Alternatives to ArcGIS
ArcGIS is a powerful tool that can do many things, but may be overdesigned for what students/faculty need in terms of geospatial analysis. For simpler user needs, it may make more sense to provide an easier-to-learn tool.
For basic map visualization or simple spatial analysis (measure area/length), or even querying/extracting tabular data, you may be able to work with some tools from Google.
Google Maps can carry out some number of relatively simple functions, including drawing shapes, lines, measure distances, and label a map.
Users will need a Google account to access Google Maps tools. To start a map, switch to the "classic" Google Maps view (under the "help & feedback" menu, upper right) and activate the tools you're like to use in Maps Labs (link near bottom-left of Maps page). Then click “My places” and the red “Create Map” button. Depending on what tools you've enabled, you'll be able to mark places, draw shapes, measure distances, etc.
It is possible to do some basic image manipulation within Google Earth, which may be sufficient for some projects. For more in-depth work using Google Earth, which will allow you to work with ESRI (and other) format shapefiles, etc, see this tutorial from Google Outreach on GIS work in Google Earth Pro.
If you are looking to do an analysis-heavy project, Google Earth likely will not provide what you need. For some educators its functionality may be sufficient, and in fact, preferable to a full-blown GIS analysis.
QGIS (erstwhile "Quantum GIS") is an open source and cross-platform system for GIS analysis, compatible with raster, database, and vector formats. Since this is a GIS, unlike Google Maps or Google Earth, you can edit the underlying information/layers to be more specific to your research question. QGIS has an active developer and user community around the globe, with new releases quarterly; keep your software up-to-date for the best performance.
Additional Open Source Tools
There are many, many open source tools in geospatial analysis + visualization. (For a summary of some, see this of tools, a presentation given in 2009 to WA-area GIS user group.)
gvSIG, GIS analysis with interfaces similar to ArcGIS 3.x with mobile and desktop applications
Mapnik, intended for C++/Python developers
OSSIM, a high performance engine for remote sensing, image processing, geographical information systems and photogrammetry offering command line and desktop GIS analysis applications
OpenJUMP, a desktop tool for GIS analysis
SAGA GIS (System for Automatied Geoscientific Analysis) SAGA GIS is GIS software with the purpose to give (geo-)scientists an effective but easily learnable platform for the implementation of geoscientific methods
WorldMap, a project at Harvard that “attempts to fill a growing niche between powerful desktop-bound mapping applications, and lightweight web map solutions with limited capacity”
To learn more about upcoming GIS events at Reed, subscribe to the gis-announce mailing list.
If you have questions, comments, or suggestions about GIS at Reed, please contact Kristin Bott, Instructional Technologist for Quantitative Applications.