Geo-enabled Education Online

May 19, 2014

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Online education

Online learning is well-established in higher education in many places around the world where access to the Internet is reliable and affordable. Allen and Seaman (2014) report that one-third of U.S. higher education students – approximately 7.1 million in all – took at least one online course in 2013. (They define an online course as one in which 80-100% of content is delivered via the Web). Two-thirds of the 2,800 academic leaders who responded to their annual survey stated that online learning is critical to their institutions’ long-term strategy.

Attitudes about online learning have changed a lot over the two decades or so since the earliest experiments in Web-based teaching and learning. There was a lot of excitement in the 1990s among administrators and entrepreneurs, some of whom were swept up in the "irrational exuberance" of the dot-com boom. There was skepticism too, particularly among faculty members. Some, including Noble (1998), questioned the motives of institutions that developed online courses and programs. He asserted that the growth of online learning was “not a progressive trend towards a new era at all, but a regressive trend, toward the rather old era of mass-production, standardization, and purely commercial interests.” I myself wondered aloud if those of us involved in early online learning programs in geography were part of a Faustian Bargain (DiBiase 2000).

Nearly 15 years later, many educators remain skeptical about the quality of online education (Seaman 2009), despite several meta-analyses which conclude that it is at least as effective as face-to-face instruction when it is designed and conducted properly, for students who are prepared to succeed (Bernard et al 2004; Zhao et al 2005; Sitzmann et al 2006; Means et al 2009). Meanwhile, three-quarters of academic leaders believe that the learning outcomes of online courses are equivalent or superior to face-to-face instruction (Allen and Seaman 2014). And the demand for online courses and programs among students, which continues to grow at a much faster rate than enrollments as a whole, speaks for itself.

Online GIS education

Many higher education institutions now offer online courses, and in some cases complete online certificate and degree programs, focused on GIS and related geospatial technologies and methods. In the private sector, Esri continues to offer Web-based and instructor-led training online to thousands of users each year. Online geospatial programs are often tailored to the needs of working adults rather than traditional students who pursue degrees full-time on campus. The popularity of practice-oriented online master’s degrees is particularly remarkable, since unlike their more academically-oriented counterparts offered on campus, online programs typically offer little or no financial assistance in the form of grants-in-aid. 

Online programs also tend to differ in the composition of their faculties, which often include practicing geospatial professionals who teach online part-time. Such "practitioner faculties" make sense for practice-oriented education programs, though concerns about part-timers' educational qualifications remain.

A recent phenomenon in online geospatial education is no-cost courses that are open to anyone who wishes to participate. Such Open Online Courses (which may or may not be Massive) have already opened the eyes of thousands of learners worldwide to geospatial technologies and methods. Discussion of these ideas was a highlight of the recent 2014 annual conference on Geospatial Technology and Online Education at Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis.

Geo-enabled education online

What remains to be explored is the potential of geospatial technologies and methods to enrich online teaching and learning across disciplines. The most interesting aspect of the Harvard CGA Conference was discussion of these and other ideas:

  • An obvious example is to enable students in an online class - any online class - to plot their locations on a shared Web map. Whether they choose to plot themselves precisely or approximately, interesting conversations and teachable moments are sure to follow. 
  • Students and educators travel, and sometimes cross paths. Classes engaged in location-aware social media could be more likely to meet up for advising sessions or social get-togethers. 
  • Student projects and other assignments are often place-based. How much might such activities be enriched if they were situated in an interactive, multivariate map context?
  • The use of location analytics to target prospective students, manage enrollments and investigate spatial variations in student performance is sure to expand as analytical tools like Esri Maps for Office are incorporated in existing administrative workflows. 

Meanwhile, one of the most interesting and potentially consequential trends in online learning is the convergence of “the object formerly known as the textbook” (Young 2013) and the online course. Everyone knows that printed textbooks are on their way out as a primary vehicle for educational content delivery. Publishers know this better than anyone. Though printed texts won't disappear completely any time soon, publishers are already developing "next generation" products that resemble online courses more than books. 

The integration of interactive, multiscale Web mapping with the next generation of digital “textbooks” - and especially with interactive assessment - sets the stage for profound interactions with thematic maps and the inclusion of map analysis among the educational objectives that authors and instructors establish for courses. It sets the stage for geography - as it is commonly misunderstood - to rise from triviality to importance in many texts, and for many students and teachers. Esri is working closely with publishers and authors to help realize this unique opportunity.


Allen, I.E. and J. Seaman (2014) Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group,

Bernard, R.M., P.C. Abrami, Y. Lou, E. Borokhovski, A. Wade, L. Wozney, P.A. Wallet, M. Fiset and B. Huang (2004). How Does Distance Education Compare With Classroom Instruction? A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature. Review of Educational Research  74:3, pp. 379–439.

DiBiase, David (2000) Is distance education a Faustian Bargain? Journal of Geography in Higher Education 24:1, pp. 130-135.

Means, B., Y. Toyama, R. Murphy, M. Bakia, and K. Jones (2009). Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. U.S. Department of Education

Noble, David F. (1998) Digital diploma mills: The automation of higher education. First Monday,

Seaman, J. (2009) Online Learning as a Strategic Asset Volume II: The Paradox of Faculty Voices: Views and Experiences with Online Learning. Washington DC: Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

Sitzmann, T., Kraiger, K., Stewart, D., & Wisher, R. (2006) The comparative effectiveness of Web-based and classroom instruction: a meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology 59, pp. 623-664.

Young, J. The object formerly known as the textbook. Chronicle of Higher Education January 27,

Zhao, Y., J. Lei, B.Y.C. Lai, and H.S. Tan (2005) What makes the difference? A practical analysis of research in the effectiveness of distance education. Teachers College Record  107:8, pp. 1839-1884)


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