Students Worldwide Learn Skills for the Digital Earth in Elmhurst College MOOC

June 2, 2014

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Elmhurst College’s Skills for the Digital Earth MOOC ran for four weeks and ended in April. Just over 1,400 participants tackled the videos, exercises and quizzes. They came from 83 countries and 45 U.S. states. That number far exceeded instructor Rich Schultz’s expectations.  With limited time to prepare the course and a modest marketing budget, he was very happy to have so many people explore geospatial technology.

Schultz points to successes on a number of fronts. Students reported that they enjoyed the class and learned something from it. Some asked if the course would be taught again (yes, October 26 - November 22; registration will open on September 26) or if there’d be more courses on the topic (Schultz and his team are considering discipline-specific courses, such as one on GIS and healthcare). Many students came from overseas, some were educators and a good number had never heard of GIS or considered visualizing data on a map.

Students moved through a well-structured program that began with computer skills and worked up to the basics of maps, geography, decision making and ultimately geoprocessing. Most found using ArcGIS Online intuitive, but that didn’t mean everyone found the map’s legend without some help. “The course was designed for students at every level, so we started with the basics,” Schultz explained. More experienced students, who were not really the audience for the course, he noted, said it was “too easy.”

The course involved video lectures, exercises and a quiz to confirm understanding. Passing the quiz (80% correct) was required to move on to the next module. Quizzes could be taken as many times as necessary but a new quiz was generated from a pool of questions for each iteration. In the early modules students might need to take the quiz twice to pass, but in later weeks, as the content grew more complex, they typically needed a few more tries.

Discussions addressed student questions and missteps. Assistants helped them find menus or assignments. Every now and then a question would pop up that was beyond the lessons: “Can I get more information about how you’d use this in healthcare?” or “Could you use GIS in carpentry?” These questions pleased Schultz. “It meant they were connecting the technology and its potential use in their own lives and work.”

As is true for any new course, unanticipated challenges appeared. While a team of testers did a dry run with the course before launch, their familiarity with GIS might have made them blind to novice stumbles. Schultz and his team collected a list of such incidents that will be addressed in the next iteration. “In some cases we just need to clarify instructions,” he commented. He also hopes to test the course on a few true novices before the next offering.

Another challenge, one that has been voiced by many MOOC course developers, was the delivery platform. Schultz used the platform selected by the School of Professional Studies, Desire2Learn Open Courses. He noted some challenges with the learning curve, but mostly was able to do what he wanted pedagogically. One request from students, which he might consider incorporating in the future, is a project. Students would be asked to create their own map, showing what they know and tapping their area of interest.

Students may not have fully understood what the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM) was, Schultz observed, but they did understand that geospatial is an industry, not just technology. Students did appreciate that they received badges for each module they completed. To date, Elmhurst conferred more than 1,700 badges during the course.

Per Credly: "This badge recognizes successful completion of the Fundamental Computing Skills Associated with Geography module in the MOOC (massive open online course) titled "Skills for the Digital Earth" offered by Elmhurst College.”

The best news from the course is how many students took the MOOC and have applied to Elmhurst’s certificate or GIS master’s programs. A total of nine have already applied and six of those have a waiver for one of the certificate courses from successful completion of six modules of the MOOC.

Schultz and his team will be compiling data from the MOOC and preparing to present findings at the GeoEd'14 Conference in Louisville, KY in June and at the National Conference on Geography Education in Memphis in July/August. They’ll also, most assuredly, be pondering how to better teach students about geospatial technologies come October.


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