Posted by & filed under IT & the Internet, Mountains & hills, Personal, Science, Software engineering, August 21 2017.

I haven’t written anything in my blog for the last three years, and that is partly due to the fact that during that time I have been directing a lot of my energies to a postgraduate course, a Master of Science (MSc) degree in Geographic Information Science or Systems (GIS). I have now finished the course, which went very well.

The course was delivered by UNIGIS UK (a collaboration between Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Salford), and one of the things that attracted me to the course is the remote learning nature of the course and the fact that the entire course of study is carried out part-time over a three year period (instead of the more usual one year for a full-time MSc course). This allowed me to continue working full-time and earning money whilst studying in my spare time for the course. Another attractive thing about the course is that a qualification can be awarded at the end of each successfully completed year of study, a Postgraduate Certificate after the first year, a Postgraduate Diploma after the second year, and the full Master of Science degree at the end of the third year. This is unlike traditional one year full-time Masters courses, where a lot of good work can achieve no credit if a student doesn’t complete the entire course (this happened to me on an earlier attempt at a GIS MSc). UNIGIS UK offers its MSc programme in three different ‘pathways’ and I chose to study the Geographical Information Technologies pathway.

The taught component of the course is modular, and is assessed using a mixture of formative and summative assessment methods, with the summative component taking the form of 12 very large pieces of assessed work set in a sequential fashion in the first two years, with two for each module, and which are required to pass the various taught components of the course. These assessed assignments are undertaken by the student at their own pace (although with fixed submission deadlines) in an environment of their own choosing, using their own resources (books, broadband internet connection, computer hardware, software applications, online research etc.) There are no formal summative assessment exams, which I consider to be a major point in favour of this course. Feedback gained from the assessed assignments was very detailed and incredibly useful for advancing my knowledge of GIS as the course proceeded, indicating what I was doing well, and also, crucially, correcting or guiding me in areas where I got things wrong. The 12 assignments I undertook took the form of Word documents comprising a mixture of essays and technical reports in an academic format and style, and are in themselves each major pieces of work. I list them here, along with the modules they formed the assessed components of, and descriptions of the work I carried out for each assignment.

Year 1 Modules:

Foundations of GIS

  • Changing boundaries and definitions – a 2500-word essay covering the historical development of the field of GIS and the debate about whether it can be described as a set of technical methodologies or an actual ‘science’, entitled “From GIS to GISc. The symbiotic development of Geographic Information Systems and Geographic Information Science”.
  • Practical portfolio: 1) working with social data; 2) spatial operations and analysis – a technical document describing the practical application of Markov chain analysis with ONS census and DCLG IMD (Index of Multiple Deprivation) data and a site suitability analysis using multi-criteria evaluation and cartographic modelling techniques with Ordnance Survey, Environment Agency and CORINE land cover data, using the desktop ArcGIS 10 application.

Spatial Data Infrastructures

  • Spatial data capture, metadata and standards - a technical document describing the creation of a land use map and associated attribute data by manual vectorisation of an aerial image, and the creation of an ISO 19115 metadata record for the created dataset, using ArcGIS 10.
  • Spatial data quality and fitness for purpose - a technical document describing the evaluation of spatial data in terms of ‘fitness for purpose’ and ‘quality’, for the purposes of a site selection analysis, using ONS census, Ordnance Survey and Environment Agency data.


  • NoSQL Databases and ‘Big Data’ – a 3000-word essay describing the advantages and limitations of NoSQL databases, in the contexts of spatial and ‘big data.
  • Development database – a technical document describing the development of a relational database using conceptual and logical models (with an Entity Attribute Relation diagram and normalisation methods), the physical implementation of the database model using the PostgreSQL application (with constraints and indexes), and the querying of the database with SQL queries incorporating table joins.

Year 2 Modules:

Distributed GIS (option for the GI technologies pathway)

  • Aspects of web GIS practical portfolio: 1) interoperability and standards; 2) the benefits and challenges of distributed GIS – a technical document describing the construction of OGC WMS- and WFS-specification compliant queries to dynamically retrieve PNG maps and XML GML data via REST-style HTTP GET URLs from a remote server, and also the construction of a map within the QGIS desktop application by retrieving data layers dynamically from a remote WFS server – also a 2250-word essay describing the benefits, limitations and challenges of Distributed GIS, focusing on SDIs, the ‘GeoWeb‘, VGI and disaster/emergency management. 
  • Web GIS Project - an interactive, responsive web-based map interface using the Google Maps API v3 with HTML, CSS, the JavaScript jQuery library and the Bootstrap library and KML data layers derived from UK Data Service boundary data, and a technical document describing the development of this interface – the interface can be seen at:

Spatial Databases and Programming (option for the GI technologies pathway)

  • Design, implement, interrogate and visualise a spatial database - a technical document describing the development of a relational spatial database using conceptual and logical models (with an Entity Attribute Relation diagram and normalisation methods) supporting specified requirements including the production of reports and maps to meet queries about distances and locations, the physical implementation of the database model using the PostGIS application (with constraints, spatial attributes and spatial indexes), the populating the database tables with spatial data, the querying of the database with spatial OGC SFSQL queries incorporating subqueries, common table expressions, spatial table joins and spatial measurements, and the creation of PostGIS views to visualise the results of queries as data layers in QGIS.
  • A mini project of GIS application development – a suite of software files that delivers a basic standalone ‘tightly coupled’ Windows desktop GIS application (using Python, the QGIS API/PyQGIS and the Qt4 libraries) to support an interface that allows the importing and map-based visualisation of raster and vector datasets as map layers, the presentation of attributes, and spatial analysis of the data (a calculation of travel accessibility indexes using point locations), and a technical document describing the development of the software incorporating a user manual – a zipfile containing the package of software files can be downloaded at - to run the application, extract the files from the 110Mb zipfile and run the ‘job_app_bat’ file in the ‘PyQGIS_package_release’ directory.

Methods in GIS

  • A research design appraisal – a 2500-word document comprising a GIS research proposal in a strict academic format, using as a model preliminary ideas for an eventual MSc dissertation, outlining the research questions, aims, objectives, approach, methodology, methods to be used, and the expected outcomes, all presented in relation to existing academic literature and research, and incorporating an ethics and risk assessment – the proposal was developed with formative feedback from a tutor as well as a peer review process, and laid the groundwork for the dissertation carried out in the third year of the course.
  • A spatial analysis portfolio: 1) point pattern analysis using ArcGIS; 2) implementing geostatistical analysis with ArcGIS – a technical document describing the usage of spatial analysis techniques in ArcGis 10, including descriptive spatial statistics and calculations of nearest neighbour index/ratio for point locations of a supplied dataset of plant locations, evaluation of the methods and conclusions about whether points are clustered or dispersed, whether a pattern is random or non-random, the statistical significance of this, potential causes for the pattern, also spatial interpolation methods (IDW, Trend Surfaces and Ordinary Kriging) using Met Office data, and evaluation and comparison of spatial interpolation methods using validation and calculation of errors.

A major component of the course is the research-based dissertation, which was undertaken in the third year of the course, and which I have discussed in a later blog posting here.

The nature of this learning and assessment framework means that a student learning about GIS in this way gains a great depth of knowledge and understanding in the 12 areas that the assessed assignments cover, which is very valuable, but other areas outside this do not get anywhere near the same level of attention – however, the 12 assignments cover a huge range of techniques, technologies, ideas, concepts and debates in the field of GIS and the end result I believe is a deeper understanding of GIS than is gained on an equivalent, traditional one-year MSc course that is assessed by exams, a framework which I believe does not allow areas to be explored in the same depth. Although in theory the three-year course contains exactly the same amount of work and required study time as a traditional one-year full-time course (200 hours per module), my experience is that the greater length of time allows for greater scope to think about ideas and concepts and to allow for more extensive research in the various areas. My experience also was that some modules require significantly more work than others, with the Spatial Databases and Programming module requiring an extensive investment of time and effort. Another advantage of this ongoing continuous assessment with feedback is that several ideas can be reinforced throughout the course and developed further with each assignment, such as the employment of ‘critical thinking‘, implementation of good cartographic techniques for map and data visualisations and the usage and incorporation into the assignments of an academic language style and rigourous academic format (background, literature, objectives, methodology, results, assumptions, limitations, conclusions, referencing etc.)

The remote learning nature of the course doesn’t suit all students, although it follows in the more established tradition of the Open University. In three years I never met a single fellow student or tutor in person, and all communication, discussion and delivery of course material such as lecture notes, demonstrations, tutorials, external resources, workshops, example exercises and self-test questions is done by online platforms such as email, instant messaging, videoconferencing, a web-based Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) application (Moodle) and multimedia and document files. A lot of the work is solitary and a student must rely on their own resources and initiative to complete the work, although there are discussion forums on the course VLE to discuss things with other students and the course tutors, and I was also in an ad-hoc Skype group of students which proved to be very useful. The remote student’s learning experience is heavily dependent on the willingness of the course tutors to engage with the online platforms. Much of the course used readily-available Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) applications such as PostGIS and QGIS, but importantly, a licence is provided as part of the course so that the commercial ArcGIS desktop software can be used. Other things that are available as part of the course (without any extra fees) are web-based live seminars from invited GIS academics and industry professionals, subscriptions to current GIS paper-based periodical publications such as GeoConnexion and GIS professional, and a copy of the standard GIS textbook, Geographic Information Science and Systems, all of which are mailed to a student’s home.

Again, this style of postgraduate study will not suit all students – I believe it suits more mature students who may already have some experience of the field, either in a professional or academic environment, and who are used to working on their own without close direction. The UNIGIS learning environment and approach probably wouldn’t work for a younger person who has just graduated with no knowledge of GIS or things like software engineering or databases. In many ways the course brought together different strands of technical knowledge, skills and experience I have gained from several disparate environments in the 24 years since I graduated and the course allowed me to present them in a formal way to achieve the MSc degree.

The course fees may seem steep, but are reasonable compared to equivalent postgraduate courses and a major attraction of the course is the ability to pay the fees in instalments. A prospective student may well ask what these fees buy them, particularly in the context of remote-learning where a student is expected to rely a lot on their own resources, and a lot of the traditional student university experience is entirely absent. My view is that what a student is essentially buying on this course is access to academic experts from accredited Higher Education Institutions in the field of GIS who can give valuable feedback for the assessed assignments, and monitoring and guidance for the research dissertation, so that a student can gain the MSc qualification in a very flexible environment that can fit in with a lifestyle that may not allow for the more traditional methods of study. An important aspect of the UNIGIS MSc is that it is continually monitored by external examiners so that it meets the academic requirements and standard for this level of study.

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