During my time as a PhD student at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, I have been fortunate to operate in several roles with a connection to GIS and the ArcGIS platform. In addition to teaching GIS-centric courses (both as an instructor and teaching assistant), I have also had the opportunity to work with the Nova Scotian government on several spatial analysis projects. With these experiences I have observed varying speeds of transition to ArcGIS Pro from ArcMap as the emerging standard in spatial analysis.

What is exciting is that I believe there is an unmistakable buzz in the air tied to the shift to ArcGIS Pro at Dalhousie University. The beginning of this transition started with a few instructors and support staff having key discussions about the importance of equipping our students with the skills needed to be at the forefront of spatial analysis as they enter the next stage of their education and workplaces.

As the industry shifts towards adopting ArcGIS Pro as the new de facto standard in executing spatial analysis, there is a responsibility to ensure that when students leave their programs they feel confident entering the workforce with competency in this software. However, there is also a broader recognition at Dalhousie that a gradual transition — rather than an abrupt shift to ArcGIS Pro — is the correct approach. Witnessing and being part of this shift, I have come to recognize that while our goal is to ultimately have campus wide adoption of ArcGIS Pro, as educators we must manage a suite of critical considerations:

  1. Multiple disconnected departments with spatial analysis needs
  2. Campus wide computer integration
  3. Familiarity of many instructors/staff campus wide
  4. The ability of support staff to assist students
  5. Students in the middle of their education
  6. The use of ArcGIS Pro and ArcMap in the workforce outside the institution
  7. Time and challenge of adapting current curriculum


Multiple Departments

The first consideration is particularly challenging. Across Dalhousie University there are several discrete programs that apply ESRI™ products for their spatial analysis research. The School of Planning, Faculty of Engineering, Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, Department of Biology, College of Sustainability, and Faculty of Health are a selection of examples of units employing spatial analysis and ESRI products. Synchronizing a shift from ArcMap to ArcGIS Pro has been particularly challenging because of the logistical issues related to migration to ArcGIS pro for disjointed faculty, staff, student, and programs.

Despite exhibiting some of the siloing many universities experience, at Dalhousie we are fortunate to have excellent communication between key instructors and staff with expertise in spatial analysis. Spearheading efforts to integrate this platform migration is Dr. Christopher Greene, the GIS Instructor in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences. Since the beginning of his appointment, Dr. Greene has been working to integrate ArcGIS Pro into the numerous courses he teaches, and has been an invaluable resource for other instructors seeking to migrate their own offerings.  Over the past two years he has been successfully integrating more Pro components into both the introductory and advanced GIS offerings, a successful pilot for campus-wide integration. Dr. Greene has even gone so far as to offer workshops for staff and instructors to help in their transition.

With the encouragement of Dr. Greene, this year will mark the first in which I am making a considerable shift in how I structure the Planning GIS courses, with additional ArcGIS Pro components integrated into the course delivery.


Different familiarity of Staff and Instructors

With Dalhousie having several departments with their own instructors and staff, and each with their own familiarity with ArcGIS Pro, it can be challenging to ensure campus wide integration at a rapid, uniform pace. Upon discussing my interest in moving over to ArcGIS Pro as my primary platform, I have received positive feedback from other instructors recognizing the critical need for transition, including  Dr. Mikiko Terashima and Dr. Eric Rapaport in the School of Planning, and Dr. Daniel Rainham in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences.

Being in an interdisciplinary PhD program, I am fortunate to collaborate with several departments across the university, and in a position to more fully recognize the challenge in a rapid adoption of ArcGIS Pro as the new standard platform, as it is critical to ensure that faculty and staff in a range of roles (course delivery, primary research, operations, support staff) must all be comfortable with this shift. For support staff, the primary challenge is ensuring that they are prepared to troubleshoot challenges across two versions of the software. Instructors must likewise be comfortable enough to teach the application of the software and ensure that students are prepared to employ it in their future research or work environments.  Throughout my experience as both instructor and teaching assistant, I have also been fortunate to also work alongside Jennifer Strang, the GIS Analyst for Dalhousie, who offers campus wide support to instructors, staff, researchers, and students. Her willingness to learn and champion the transition to ArcGIS Pro has been crucial, particularly as she is the primary contact for the GIS support team assisting students studying in multiple campus locations.


Considering the students

Most importantly, we must ensure students leave our classrooms with the best possible skillset. We must be confident that we are sending them to represent our institution with competence when undertaking spatial analysis work. To this end, it is important that our students have expertise with both ArcMap and ArcGIS Pro products. When they move beyond their undergraduate/graduate education, it is likely that they will encounter both desktop platforms. As ArcGIS Pro is not yet adopted universally, it is vital that students remain comfortable with operating in the ArcMap environment. However, as the eventuality is a move to ArcGIS Pro industry wide, it is just as important that we do not send our students in the middle of their educations onwards without expertise in this software.

To this end, it is particularly important that campus-wide, there is an effort to begin the shift to ArcGIS Pro, while still maintaining legacy support for ArcMap. This is an exciting time! However, we must recognize that our current and upcoming student cohorts are learning GIScience and GISystems in the middle of the era of change. These students are both our priority, and our test subjects. It is unavoidable that there will be challenges to instructors and staff, but also to the students themselves. We at Dalhousie are making our best efforts to ensure these students have the smoothest transition in their education as possible. As someone who is not only an instructor, but also a student myself, I recognize the challenges ahead. I am making the effort to migrate all of my own research over to the ArcGIS Pro environment. To be candid, it less scary than it seemed before undertaking this shift. Although, I do still find myself saying “now where is that button located again?”


Time and challenge of changing courses

Perhaps the biggest challenge belongs in the last part of this post. It requires tremendous time and effort to adapt a course from one software platform to another, even when those platforms are related. Instructors must not only learn the new software but must also adapt the breadth of teaching materials (e.g., lectures, assignments, tests/exams) to reflect this shift. Personally, I believe this challenge is the primary barrier we face to campus wide adoption to ArcGIS Pro.

Fortunately, I can see that there is genuine interest among faculty to make this change. Indeed, while instructing an evening section of Dr. Greene’s introductory course this past fall I had my first taste of teaching with ArcGIS Pro. Spurred on by his efforts, I have begun to integrate Pro in my own courses. The key to this process is the excitement of learning. Instructors are learners themselves, and what is more fun than learning how to use a powerful new software package and then teaching others how to do the same!

Despite the challenges we face related to the above considerations, there has been a real effort to shift towards campus wide integration of ArcGIS Pro thanks to the efforts of a few key people. I am happy to contribute to this transition.