Geo MOOC landscape continues to evolve

By Diana S. Sinton

In February 2015, Massive Open Online Courses with a geospatial focus were so abundant that we felt compelled to publish an article to keep our audience appraised of the opportunities. Fast forward to February 2016, and the landscape looks very different. Of the nine particular courses highlighted last year, only Penn State’s Geospatial Intelligence and the Geospatial Revolution and Esri’s Going Places with Spatial Analysis are still active. As GIS educational consultant Adena Schutzberg recently wondered, has the geospatial fizz fizzled out?

The novel and seemingly simple original model – to offer free course content online to vast numbers of people — has undergone growth and change, and geospatially-focused courses are no exception. In fact, both old and new geospatial courses are exactly aligned with many of the overall MOOC industry trends. We are seeing fewer courses that may have served as one-time experiments in terms of topics and audiences, and a smaller set of more regularly offered ones. For example, greater overall demand for programming and business as MOOC topics have brought us Esri’s Do-It-Yourself GeoApps and The Location Advantage. MOOC providers have turned to their own micro-credentials as revenue sources, as exemplified by Coursera’s new five-course GIS Specialization offered by UC Davis. Increasingly popular self-paced content can be found with options like Discover Spatial and the GeoAcademy. Non-English MOOCs may be in greater demand worldwide but few non-English geospatial ones are offered consistently. Though I did come across one Chinese class on Electronic Maps, (at least that’s what Google Translator told me I had found).

Now, with a little bit of distance since that initial wave of enthusiasm, what do we think about the experience of geospatial MOOCs? Are there lessons learned from the early years? Anthony Robinson, the lead instructor of Penn State’s Maps and the Geospatial Revolution, was also the lead author for a research article about the experience of teaching that MOOC.  During its three iterations the class reached over 100,000 students, and undoubtedly, the massive numbers preclude the same degree of student-teacher communications and require different modes of interaction. But at the same time, nothing but a MOOC could allow an instructor to share their passion about geography and mapping at such a scale. Robinson has continued his commitment to sharing and has made this Maps course content openly available, separate from its initial Coursera shell.

To get a sense of how the initial wave of students fared, I exchanged questions and answers by email with ten people who took one or more geospatial MOOCs during 2014 or 2015. This sample of students was in no way representative of all students, but their professional backgrounds and prior experiences with geospatial technologies were as varied as a MOOC audience's would typically be. Are there insights that might inspire the design or outcomes of the next generation of classes? For me, their responses were a strong indication that there is still very much a need for free, open and regularly offered courses designed to introduce the world to geographical thinking supported by geospatial technologies. Below are some of their thoughts. 

What inspired you to take a geospatial MOOC?

  • I have taught Information Visualization, Software Engineering and Information Systems in computer science, and have grown to appreciate the power of each to facilitate problem-solving. GIS and its applications popped up in each of those areas, interconnecting all of them. It is visual, engaging, involves careful problem-solving, provides a language of global significance and is stunning in its breadth of application.
  • I always dreamed away looking at maps, imagining the landscapes they portrayed.

What about the content of the course most surprised you or was most unexpected?

  • I was delighted to find the depth of connection between geographic and mathematical constructs.
  • That maps are not as straightforward as I thought; that plotting anything on a ground representation of the land requires calculation, depending, for example, on the projection; and that versions change over time, creating mismatches between layers that build up the total map. I had always thought of a map as a one-layered entity, that you can make by drawing over a satellite picture.

Now, after the class, what do you remember most? What was the most important take-home message?

  • How important it is to examine data in several different ways and apply multiple analysis to the same data to see how it changes. I too often get caught up in the same way of doing things and do not take time to fully explore data and how it can be analyzed in meaningful ways.
  • In the modern world, every object in life or work is related to location.
  • It was all kind of intimidating until I made the first map — after that it was much easier to just dive in and start experimenting with the various tools.

In many formal school settings, geography and GIS are not well-known, widely-available or widely-studied subjects, yet the geospatial MOOCs have all been very popular, at least in their initial offerings. Why do you think this is?

  • Unfortunately, much of the world has considered spatial analysis as a separate field of study, when it should really be considered an integrated process in every field. For example, there is no special field of study for Microsoft Excel, although there are expert users. Instead, most teachers emphasize how spreadsheet skills are valuable to their field of study, and then they demonstrate to students why this is true. Spreadsheeting is not a skill that uses social science data. Social science is a field that benefits from spreadsheet skills. The same could be said of geospatial analysis. Instead of saying, “Spatial Analyst can perform social science studies,” we should be saying, “Social science studies can be better enhanced with spatial analysis.” And then prove it.
  • I think GIS courses can be daunting in a formal educational setting. It is a very technical field that can require a lot of time and training to master. Being able to take a MOOC with no external pressure to achieve a high grade is an attractive attribute of a MOOC. Essentially, these MOOCs are a low risk way to explore and learn about GIS technology.

Some MOOC providers have begun to charge fees for their courses, ending the initial “open” paradigm. Do you have thoughts or opinions about this?

  • MOOCs are a great leveler, sort of like the Internet. They are an investment in the future. As people are free to dabble in and learn about a field of study, they will appreciate it more. This can only lead to good results for the field and its professionals. The no-pressure, friendly style of the MOOCs I have taken is a stroke of genius as well. Practicing scientists must be carefully trained and tested (and maybe that is where the fees come in). The inspiration to become one requires a little soulful nurturing.
  • I would pay the fee for courses that I fully engage with and gather knowledge in that I can appreciate for my career or my own interests.
  • I think the most important thing is to facilitate others with the basic knowledge and developing understanding with this field, and in this way, MOOC should play [its] role without any charges. So basic MOOCS should be free of cost!

If there were one person in the world, or one group of people, whom you think would benefit from learning about geographical thinking and spatial analysis, who would it be and why?

  • It is the CEO of any company, because until now, most of them ignore the importance of GIS and their utilities in all departments.
  • The group that I believe would benefit most from geographical technology are boards of education and curricula development specialists. If GIS skills and knowledge are limited to only subject matter experts, widespread understanding of its utility will be slow in coming. GIS will spread like a wildfire once its usefulness is taught in the classroom. If educators and other professionals can take advantage of some simple operations, they will be inclined to pass the knowledge to others. Once they get a small taste, they will want the whole cake.
  • This is the era of curiosity. Everyone is curious about his location!
  • Almost all the activities in a day-to-day life involve spatial content. The location has become inevitable in the present day life. [The]Only thing [is], people don’t know or think about it as spatial content. So the course like this, for sure will make them more spatially aware. I can say, almost everyone who will participate or [is] interested to know about GIS would benefit from this and they will start to combine GIS with their core business.
  • I think everybody needs this.

Interested in participating?  These are some current and upcoming opportunities.

Do-It-Yourself GeoApps is currently underway but is taking enrollments until February 17, 2016

Penn State’s Geospatial Intelligence and the Geospatial Revolution is currently underway but still enrolling.

Fundamentals of GIS, the 1st course within the new Coursera GIS Specialization, is underway but still enrolling. The next class in the sequence, GIS Data Formats, Design and Quality, launches in April 2016.

The Location Advantage's next session begins in March 2016.

Esri’s Going Places with Spatial Analysis begins in May 2016.

Many thanks to the following people who contributed their thoughts to this article: Ron Abelon at the California Department of Transportation, Malik Muhammad Fahad Aslam, Heather Crowley, Lotte Harmsen, Zackary King, Sampath Maduri, Marsha Meredith, Ann Priestley, Mahender Raj Rajendran and Belhouari Taha. 

Published Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

Written by Diana S. Sinton

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