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June 21, 2022

The Best MOOC for Learning ArcGIS: Get Started with Geographic Information Systems

Do you want to learn ArcGIS? If so, you're in luck! There is a great ESRI MOOC that will teach you everything you need to know. In this blog post, I will discuss the best MOOC for learning ArcGIS Pro and/or ArcMap. I'll also provide some tips on how to get started with geographic information systems in general. Just want a class? Click here to read my in-depth review!

Globe on sand

What is GIS?

GIS, or Geographic Information Systems, are computer software that allows you to input, store, manipulate, analyze, and output data that is spatially referenced to the Earth. It allows you to ask questions about, and answer questions about, the real world. For example, you could use GIS to find out what percent of a county is urban, or how many people live within two miles of a river.

You can use GIS to find the best route for a salesperson to visit customers, or the best location for a new store. You can use GIS to find out which areas are suitable for growing a particular crop. You can use GIS to understand the distribution of diseases. You can use GIS to find out where there has been soil erosion. The list goes on and on!

There are many different types of GIS software available, ranging from simple programs that anyone can use to very complex programs that require specialized training. But the basic concepts behind GIS are the same regardless of which software you use.

That being said, ESRI's ArcGIS is the standard for GIS software in English speaking countries. So if you're looking to be competitive on the job market, you'll probably need to learn ArcGIS sooner or later.

What's the best way to learn ArcGIS or other GIS software?

Ideally, you'd be able to learn ArcGIS in a controlled environment like within college courses. College courses that teach you ArcGIS Pro, ArcMap, or ArcGIS online are all structured in a way that you get free access to ArcGIS while you're learning. This is good, because paying for Arc otherwise can cost a LOT of money.

I did not learn the ESRI tools through a course, unfortunately. I started learning spatial data science in graduate school, but the only GIS work that I did was an interactive process through R. I did not learn ESRI products, and the courses to do so were outside of my department, so it never even crossed my mind to learn ESRI stuff before I left.

If you're not in school, it's ridiculously difficult to audit those courses. Instead, you'll need to do one of two things: either commit to a certificate program or graduate school; or find online courses that fit your budget and your needs. I chose the latter.

What's the best online resource for getting a better understanding of GIS?

I chose Coursera to learn ESRI software for a few reasons. First off, I knew that it would let me go at my own pace. With just a few hours of study per week, I was able to complete all of the classes in the "specialization" that Coursera offered. Second, ESRI provides free access to their software for a limited time when you sign up for the Coursera course offered by the University of California, Davis (UC Davis).

You can't complete a class like this on a Chromebook or tablet. You can watch the videos, but you won't be able to do the exercises, and the exercises are where it really shines. Buying the Coursera courses gives you access to PDF files and embedded video that help you understand spatial imagery. This course was GREAT for me, and it really helped me in understanding GIS.

Technological needs for Coursera GIS Courses

To succeed at learning in the Coursera courses, or ANY other online course, you'll need the following:

A broadband internet connection that enables you to stream video and download files. You may need to visit a library or other public location if you don't have good access to the internet at home.

A web browser that allows access to PDF, video, and websites. I prefer DuckDuckGo nowadays, but I used the latest version of Google Chrome for this class. You can also use Firefox, Apple Safari, or Microsoft Edge.

Access to ArcGIS, through a school, the course, or some other source. You can buy online if necessary, but purchasing it directly may be expensive. You can call toll free directly to ESRI to discuss your personal or business needs.

Patience. This isn't like your standard class. Even if you connect with the material, learning it all will be challenging, and gaining new skills can always be tricky.

What you can learn from the Coursera specialization

Learning is hard, but you can expect to gain some serious skills from these courses. First, you'll learn how to clean data, process data, and visualize it on maps. Next, you'll learn to digitize non-map files (e.g., JPEGs). You'll experiment with custom web applications and ESRI stories, too.

These courses are self contained, so you can pick and choose which course you want to take. However, if you're new to GIS, I really recommend that you take them all, especially if you're trying to learn GIS for specific business needs.

These courses are definitely self service, but that doesn't mean you're without help. There's support services available through a Slack channel, the discussion forums, and other places. You can also always call toll free to ESRI and they'll to their best to troubleshoot with you.

Final thoughts

Spatial data science is really the new frontier of science, so if you're looking to pick up a skill, I really do recommend that you take a spatial course like these. Even if you settle for a free course, you'll really benefit from understanding how to create and edit maps, no matter where your career takes you.

Got questions? Did you learn ArcGIS in school, or somewhere else? Let me know in the comments below!

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