Five Free and Cheap Ways to Improve Your Geospatial Technology Skills and Learn GIS to Advance Your Career
You don’t have to spend a lot of money or go back to university or college to learn or improve your GIS and Geospatial Technology Skills
It’s a competitive job market, but updating your technology skills can give you a great advantage – and maybe even have recruiters contacting you with opportunities. Having a career in geospatial isn’t just about knowing GIS and your specific field like urban planning, or environmental management. Other IT skills are increasingly being required and are in high demand. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to go back to school and earn a new diploma or degree to learn or improve your geospatial technology skills. Many free or cheap options are available that, in just a few weeks or months let you:
- Improve your data science skills (SQL, R, MySQL RStudio IDE, Apache Zepplin,..),
- Learn a new programming language (Python, Java, C++, C#, …),
- Add IT skills (Jupyter Notebook, Information Security, CompTIA A+, Cloud Computing, AI, …)
- Improve and expand your GIS, Cartography, and Remote Sensing skillset, or
- Simply learn GIS for the first time,
The five options listed below are either completely free, or require a small monthly membership fee and/or a student or personal use ESRI ArcGIS licence (currently $100 USD/year). All five options have a flexible schedule. Some are paced online courses where you can plan when you do the assignments and work each week. Other options include self-study online courses and offline self-study where you set your own start and completion dates.
Computer System Requirements: Of course you’ll need a laptop or desktop computer capable of running the software you want to learn or improve your knowledge of. The most flexible option is a newer Windows computer that is capable of running QGIS and/or ArcGIS Pro (ArcGIS Pro system requirements). For learners with MacOS computers, QGIS has minimal system requirements can also run on MacOS (even a four or five year old MacBook Air should work, buy may be slow for some processes), and there is a workaround for running ArcGIS on Macs using Bootstrap to install Windows on your Mac. If you only have a Linux system or one of your learning goals is to run a GIS on a Linux system, then learn QGIS. QGIS can even run in Raspbian OS on a Raspberry Pi.
University of Toronto – GIS, Mapping, and Spatial Analysis Specialization: The University of Toronto offers a four course specialization in GIS, Mapping, and Spatial Analysis through Coursera’s MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) platform. The courses and specialization are included in the Coursera monthly fee of $65. This is a completely self-paced program with a recommended time commitment of three hours per week over six months for the specialization.
However, being a self-paced program, you can complete it much sooner – and save several months of the Coursera membership fee. The total completion time for all the four courses is 61 hours. So, if you have about 10-12 hours a week available, it’s possible to complete the specialization in as little as 6-8 weeks. ArcGIS Pro is required and not included in the membership fee. As mentioned in the introduction, a personal use licence for ArcGIS Pro can be purchased for $100/year.
(Note: The “start date” on Coursera’s course and specialization pages’ “Enroll for Free” buttons reset each day to show the current day as the start date. The course “starts” whenever you want it to, and after 7 days a monthly paid membership is required.)
Other technology learning options on Coursera relevant to geospatial careers include:
- IBM Data Science Professional certificate (offered by IBM) The recommended time is 10 months at four hours per week for this beginner level program
- Data Science Specialization from John Hopkins The recommended time is 7 hours per week for 11 months for this beginner level program
- Applied Data Science with Python Specialization from the University of Michigan. Recommended time is five months with seven hours per week of work for this five course, intermediate level program.
- Object Orientated Java Programming: Data Structures and Beyond from the University of California, San Diego. This intermediate level program has a recommended completion time of seven months, with six hours of work each week.
- Software Design and Architecture from the University of Alberta. This beginner level program expects learners to have basic knowledge of Java. The program is recommended to take four months with four hours of work each week.
- $65/month for unlimited courses
- Some courses may require ESRI ArcGIS – personal use licence for $100/year.
- Coursera has a 7 day free trial, so if you’re really motivated and have time it’s possible to complete 1-2 individual courses, or even a shorter specialization without paying a monthly fee.
- With the highest monthly fee of all five options, Coursera is best for learners who will be using it regularly, and are looking for a certificate for their learning.
- The specialization offered by U of T is recommended for those new to geospatial, junior career level, or those looking for a refresher.
- Other programs are for entry level to mid-career, or switching careers or roles.
- Programs with a capstone project can provide a tangible achievement to add to your resume and professional portfolio.
- Professionals looking to add training by reputable companies and post secondary institutions such as IBM, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google, John Hopkins, University of Toronto, University of Michigan, Princeton, or Stanford.
Other Benefits: Coursework can be a bridge to starting a degree or diploma, including a Masters degree. Coursera offers “Masters Track certificates” programs that are entirely online and cost less than a masters degree. Specializations include a certificate that can be posted on your LinkedIn profile. The monthly membership fee includes unlimited enrolment in courses on other topics including:
- Business & Career Skills: e.g. Project Management and Other Skills for Career Development, Effective Communication, Business English, ),
- Modern Languages: e.g. Russian, Mandarin, Spanish
- Arts and Humanities: e.g. Indigenous Canada, Seeing Through Photographs by MoMA, Mountains 101 by U of Alberta
- Health: e.g. Covid-19 Contact Tracing by John Hopkins, Child Nutrition and Cooking by Stanford, Fundamentals of Immunology,
- Intermediate to Advanced ESL: e.g. Interviewing and Resume Writing in English, Advanced Grammar and Punctuation Skills,
While the popular professional social networking site LinkedIn is free, the LinkedIn “Premium” membership option comes with several benefits – including unlimited access to high quality online learning. Courses involve watching videos and typically either following along with exercises (exercise files are included) and/or chapter quizzes. Certificates for completed courses can be posted on your LinkedIn profile.
Advance Your Skills in GIS Learning Path
LinkedIn Learning offers a five course, 13.5 hour learning path with a certificate in “Advance Your Skills in GIS”. It’s best for those looking to refresh their GIS skills (e.g. If you’ve been out of the workforce for a while, or haven’t been using GIS in your current position but have in the past.) Each course is two to three hours long. Courses can be done individually, and technically in any order, though the order presented is recommended. “Advance Your Skills in GIS” Learning Path courses include:
- Real World GIS
- ArcGIS Pro 2.4 Essential Training
- Learning QGIS
- InfraWorks and ArcGIS: AEC Collaboration
- QGIS and Python for AEC
While this learning path gives an introduction to GIS skills, LinkedIn Learning also offers courses for geospatial professionals looking to move into more technical and/or managerial roles. LinkedIn Learning has hundreds of courses and learning paths in technology that very relevant to geospatial including:
- Programming languages: Python, C++, C#, Java…
- Data science and databases: R, SQL, MySQL, NoSQL, Apache, …
- Information Technology skills: Jupyter Notebook, Cloud Computing, Networking, ComTIA A+, Git/GitHub,…
Five LinkedIn Learning learning paths for geospatial professionals to explore include:
- Mastering Python for Data Science (29 hours) is a great option if you want to learn or improve your Python programming skills and apply that to moving into a more data analytics role.
- Improve Your Data Governance and Security Skills is a six course, six hour long learning path. Two courses relate to Smart Cities and so this learning path would be of interest if you’re in an urban planning related career path
- Digital Transformations for Tech Leaders is a 22 hour, 16 course learning path covering current trending IT topics such as Industry 4.0, Machine Learning and AI, IoT, Cloud Architecture, Blockchain, Agile Development, and Security .
- Master R for Data Science is a 20 hour, 9 course learning path starting from the basics with R and progressing to data wrangling and visualisation, social network analysis, integrating R with Tableau, and using R with Excel
- The premium fee is $34.99/month, or $299.11/year (a savings of 29% over monthly).
- There’s a free first month trial.
- Those looking to expand their IT skills, especially Python and data science,
- Definitely current or future job seekers
- Professionals who want to work on their business and leadership skills at the same time.
- Excellent for new graduates, mid-career level, and those changing careers or roles.
- LinkedIn Learning can also be used as a study tool for postsecondary students looking for quality online learning resources – particularly handy as we weather this pandemic.
Other benefits of a premium LinkedIn account are: “InMail” credits to contact people outside your network directly, job and salary insights, the ability to see who’s viewed your profile and the job title/search term they used. Courses and learning paths in business skills, career skills, and management are also included. Some examples are:
- Remote Working: Setting Yourself and Your Teams Up for Success
- Advance Your Skills as a Manager
- Women in Leadership
- Accessing the Hidden Job Market
- 15 Tips for Landing a Data Science Job
You can network with GoGeomatics on LinkedIn.
QGIS Training Manuals
QGIS is open source and free. There are three QGIS supported learning options in the project: one for those completely new to GIS, one for those wanting to learn QGIS, and a PyQGIS Cookbook for those wanting to expand their existing Python programming skills in an open source GIS environment. All are 100% free. Since after installation they don’t require a high speed internet connection they’re a great option if you want to learn offline or at a cottage.
If you’re completely new to geographical information systems, A Gentle Introduction to GIS is the place to start. This is a tutorial that starts from the basics of what is a GIS, and progresses to data types, data capture, coordinate systems, topology, map production, and ends with spatial analysis (buffers and interpolation).
If you want to focus on learning the QGIS software and have some GIS knowledge, QGIS includes a free QGIS online training manual (it can also be downloaded in pdf). This will take you through tutorials from installing the software to doing some basic analysis. It’s a great option if you want a completely free option to learn GIS and/or if you know ESRI products and want to learn QGIS for the first time. It’s 100% learning through doing, with no videos, and essentially no internet connection required after the installation and exercise file downloads.
If you want to apply your Python skills to GIS, PyQGIS Cookbook is a completely free, well organized option. The pdf version can be downloaded here. A working knowledge of Python is recommended as the PyQGIS Cookbook doesn’t teach the Python language, but focuses on teaching users how to use Python for QGIS.
Costs: 100% free
- Those completely new to geospatial,
- professionals wanting to learn QGIS,
- people wanting to expand their existing Python programming skills.
Other benefits Can be done almost entirely offline after the initial installation if you download the pdfs. Available on Mac and Linux as well as Windows.
This is the learning option that many of us in geospatial are most familiar with. It’s a single place to keep track of all your ESRI hosted learning activity including online independent courses, tutorials, trainings, live seminars, and the very popular MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Some courses are free to those without an ArcGIS login, and others require a maintenance membership (included with purchase of ESRI software). The site is very well organized, and easy to use with hundreds of video based courses from beginner to advanced level on a wide variety of topics on ESRI’s products.
ESRI Academy Learning Plans & Individual Courses
Learning plans are collections of courses aimed at reaching a goal or theme (much like the Learning paths in LinkedIn Learning). You can also create your own custom learning path. Note that many learning plans include one or more in person courses with a large fee. While the in person courses are wonderful, it’s not usually necessary to take one to meet your learning goals. Just use the rest of each learning plan as a guide.
- GIS Fundamentals – the perfect place to start if you want to learn GIS for the first time using ESRI’s products for the first time.
- ArcGIS Workflows for Public Safety – focuses on using geospatial technology in crime analysis, prevention and management
- ArcGIS StoryMap Fundamentals “Unleash your creativity and craft stories that connect with your audience. The StoryMap app gives you free rein to combine maps, text, images, video, and audio to share highly engaging, structured narratives. Enroll in this plan to master the steps to build and share map-based stories.”
MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses
MOOCs are a great way to stay connected and meet other geospatial professionals while learning new topics. They typically take about 2-3 hours per week, and run for four or six weeks. Purchasing ESRI software is not required to participate in a MOOC:
“All MOOC participants are provided with free access to the Esri software needed to complete course exercises. Instructions for accessing the software are provided in the first section of the course.”https://www.esri.com/training/help/category/MOOC
The next three ESRI MOOCs are:
- Spatial Data Science: The New Frontier in Analytics – starting on October 28, 2020 and running until December 9th, 2020.
- Cartography starting on February 3, 2021 and running until March 17th, 2021
- Do-It-Yourself Geo Apps starting on February 17, 2021 and running until March 17, 2021
ESRI Technical Certification exams
In addition to courses, videos, tutorials, and seminars, you can also prepare for ESRI Technical Certification exams. Core exams cost just $250 USD, while specialized exams are just $150USD. There are free resources on ESRI Academy to prepare for them. Exams can be taken at Pearson VUE Test Centres, or proctored online in your own home. (Important!: Please check with ESRI for the specific requirements for the exam you are interested in – especially with things changing with the covid-19 pandemic. A starting point for finding out about exam requirements is here.)
- Free for MOOCs (including free software licence during MOOC);
- Certification Exams $150-$250 USD/exam.
- Software can be purchased for a personal licence rate of $100/year.
- Anyone looking for ESRI specific training (including learning or advancing your Python skills) .
- ESRI Academy offers such a wide range of levels and topics of eLearning on their products that you can find something that meets your ESRI training needs no matter what your career level, or if you’re a student.
Other Benefits: You can network with others in geospatial during and after MOOCs. Free licences to ESRI software during MOOCs. While not limited to those participating in ESRI Academy, your account also can connect with ESRI’s online community GeoNet for networking and support.
Penn State University: Open.EDU@PSU – College of Earth & Mineral Sciences
Penn State University’s College of Earth & Mineral Sciences has been offering free online courses since 2007. All courses are free and are Creative Commons licenced. Courses are created by EMS faculty members and are university undergraduate and graduate level courses. Each course has a learning plan with readings, activities, and video lectures. Most courses have downloadable exercise and course files. Courses can be started at any time and are self-paced.
Open learners (taking the courses for free) should note that this is much like auditing a university course. You will not have access to Penn State’s learning management system Canvas, and will not be able to communicate with professors or have your work marked or critiqued. However, this type of open learning is very affordable, and can be a way to “test drive” taking an online certificate or masters program before investing thousands of dollars.
Some interesting and relevant courses, and their recommended completion times include:
- Geospatial Intelligence and the Geospatial Revolution: online for 10-12 hours per week for five weeks.
- Advanced Python Programming for GIS: Four lessons at 20-30 hours per lesson for 10-12 weeks
- Computation and Visualization in the Earth Sciences This masters level semester course is divided into seven lessons, two small projects, and one larger project
- Spatial Data Science for Cyber and Human Social Networks 10-12 hours/week for 10 weeks
- Cloud and Server GIS 10-12 hours/week for 10 weeks for this master’s level elective course. Software used includes Esri ArcGIS Pro/arcpy, Jupyter Notebook, Esri ArcGIS API for Python, QGIS, GDAL/OGR.
- You may need an ESRI ArcGIS Pro personal licence for some courses
- Professionals looking for interesting subject specific courses not easily found elsewhere.
- Self-motivated learners who don’t need proof of their learning (There’s no certificates provided.)
- Any level of career, or senior level post-secondary student.
- Learners thinking about taking a masters program in the future.
Other benefits: Penn State’s open courses can be a way to “test drive” taking an online certificate or masters program before investing thousands of dollars. Penn State’s Online Geospatial Education Office offers multiple online masters and certificate programs in each of: GIS/geospatial, Data Science and Programming, Geospatial Intelligence, and Remote Sensing and Earth Observation.
Note: Penn State also has a great free statistics course notes site It’s a great reference if you’re working on your data science skills and need a refresher.
In this competitive job market and in living in the “new normal”, you can enhance your career opportunities without spending a lot (or anything), or going back to school for a degree or diploma. By spending as little as a few hours a week on levelling up your technology skill set, in a few months you could be looking at new career opportunities. Who knows, maybe one day in the next few years recruiters will start contacting you seeking your new, in demand technology skill set.