Lessons Learned: GIS Basics MOOC

February 12, 2014

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Back in April 2013, Peggy Minnis of the Department of Chemistry and Physical Sciences at Pace University began thinking about a basic massive open online course (MOOC) that would teach students ArcGIS. (See: Pace University Faculty Member Prepares “GIS 101” MOOC.) By August 2013, the course was pretty much ready to go. (See: Pace University GIS Basics MOOC Launches Sept 9.) By December the course was over. In 2014, after some time to decompress, Minnis can reflect on challenges and successes and begin to look ahead.

Not According to Plan

Like many things in life, the course didn’t exactly follow its plan. Minnis spent much of summer 2013 updating a series of videos she used in her in-person GIS course at Pace. She assumed, with all that work done, she’d not be creating new videos week to week while the MOOC was in session. However, once the course started, Minnis found herself tweaking each week’s lesson by removing some videos and shortening others.

The good news was the streamlined videos were a hit with the MOOC students. Minnis put all the videos on YouTube, so she could see how many times each one was viewed. Some videos had 500 or more views. Among the top videos were those that covered:

  • downloading and using Census data
  • creating an address locator
  • using GPS and photos
  • geocoding online (since Esri no longer offers it as part of ArcGIS)
  • measuring distances

Another aspect of the course that didn’t quite match expectations was student familiarity with GIS. In their introductions, many students described themselves as knowing ArcGIS and GIS well or at an expert level. But, as each week’s project appeared, it became clear that these “experts” still had a bit to learn. Changing projections, for example, was a new idea for many of the students.

Minnis was very pleased that students helped one another with all sorts of challenges via a series of discussion boards. Students tackled installation and authorization glitches, and offered guidance when peers hit a wall with their homework maps. A whole discussion board was assigned to “tips and tricks,” while a second one listed instructor and student selected GIS resources.


Leading up to and during the course, 810 individuals registered. About 150 never logged in while another 150 worked fairly regularly through the weekly assignments. The latter group became the core of the active learners.

Interestingly, notes Minnis, some students would pop in for one week, and then disappear, only to return a few weeks later. These students, she explains, were students who either wanted to learn just specific skills in ArcGIS or who were perhaps moving from a previous version of the software to version 10.1. Many of the students created online portfolios of their work using FolioSpaces to share their work with others.

Of those students who took the survey at the end of the course, about 40% held a bachelor’s degree, another 40% had a master’s degree, and six had Ph.D.s. One student was still in high school, learning GIS alongside another student and her teacher! About 10 had taken the Coursera/Penn State MOOC Maps and the Geospatial Revolution, which used ArcGIS Online for much of its hands-on work.

Most students were not looking for a credit course, but were looking to gain or sharpen skills either for an existing or future job. One group of note was comprised of retirees looking to do mapping work within their communities.

When the course wrapped up in December, 60 students requested a certificate of completion. Of those, just one insisted on a printed version; the rest were happy with a PDF. All of them were granted a digital badge.

Minnis was surprised so many students did not want the certificate. On the other hand, she was pleased at how many sent “thank you” e-mails detailing how the course helped them do their job better. They also noted they appreciated the feedback from Minnis on their map projects. The relatively small size of the course made those types of interactions possible. Many of the students also noted that taking the course had changed their perception of Pace University.


Minnis herself enjoyed many things about the course. First, she enjoyed the freedom of making changes to content along the way. As she put it, “Since the students were not paying, so long as I followed the syllabus, the students’ expectations were met.”

Second, she enjoyed trimming down some of her videos. Whereas her original set of video included “umms” and “ahhs” or taking the wrong path through a workflow, removing those tightened up the videos. In fact, she found she had to note that a process would likely take longer on the student’s machine than in the video because she cut out some the processing time to speed things along!

Third, she worked with the U.S. Census Bureau’s New York office to nail down a simple procedure for finding and downloading data (video). That, in turn, meant that U.S. students could work with data from their own geographies instead of with “canned” datasets.

Finally, the number of happy students helped Minnis pronounce the course a success.

Looking Ahead

Minnis is still working with Pace University to determine if and when the course might be run again. Would she change anything? “Not really,” she says. “The pedagogy was already well tested with my face-to-face classes.” But, of course, she might need to update her videos and lessons to reflect changes in future version of ArcGIS!


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