tance on the map to distance on the ground), but as a simple point-and-click stepwise gradation from coarse to fine, labeled “zoom out” and “zoom in.” Microsoft’s Encarta implements the metaphor of a helicopter, inviting the user to raise the helicopter to reduce detail and lower the helicopter to increase it. Scale can also be implemented in terms of familiar objects by presenting the user with an ordered range, from detailed (“enough to see individual cars on the street”) to coarse (“enough to see major cities or lakes”). What is needed, then, is a GIS with a user interface that is built for “ease of learning and ease of use.” To provide a basis for the design of a user-friendly system, research is needed on the functions most frequently employed by teachers and students and on the ways in which those functions are best understood by students of different ages and different skill levels.
If GIS is to move beyond the preserve of the highly trained few, the geographic information software industry needs to respond to a wide range of potential users by developing software tools that are easy, flexible, and interesting to use. Ideally, a GIS designed for the K–12 community would manage, behind the scenes, all details except those of current interest to the user.
In addition to the ideal, at least three other options are possible:
A GIS that is a lightweight version of the industrial strength model, one that is specifically targeted to the needs of teachers and students: It would be stripped down in terms of the range of functions presented and the interface would be simplified and more supportive (e.g., through the addition of wizards). This option is unlikely to materialize because the K–12 education market, as currently constituted, is not a significant revenue producer for geographic information software developers.
A GIS that enables teachers to hide and expose functionality as needed: A GIS can be customized to remove details that might cause confusion to novice users. At the moment, customization technology (e.g., APIs) is not geared toward the needs of educators, and it is not easy to use without advanced training. However, customization is a place on which to focus future efforts. An example of a software product that is customized to gradually expose the functionality of the user interface is ESRI’s ArcVoyager system (see Box 8.3). This scalable system provides four graded levels of exposure to the user interface, progressively adding more functionality and more complexity in the analysis and display activities.
A GIS that uses a component-based system or open system architecture: In this option, applications would be composed of only the most frequently used functions identified by GIS practitioner educators, and data would be developed and deployed separately from the main product. The component-oriented approach offers potential for teachers or students to package GIS functionality into a series of separate miniprograms to meet specific needs. (See Box 8.4 for a description of some advantages of component-based system architectures.)
The component-oriented approach may make it easier to design developmentally and educationally appropriate GIS software for the K–12 context. Ideally, a component-oriented version of GIS would provide a self-contained software application complete with data, documentation, and assessment materials that can be easily accessed, deployed, and evaluated. It could be tailored for use by teachers and students and graded to support increasing levels of skill and experience. Also, it would have to be suitable for use by both secondary and primary school students. Currently, the use of GIS at the elementary level lags far behind its adoption in the middle and upper grades. Software designers should explore alternative interfaces that would be developmentally and educationally appropriate for elementary students. The problem is not that GIS is inherently too complex for younger learners, but that GIS designers have not addressed the needs of this audience. Appropriately designed GIS, which are capable of analyses from the most simple to the most complex, could facilitate the process of thinking spatially from the early through the upper grades.