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Geomatics & GIS Education: University VS. College

Looking back almost five years ago, if I had been asked, my opinion would be that college is a place where you go if you cannot get into university. So it seemed, anyways. Being asked the same question today, the answer isn’t so simple. Now, having experienced both, I would say the complete opposite.

My university career would begin at the University of Ottawa in September of 2008. Did I have the slightest clue what I was getting my self into? Vaguely… but for the most part, not at all. There was a lot to get used to: campus, classes, dreaded cafeteria food, resident neighbors, etc. It was a lot of new stuff to take in at once. A short four years after, I stumbled upon Fleming College, and enrolled for the post-grad GIS Specialist program beginning in September of 2012. Although at the time I had a BA under my belt, it felt like I was starting university all over again: new campus, different classes, different classmates. Except this time, it was college. So what is the big difference? In regards to my studies of GIS, I could say that the difference is noteworthy.

A lot of people have asked, “What is harder, university of college?” The answer is not so simple, because they are both so different in their own right. Normally, I would answer, “I’m finding college not to be more difficult, but to be more intensive, time consuming. In university, on the other hand, you could more easily get away with doing an assignment or an essay the night before.” Let me elaborate.

Quick and dirty, the main differences I have found between my university education (BA Honors Geography, Minor Geomatics/Spatial Analysis) and college education (Post-grad diploma in GIS – Applications Specialist) found are as follows:

• Lecture vs. Lab
• Class size
• Technical skills (or lack thereof in some cases)/Critical thinking
• Assignments/Tests
• Hours

Perhaps one of the core components of any education is the lecture and the lab time. During university, I figured my program evened out at a 2:1 ratio. That is, two hours of lectures for every one hour of lab (for every class that offered a lab component, that is). The bulk of my university education was based on critical thinking and theories, and basically regurgitating these theories for marks. College, on the other hand, offers a 1:2 (sometimes 1:3) ratio, with the majority of that ratio being lab times, heavily emphasized on technical training.

At this time, let me also touch on class size. I remember my first university lecture: Organismal Biology, in the Marion lecture hall. Can you say overwhelming? There must have been upwards of 300 students in there, so it seemed. Not all classes were this large, but for the most part, my university education consisted of large lectures and petite labs that, for the most part, could not accommodate for the number of students who were taking the course. Some fond memories of mine reside in the GIS labs, watching the lab fill up, only to realize there weren’t enough computers for all students, so “doubling up”, or watching from the sidelines, were your only option. I would just like to add the of the GIS courses that I did take during university, all were taught in these labs and most always every student had a computer! Regardless, it’s a little difficult to develop technical skills when there aren’t even enough computers for each individual student.

Let me end this tangent with college class sizes. Simply put, they are smaller, more intimate, more enjoyable, and everyone gets a computer (two if they wanted!). One on one time with the professor isn’t impossible if you are having a problem with something. Telling a professor to go over something again because you didn’t quite catch it doesn’t seem like such a burden anymore, simply because there aren’t as many bodies crammed into the lab. If I could make one complaint regarding the labs at Fleming College, it would be the temperature, because my goodness it’s cold in there!

Evaluation is another hot topic, I would say. In the university GIS courses that I took, evaluation was generally one assignment, one mid term, and the final examination. Seems easy enough. But challenging enough? When compared with the training I have been receiving at Fleming, I would say no. Typically, I have encountered courses structured with 4 to 6 assignments, a mid term quiz, a practical quiz, and a final examination. Although it seems like a lot, and it is, it’s gratifying.

Where university assignments were generally focused on one or few skills, college assignments, although smaller than university assignments, allow you to utilize many more skills at the end of the semester. With a number of assignments being provided, college also allows you to work on your teamwork skills, and your independent skills, both of which will come in handy in the work force. I would also like to mention that I was not challenged with one practical test for any of the software I was being taught during my entire university career. I think this is such an important aspect of college, and I would encourage any university to adapt this type of activity. These tests make me want to learn more and do well. I can either be ensured that I am doing well, and if not, be made aware of the areas that may need improvement.

With that being said, it should be no surprise that there I have noted a large difference in hours worked. I should also note that in university I was used to taking 4-5 courses per semester, whereas last semester of college was enrolled in 7 courses at all times. As a result, I was looking at 12-14 hour days the last four weeks on last semester. You have your midterms to study for, practical tests to study for, final assignments to ace, and final examinations to prep for. It is safe to say that all of these things combined can’t be pulled off by an all-nighter. University on the other hand… you would be surprised. Or maybe you wouldn’t. In university, the last four weeks maybe consisted of an assignment and/or a mid-term and then your final, likely on the 21st of December, giving you plenty of time to study (or lounge around until the day before your final, and then realizing “Oh crap! I haven’t opened the text book since the beginning of the term, I guess it’s time to start studying.”). In short, university = lots of time, college = no time.

University graced me with a knack for critical thinking, something that is a necessity in life. College, thus far, has proven to be useful as a provider of technical skills in the field of GIS, something that, to me, is a necessity in the work force. All in all, I wouldn’t change the order in which I pursued my education. In the past five years I have learnt so much, about geography, about GIS, and about myself, and I continually look forward to see where a new learning experience can take me.

6 comments on "Geomatics & GIS Education: University VS. College"

  1. Avatar Jon Murphy says:

    Hi Chelsea, Great article. My own experience at the University of Calgary and then at COGS mirrors your own. The emphasis in university was on critical thinking and learning a lot of subject matter. The post grad diplomas in GIS are heavy on the practical skills and methodology. The work load was much heaver in college than university and many long hours in the lab are needed.

  2. I originally went to university to study geography, but to get into GIS I had to take courses through the forestry department. I was glad to have been able to get exposure to GIS on my first swing through post-secondary education, but I have wondered what the college route would have looked like for me. For starters, I’m sure I wouldn’t have just copied down a list of commands in the lecture, and then typed them in during the lab. (Ouch – was that an O or a 0 I wrote down?)

    Good article and thanks for sharing!

  3. Avatar Andrew says:

    On the money. I did the same thing on the west coast. University for my Bsc in geography and college for GIS. Small class sizes one on one with the teachers. Which who still help out even three years later. Our class was awesome. We were the first class out teachers had which set up a support network for one another both on face book and in class. Which is still Goog strong and adding new alumni every year. We get asked question from current students and past. It was a great Faimly which still communicates today. I don’t think you would get that at a large university

  4. Avatar René Duplain says:

    Enlightening article, Chelsea. I also went to University first (Ottawa U as well!) for my undergrad and graduate degrees (in Biology), and then complemented my education with a Graduate Certificate in GIS at Algonquin College. I found that my experiences mirrored yours almost to a tee. University was great and I also don’t regret those years (nor having gone there, first). In University, I learned the importance of dedicating myself to a project and the benefit of being organized. Perhaps this helped prepare me for College. However, as you mentioned, in University I found that the workload was often inconsistent, which made it harder to maintain a steady focus and work ethic. College was a breath of fresh air, both for the fact that it had much more emphasis on hands-on work (key for a technical field like Geomatics) but also because the workload was steady (though heavy). Additionally, based on my experience, in College, if you put the work in, you get the knowledge and skills that go with it. Can the same be said for University? I’m not so sure. After all, just ask me what I remember from my Physical Chemistry or Organic Chemistry classes. Ok, maybe not the fairest example considering I’m not pursuing a career in Chemistry, but you get the idea.

  5. Great post. Selecting between university or college to study is really an important decision for students to make. Students should keep their goals in mind so that they can choose the right institute.

  6. Avatar Kevin Jackson says:

    Great post. As a fourth semester Fleming Forestry student I can attest to the intensity of the college system. I can also confirm the poor GIS folks sitting in the Learning Commons until they get kicked out by security at 11 PM (because often we forestry students were there completing our weekly group challenges).
    I have also noticed, on the college vs university debate, that university grads don’t seem to know anything practical. Fleming ran a Field skills cert over the summer semester and the uni grads that took it were thrilled to have actual hands-on training (can now get a job). They could write an essay but…take a DBH or sample soils?
    The right college program does a great job in providing students with the actual, real world skills required by employers.

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