In this post I'm going to explore the features needed to make a simple GIS for school level education. There are a lot of new services available that are excellent opportunities for educators (e.g. ArcGIS Online and the Google family of services [review]) so I think a consideration of what features a dream edu-GIS would have is a useful thought experiment.
How would we use a Teaching GIS?
My idea would be a simple introductory GIS that would be suitable to use outside of Geography, e.g. to support a biology project looking at the spread of trees in a forest. The tool would be simple enough that students don't really need to understand they are using GIS at all, it would just work. To teach students about GIScience itself, rather than just using it, you'd probably want another tool.
Working with this constraint defines the general area of functionality we want to cover, we are not thinking about GIS analysis functions (e.g. calculate how many trees are within a particular polygon), we actually need GIS just to visualise the data.
What Features do we need in a Teaching GIS?
So now I've defined the scope of what I'd expect my edu-GIS to achieve, we can dive in and think up some functionality lists. I've assumed there are various features common to all GIS already inherent in my all GISs such as layer control, data importation, navigation tools. Beyond those needs I've come up with two lists:
- Usability: This isn't a feature but is listed as IMHO it's the prime consideration. Whatever other features are available they must be robust, easy to understand and easy to use for students.
- Collection via Mobile devices: The GIS must allow users of mobile devices with GPS's to go out and collect data via customisable forms and upload the data seamlessly to a shared map. E.g. users go out in the forest with smart phones and log locations of different tree species which then uploads to a central map.
- Photographs: There should be a variety of ways of easily bringing photos into the map. In Google Earth these are screen overlay, balloon pop up and ground overlay.
- Symbology Styling: The major groups of symbols (points, lines, polygons) should be available and it should be possible to change the style of a symbol depending on an entered variable. E.g. a bigger icon for trees bigger than 10m. There should be suggested colour palettes for shading but also the ability to customise colour completely e.g. illustrate tree species with shades of green but then highlight one particular tree species using a bright orange.
- Attribute Table: Related to point , it should be possible to access the spatial data as a table and be able to edit it, e.g. for one tree change its height from 20 to 30m within the GIS.
- Base Maps: It's important to have an option to chage base maps for different purposes e.g. with lots of data you want to plot it on top of a subtle map that doesn't visually complicate the view. In other situations you may want to use satellite data imagery as your base map.
- Map Overlays: Images should be possible to import as map overlays, e.g. bring in an image of an old map of London and overlay it on the existing topography.
- Layout Tools: It should be possible to add titles, a legend, a scale bar and annotations to a map in a simple way to allow it to be output as a well made static map.
- Story or Tour Tools: There should be tools for constructing 'video' like stories with an audio narrative.
- Export: The raw data and styling data (data about how the map is styled such as title size) should be exportable and be possible to import into a non-cloud service such as ArcGIS or QGIS. This allows students to backup versions as they go along, if something goes badly wrong with the cloud file they are working on in the edu-GIS then they can use an older version elsewhere.
Also Could Have:
- Streetview: A great bonus for education is the ability to be able to snap in and out of 'real world view'
- 3D: Having true 3D rendering as per Google Earth can be very powerful e.g. in looking at conditions on mount Everest but for most applications, 3D is actually not necessary.
- Cross Section Tool: A very useful addition in lots of applications but not core.
- Group working: This is natural advantage of all cloud applications. Being able to collect data to make a map is a core function number  but beyond that, IMHO group working on a map is not really core unless you are in a distance learning situation.
- Models: Having 3D rendering of buildings can be very useful but, as with the point about 3D, it's not core. For Geologists 3D models are much more important but I wonder if it would not just be better to build a separate program for making these sorts of models, do they have to be within a GIS?
- Historical Imagery: A great resource for an edu-GIS but the patchiness of good data limits its use much as the fact that streetview is mostly consigned to public roads at the moment.
- Time animation Features: Very powerful but on the edge of what is possible within a school teaching situation, its quite abstract to get students to put these together.
- KML: To explain this point I'll consider the Google Earth situation: for power users, it is endlessly useful to be able to access the code that controls the data itself (KML) and manipulate it outside of Google Earth to go beyond the core functionaility. For example, I have spreadsheets that I can use to produce KML outside of Google Earth and import it in, for example, creating custom Google Earth tour flight paths and speeds. This extends the power of the GIS beyond the functions that are built in.
This is a quick, from the hip, set of thoughts. It would be interesting to hear what other's agreed/disagreed with on my lists.