, political science, and the emerging field of visualization. The GEOINT EBK was designed after conducting a cross-industry job analysis to identify the knowledge, skills, and abilities critical to the GEOINT workforce. Teaching GEOINT involves the use of tools from rapidly changing technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing (RS), geospatial database management, and visualization. Academic institutions currently offering GEOINT credentials usually have the GEOINT programs housed in geography or environmental science departments while increasingly using coursework or technologies from other disciplines. As the GEOINT field evolves, so will its educational and professional development stakeholders; the changing technology will continue to cross disciplinary boundaries and thus require different teaching and learning approaches to serve a more diverse student population in terms of technical background, liberal arts versus vocational prior education, age (traditional students versus adult learners), gender, race, and personal learning styles.

The GEOINT field is trying to attract a diverse and broadly educated and trained workforce from both STEM and non-STEM fields. But if considering the challenges largely acknowledged by the STEM scientific literature in diversifying its workforce, we may be looking at an enduring gap in the accessibility of education and training in the geospatial subfield. For example, while current labor statistics show important gains in female participation in the workforce, their share of computer workers has actually been declining since 1990, and both women and ethnic minority groups are still underrepresented in STEM occupations. According to this year’s “Women in the Workplace” report from McKinsey and LeanIn.org, women account for 47 percent of entry-level employees. And, yes, these are jobs projected to be lost to automation. Such challenges may be partially mitigated through differentiated teaching/learning styles and approaches that focus on more inclusionary methods to reach a wider spectrum of society.

To maintain an influential role in the era of the Geospatial Revolution, the GEOINT Community needs to pause and reflect on how this field can continue to foster lifelong learning in a rapidly changing landscape. An integrative approach that weaves in personalized education and training could be instrumental to providing a GEOINT foundational framework under DBER. This framework would help learners plan their career pathways that still rely heavily on technical competencies while emphasizing crucial elements of human intelligence and allowing for creativity, innovation, and diversification based on each individual’s motivation and characteristics.

Education, in its dynamic forms (formal, self-directed, ad hoc, etc.), is fundamental to GEOINT practitioners as it provides a liberal arts background, methodologies, and depth as well as breadth of thinking. Training, on the other side, is necessary to circumvent the time lag between one’s education and technological changes. Training also allows for personal growth and development without sacrificing time and large amounts of money to pursue another degree. Unfortunately, there is no secret recipe to achieving a balanced combination of education and professional development. To effectively integrate education and training into personalized career pathways for a globally-oriented prospective GEOINT workforce, educators should direct more energy and resources into understanding how student learning progresses and what the most rewarding practices, applications, and techniques for training and educating such a workforce should be. This would allow them to proactively understand how to couple education with training in adaptive, dynamic, and responsible ways, both so student retention and satisfaction are maximized and also so outstanding professionals with appropriate depth and breadth of discipline are trained, broadly speaking.

Today, “career pathways”—to use the 21st century higher education buzz phrase—propose different modalities of integrating educational programs and training and/or continuing education to place students into the job market. The mechanism provided by these guided pathways into “hot jobs” usually involves intentional courses, experiential learning, co-curricular activities, career counseling, and the addition of minors and/or certificates as well as corporate—and possibly community—engagement. From teachers to counselors and advisory boards, everyone is engaged in guiding students toward what the labor market perceives as successful careers.

Also, more recently, advances in artificial intelligence (AI) allowed for the introduction of another buzzword: “adaptive learning,” a field that uses AI to draw upon diverse and rapidly changing domains such as predictive analytics, machine learning, cognitive science, etc., to actively tailor content to each individual’s needs. Similarly, “learning analytics,” a marketing research approach that gained popularity in K-12 education through support from venture capitalists, allows for data gathering and aggregation as early as kindergarten, where five-year-olds receive personalized learning experiences after interacting with a piece of software.

All these approaches are innovative, timely, and much needed. But they only focus on what are currently considered to be lucrative careers (career pathways) or rely on computer data collection and interpretation (adaptive learning and learning analytics). On the one hand, while following a pre-determined career pathway allows students to specialize early in a particular field of study, it may also cause students to easily miss a more holistic educational plan. Such approaches may contribute to discouraging the creativity and personal discovery that usually create pathways into future high-demand careers. On the other hand, while it is possible today to collect evidence of student thinking and learning via adaptive learning technology, the burden of making sense of this dynamic data still rests on the shoulders of instructors. As those familiar with education in both academia and K-12 know well, the available time spent on assessment and providing feedback is quite limited.

Without having an established academic discipline with the mission to study learning types and provide educators with the appropriate models and tools, this cumbersome process still falls on the educators who are already struggling to keep pace with technological changes. Most likely, these educators do not also have a strong background in pedagogy, andragogy, and didactics or real interest/available time to pursue such professional development. This is why schools/departments offering GEOINT credentials should follow in the footsteps of other multidisciplinary schools/departments and create venues for hiring DBER faculty interested in human learning and cognition within GEOINT.

This article recommends academic institutions offering GEOINT also create full-time, tenure track DBER positions. DBER faculty would enhance departmental/school capabilities by conducting research related to the improvement of student learning as well as developing and maintaining the current science of GEOINT learning to support fellow faculty. In STEM, several universities have already embraced this approach to opening full-time DBER positions (e.g., University of South Carolina, North Dakota State University, Auburn University, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Middle Tennessee State University, University of Arizona, etc.). Carleton College, with its On the Cutting Edge program, leads the way in building a strong undergraduate geoscience teaching program with DBER. As the community grows, more knowledge becomes available to be shared and applied across disciplines.

To better understand individual learning abilities and address possible challenges in grasping the unifying elements of GEOINT, DBER could help identify new pedagogical or adult learning (andragogy) methods. The DBER structure has already been proven successful in STEM areas currently embedded in geospatial teaching and learning (especially the geosciences). DBER led to the creation of effective professional development for those who mentor scientists-in-training, tools for measuring student learning, and curriculum and textbooks designed to fit differential student learning styles. DBER also helped address challenges related to students’ incorrect ideas and beliefs about concepts fundamental to the discipline, especially providing support with understanding how students are using representations such as equations, graphs, models, simulations, and diagrams to communicate science.

It can take a considerable amount of time and effort for interdisciplinary teams with professional expertise across several disciplines to establish common ground and become productive, but such teams can be instrumental in tackling some of the larger problems in human learning soon to be faced by geospatial disciplines. A strong focus on differentiated instruction, tailored curricula, innovations in learning modules for both education and training, and the elevation of soft skills are just a few elements that should help ease some of the challenges currently or predictably faced by higher education in the GEOINT arena.

Challenges of DBER in GEOINT

When designing career pathways, the most difficult task is estimating the starting point based on predictions of where the tipping point would be and of what changes are likely to occur in terms of machine versus human-operated tasks. This is especially difficult in emerging disciplines such as GEOINT that rely on wrangling huge volumes and variety of data. Moreover, when the very definition of GEOINT is still challenged or its degree of professionalization contended, the difficulty of carving out career pathways is further amplified.

While the GEOINT field relies heavily on its more established parent disciplines, there is no established underlying theoretical framework to map how disciplinary components connect under the umbrella of GEOINT. In addition, there are no assessments of how and to what extent learners perceive, understand, and embrace the critical connections among these cross-disciplinary competencies, which is a major drawback to establishing a unified approach to curriculum design to support GEOINT career pathways. Finally, the slow pace of transition in academia (moving curricula through the bureaucratic chain) versus the fast pace of change in the technical, commercial, and operational sectors of GEOINT makes it even more difficult to adjust teaching based on new human learning needs. Incorporating DBER in GEOINT may ease some of these pains, but it also comes with several challenges, namely:

  • GEOINT is still an emerging field with limited fieldwork-based research and longitudinal studies.
  • DBER is also emerging, and both DBER and GEOINT faculty still face publication and tenure challenges given the interdisciplinary nature of the fields.
  • The rapidly changing nature of the GEOINT field requires flexible administrative support for professional development of DBER faculty, rarely found in today’s academia.
  • DBER requires a collaborative and supportive environment in which other faculty accept and encourage DBER scholars’ class observations and are willing to embrace their recommendations to change their teaching styles.

Despite these challenges, there are a growing number of venues for DBER scholars in general to publish, share their work, and find jobs.

DBER in a World of GEOINT Automation

As early as 1997, Linda Gottfredson highlighted reasoning, planning, solving problems, thinking abstractly, comprehending complex ideas, learning quickly, and learning from experience as the crucial elements of human intelligence. In an era of frenzy over AI, capturing the essence of what makes humans capable of performing the tasks mentioned by Gottfredson and learning how to consistently improve these capabilities is vital to advance the field. Learning the technology is necessary, but we believe these aforementioned elements of human intelligence are equal if not more valuable to GEOINTers and cannot be gained in a matter of days, weeks, or even months of training.

Intelligence means thinking and understanding, reflecting back to one’s actions, and making sure the next “outputs” are better based on received feedback. But humans are now expected to do it all and do it fast while acting and behaving intelligently. Scholars have to teach, publish, bring in external funding, and provide community service. These expectations do not match the allocated time frame, which eventually results in an unbalanced allocation of time negatively impacting the “least” important task in academia: teaching to improve learning. DBER can help solve this problem by observing, investigating, measuring, assessing, modeling, and reporting on ways humans understand discipline-based concepts, practices, and how they interact with new technologies to produce intelligence.

Carl Bereiter defines intelligence as “what you use when you don’t know what to do.” Intelligence not only draws the line between humans and their individual abilities to cope with challenging situations, but also points to the fundamental difference between humans and machines when programming has reached its limits. Today, daily job routines involve a lot of emailing back and forth, phone calls, and e-conferences in a fast-paced environment in which decisions are made quickly based on sometimes disparate pieces of information. Modern professionals set goals, objectives, and ensure we check off the list of learning outcomes to justify our work. We barely find the time to think, read, analyze, share, and digest feedbacks and connections among the pieces of information accruing in our sphere of influence. A recent, highly cited book by Michelene Chi titled, “The Nature of Expertise,” shows how experts (as opposed to novices) tend to first pause and reflect, thus demonstrating that qualitative analysis before attempting to solve a problem helps to “build a mental representation from which they can infer relations that can define the situation.” One of the primary goals of DBER is to understand the nature and development of expertise in a discipline. As GEOINT has progressed toward becoming a stand-alone discipline, its success is also affected by a struggle to understand, define, and be willing to redefine the GEOINT student and future professional and, once defined, to help him or her build and rebuild expertise.


Both DBER and GEOINT are considered emerging disciplines. GEOINT changes very rapidly, thus the need for people who know both the discipline (the science) and the pedagogy/andragogy/didactics to observe teaching and learning and improve the process. These people exist in DBER, but they are still marginalized and not recognized for the value they bring. There are very limited venues for DBER publications, most without impact factor or no impact factor at all (similar to GEOINT), which negatively influences the sustainability of these positions (tenure track). It is also difficult to have DBER faculty evaluated throughout a tenure track process because education research is not quantified the same way as scientific, hard research. Fortunately, things are changing and more schools have opened DBER positions in STEM. It is our recommendation that GEOINT education and training align with this movement.

From K-12 to higher education and beyond, the focus should be on ways to equip students with better understanding and control over their human competencies that would be impossible or difficult to replicate in computers. While training can be designed to respond to the rapidly changing demands of the geospatial world, it should infuse, not replace, education. Changing technologies influence the definition of “expertise” in a discipline that relies on these changes. Both education and training are personal journeys that need to be observed, documented, and supported, and DBER can help achieve that. At the same time, career pathways should be flexible enough to allow for change and personalized enough to encourage innovation. In the words of author John Steinbeck: “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

Posted in: Contributed   Tagged in: 2018 S&FOG Report, Education

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