Ten Things You Should Know About Online GIS/Geospatial Education

January 22, 2014

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Online education is hot. Students and professionals from all fields, from all over the world are putting a toe or a full foot into these new educational opportunities. Sitting in your office or a coffee shop with your laptop and a headset may not be how school used to be, but it’s part of today’s education landscape. But fear not, there is still a community of students that typically engage with each other and the instructor, just in new and different ways.

In the geospatial technology arena, curious students are learning about topics old and new via free webinars and massive open online courses (MOOCs) as well as for-fee management seminars, college level courses, certificates and undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Here are some of the things potential online learners should know as they explore these online offerings.

1) Documentation - One important distinction between online options is how the education provider documents the skills learned or courses attended. Some free webinars offer a certificate of attendance just like in-person seminars used to provide, but others do not. Most for-fee webinars or training courses will provide such documentation.

Even if there is no certificate of any kind, online learning experiences can be included on a resume or academic curriculum vitae (CV). If you want to formally document your achievement, be sure to check what the hosting organization will provide (paper certificate in mail, pdf delivered via e-mail, etc.) and when (documents may not be delivered immediately after the final exam and may not be available forever). Ask about the wording of such a document, if that matters to you or the organization to which you might submit the credential (GISCI or your employer).

2) Degree/Certificate - Many people are familiar with the formal degree system used in the United States and elsewhere. There are two-year degrees (often called associate degrees), bachelor’s degrees (typically four years), and master’s and Ph.D. degrees (graduate degrees).

The new entry in this space is not a degree, but a certificate. It typically has fewer requirements and is more focused on a particular set of skills or job tasks. Further, the cost for such a certificate, and the time to earn one, may be considerably lower than for a degree.

Some certificate programs are open to students with a high school degree and others, termed post-baccalaureate certificates, require a bachelor’s degree (not necessary in the topic of study) for entry.

If you are taking a course for academic credit and you want it to transfer to another institution, be sure that’s possible before you dive in. Not all schools’ credits transfer. You’ll want to dig into the school’s credit transfer policy like this one from American Sentinel University.

3) Synchronous or Asynchronous - Some courses require students to meet together (either with a faculty member or with one another) at a specific time. That’s termed synchronous learning. If you learn best engaging with other people and ideas as you consider concepts together, you might prefer the synchronous learning experience.

Other programs let students do the work and interact with one another when they can. That’s termed asynchronous learning and might involve reading messages, watching video or listening to audio others have posted before adding your own input. If you prefer to mull over new ideas on your own in the quiet of your own room before discussing them with others, this option may work for you. Asynchronous learning can fit nearly any schedule.

Webinars come in synchronous and asynchronous versions, too. One of the valuable things about attending an online webinar live (synchronous) is that you have an opportunity to ask questions directly of the presenter or panel. That is not always possible when you watch a replay video of the event (asynchronous).

4) Your Goal - Before selecting an online educational opportunity be sure you identify your goals.

You might want to learn:

  • a particular programming language
  • a particular piece of software
  • how to become a project manager
  • the basics of geospatial analysis
  • how remote sensing works
  • how to fly a drone

Why do you want to learn it?

  • to feed your own interest
  • to advance at work (professional development)
  • to get a (or a better) job
  • to work toward a certification (industry, software or otherwise) or a degree

Have a healthy skepticism as you read through promises in marketing materials, course and program learning objectives and job placement statistics. If someone says they can teach you all of ArcGIS in a three-hour online session, they probably can’t. But if they say they can introduce you to ArcGIS Online such that you can make your first map, that’s far more realistic.

5) Beware Discussion Forums - Almost all courses that last more than one or two sessions offer some forum for students to ask questions and interact with one another. In some courses, students are required to participate in the discussion a fixed number of times, such as two or three times per week. If the course is large (hundreds of students) that can be a lot of comments to read, not all of which are valuable, relevant or even respectful.

My experience has been that in large courses where participation is not required, only the students who are interested participate in the forums, and the quality and focus of discussion is quite high.

So, explore whether participation in the forums is mandatory and if so, how to get the most out of your visits there.

6) Cost/Time - Each online offering, including the free ones, requires a certain amount of time for learning the material (by reading, watching videos, working through projects) and in some cases doing homework (writing papers, participating in discussions, making maps, creating videos, etc.) You’ll want to explore how much money and time you have as you select which online learning option makes the most sense to get you toward your goal(s).

One-off webinars, especially those sponsored by vendors as part of their marketing efforts, are typically free and take only the time to attend, either live or watching a recording. That might take 30 minutes or up to a few hours.

Free courses that run for more than one session might include a suggested range of hours that students are expected to work on the material. If you are very familiar with the material and speed through the videos at 2x speed, your actual time may be less. If, on the other hand, you are completely new to the topic, its vocabulary and its way of thinking, your study time may be two or three times as long. Do note that what you get out of an online course, just like a face-to-face one, typically depends on what you put into it.

Single courses typically have a single fee for everything. Courses that are part of a certificate or degree program may have additional fees for applying, accessing software, as well as administrative fees. And, do be aware of out of pocket fees for hardware such as a headset or Internet access when traveling.

7) Loans/Funding - Online degree, and in some cases certificate, students may have access to the same scholarships, grants and loan opportunities as residential students. Funds may also come from an employer education program. School financial aid offices may be able to help you determine the options, but be sure to do your own research as well. Because online students are often located outside of the traditional realm of a particular school, the school may not be aware of local scholarships in your geography or in your area of interest.

All that said, online programs may not be cheaper, or require any less study time, than face-to-face ones.

8) Applying - Free courses often accept anyone who is interested until the online platform “fills.” Other courses or programs have far stricter requirements ranging from basic computer literacy to actual degrees to join. And, there is typically an application process, much like that for college. Be ready to answer questions like why are you interested in this program, what are your goals, and why do you want to attend that institution. Spend some time on the application or it’s possible the selection committee will pass you by.

9) Time Management - Online learning places the burden of motivation and time management squarely on the student’s shoulders. If it’s a one-off webinar, a note on the calendar or whatever way you manage your day-to-day schedule should do the trick. But, with a longer term commitment such as a MOOC or 10- or 16-week online course, you may need some more planning.

Some courses have the same rhythm week to week. It might be that a lecture is posted online on Wednesday, discussion ensues Thursday to Sunday and an assignment is due on Tuesday night. Other courses have a different flow for each week. One week might require only watching videos while the following week involves researching and writing a 10-page paper. The best way to plan for such tasks is to spend some time with the syllabus to find the “busy” times for class and see how they line up with your life. Will you be traveling for work the week the paper is due? If you have a week to take the final exam, should you do it at the beginning of that week so you can attend a family camping trip on the weekend?

Some online webinars and courses send out e-mail reminders about an upcoming event or due date, or highlight what you have yet to complete this week. Some schools offer mentors (typically over the phone) to help you both manage your time and learn how to study in the new online world. Even so, the student is ultimately responsible for this aspect of learning.

When I taught working professionals online, I organized the course such that a student could miss one entire week (read nothing, watch nothing, write nothing and be absent from discussions) and still get an “A.” Thus, if a student was sick or had to travel for work, it was possible to use this “get out of jail free card.” Only a few students ever took full advantage of it, but most agreed it lessened their stress.

10) Reputation - Early online learning options and degree programs had some of the stigma of diploma mills. The perception of at least some educators and employers was that for a price anyone would get a degree without learning anything. But now, with even pubic high school students taking some part of their education online, things have changed. Still, just like with face-to-face teaching, different organizations have different reputations.

Formal degrees continue to have a certain amount of cachet in many fields. The rise of well-respected certificates in geospatial technology from a number of schools in the U.S. and abroad is changing how employers view such credentials. It’s valuable to ask schools about the placement rate of those who complete certificates. It’s also valuable to ask that question of hiring managers and company representatives at trade shows.

Free offerings have reputations, too. What do people think of this MOOC? This webinar series? This online graduate degree? I’ve not yet found actual rankings of geospatial degrees but there is a lot to be learned in online forums and social media from those who study in specific programs or hire from them. There is valuable source for MOOC evaluations at CourseTalk.


Online education can be a great option for anyone who wants to learn GIS, remote sensing or how to fly a drone. But, like many products and services we buy and use in our modern lives, doing a bit of homework before diving in will pay off in the long run.

Image by Jonathan Crowe licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0


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