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Centre for Earth and Environmental Science Research

Bottom-up planning with Geographical Information Systems

Executive Summary
ResearchersProfessor Nigel Walford
Ms Ann Hockey (Anglia Ruskin University)
Funding Body/SourceCentre for Inquiry-based Learning in the Arts and Social Sciences (CILASS)
Duration2009 - 2010
AbstractPlanners in professional practice in the UK have made increased use of the tools offered by Geographical Information Systems (GIS) as this information technology has assimilated into the operational procedures of local planning authorities and consultancies. Educating planning students how to use GIS-based techniques in a way that is relevant to their interests presents similar issues to those encountered when teaching other seemingly 'difficult' or complex topics, such as statistics. The project used an inquiry-based approach to planning as a way of focusing students' attention on the problems themselves and the role GIS might play in helping to reach decisions and solutions. The project modified the delivery of Level 5 and Level 6 modules in the participating institutions by making complementary adjustments to their learning outcomes. The project was founded on the principle that an IBL approach based on exploring the potential of GIS for addressing realistic planning scenarios would enhance the teaching of GIS to planners, and conversely GIS and Geography students following an optional planning module would gain increased insight into the complexities of resolving spatial planning problems.


The Centre for Inquiry-based Learning in the Arts and Social Sciences (CILASS) funded the research shared between Kingston University and Anglia Ruskin University over the 2009/10 academic year. The main aim of the project was to develop and trial Inquiry-based Learning (IBL) teaching materials in both institutions with different groups of students. The project focused on one module in each university: Planning Analysis Techniques at Anglia Ruskin University taken by Level 6 students on the Environmental Planning Degree; and Planning and the Environment at Kingston University, an optional module for Level 5 students on the Geography, GIS and Environmental Science/Management Degrees. Students on the Anglia Ruskin University's module used their prior knowledge of planning to derive added value from appreciating the role of GIS in addressing planning problems, whereas students on the Kingston University module, who had prior learning in GIS, gained deeper insight into planning procedures and practice. The project was concerned with developing IBL teaching materials in the context of planning students learning about GIS and spatial analysis, and Geography, GIS and Environmental Science/Management students studying environmental and spatial planning.

IBL is essentially a student-led style of learning founded in a 'questioning' philosophy. It requires a self motivated and interactive approach by students to learning by discovery, using the University's resources, their mentor (tutor) and their student colleagues in order to investigate a particular topic or issue. The basis of IBL is that a series of questions can be posed about who, where, why, when, how, etc. giving a deeper understanding of an issue than may be obtained by simply accepting information. There are different forms of IBL and the model adopted in this project involved students selecting their own topic for further investigation. The tutor's role in an IBL project is to facilitate the students' learning by defining the initial starting point for the task and by providing guidance about resources (data, literature, websites, organisations, etc.) that might be relevant to completing the inquiry.

A key part of this inter-university project was that students from the two institutions should meet and bring their respective background knowledge to bear on defining the topics that would form the basis of the IBL work when subsequently studying on their respective modules. A focus group session was held in December 2009 with five students from Anglia Ruskin University and six from Kingston University. This session was organised so that the two groups of students could 'encounter' each other's knowledge of their respective degree subject areas and outline their preconceptions of the other group's field. Thus, for example, the Kingston University students summarised their knowledge and skills in GIS and outlined their preconceptions of the nature of spatialplanning. These interchanges were achieved by giving the student groups time to prepare short PowerPoint presentations. This preparatory work led to a concluding session facilitated by the tutors that resulted in the students collectively agreeing on eight topic areas that would be incorporated into the teaching materials of both modules when they were delivered in the second semester

    These were:
  • Socio-economic deprivation
  • Development on flood plains
  • Alternative sources of energy
  • Transport infrastructure
  • Development and use of the countryside
  • Protection of natural and built environments
  • Regeneration and sustainable communities
  • Regional/national differences

This preparatory work formed the basis for the tutors in both universities to incorporate the IBL approach into the teaching and learning for their students during the second semester, while retaining the existing learning outcomes and indicative curricula.

The project also developed a complimentary assessment coursework for each module in accord with validated module description. Both groups of students undertook two tasks: the first involved selecting and evaluating the GIS and spatial analysis aspects of a planning-related website; and the second producing either a poster or leaflet, using their GIS skills, that explained a specific planning issue within one of the eight topic areas to members of the general public. The Kingston University students on Planning and the Environment were required to formulate a specific planning aspect in their work and to apply their GIS skills from previous modules. The Anglia Ruskin University students were expected develop their GIS skills and to demonstrate their application in relation to a planning topic. Both cohorts of students needed to plan how they would carry out the task, research the resources available and to identify sources of data (both map and statistical data) which would help them complete the task. The tutors acted as facilitators during workshop question and answer sessions with their students for part of the period when they were undertaking the task. Students were encouraged to reflect on their project work and to consider whether given the time again a different or altered approach would have been taken.

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