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Distance, Scale and Expanding Our Reach

Physical proximity to geospatial education opportunities at schools and universities has traditionally been an impediment. But engagement through new online methods like Massive Open Online Courses is changing that.

The potential audience for geospatial education includes traditional groups such as elementary and secondary school students, as well as traditional higher education cohorts in colleges and universities. A more expansive view of the potential learner population would include working professionals seeking advancement, and lifelong learners who may be less motivated by professional needs but highly motivated to achieve personal growth and development goals.

Physical proximity to geospatial education opportunities at schools and universities has traditionally been an impediment to the further reach of our domain, among many other factors. Geography teachers are few and far between in most countries, and many universities go without any dedicated department at all. Yet no matter how much capacity we might add in physical locations for spatial learning, students all over the world will be left behind if we only focus on improving access to faceto- face learning experiences.

The good news is that distance is less of a barrier than ever when it comes to geospatial education. We have overcome distance through the development of online teaching methods and educational technology. A 2009 meta-analysis commissioned by the US Department of Education synthesised results from 99 comparative studies and concluded that appropriately designed online courses are at least as good as their face-to-face counterparts, and in many cases offer advantages to students in terms of flexibility. A wide range of online options are now available for geospatial education from educational institutions of all kinds, including programmes offered by universities like The Pennsylvania State University. While distance has become less of an impediment to geospatial learning, the scale of the class sizes we can teach has remained relatively stable.

Student engagement on a massive scale
The past two years have seen the rapid rise of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). MOOCs are designed to provide online learning experiences for extremely large class cohorts, routinely supporting tens of thousands of learners around the world. They are open in that they are free for anyone to take. What makes MOOCs distinct from traditional online courses is the combination of free access, scalable content delivery, and scalable assessment methods. And their size comes at the expense of the ability for an instructor to engage with every student on an individual basis. In that sense, scale is overcome in many dimensions, but not all of them.

In 2013, Penn State joined Coursera, one of the largest current MOOC provider platforms, with over 8 million learners today. Through this relationship, I taught one of Penn State’s first MOOCs: Maps and the Geospatial Revolution, which opened for enrollment in February, 2013 and was launched for the first time in July, 2013. In its initial run, the class attracted over 48,000 students from 199 countries.

A hexbin choropleth map showing the self-reported home locations of more than 22,000 students from the first session of the Maps MOOC taught in July, 2013.

The Maps MOOC is designed to teach the fundamentals of mapping and geospatial science in a format akin to an introductory short course that we would ordinarily teach to incoming freshman at Penn State. Over a period of five weeks, students learn the essentials of map design and interpretation, experiment with basic spatial analysis methods, and discover the myriad ways in which the geographic perspective connects us all. Along the way they engage with contemporary Web GIS platforms and explore data in problem domains such as crisis management and location analysis for business.

Students engage with written and graphical content in the course, including links to additional reading and resources in the form of what amounts to a kind of digital textbook. They are also provided with short lecture videos and prompts for weekly discussion topics. Finally, each of the five lessons includes a lab assignment where hands-on work in ArcGIS Online provides direct experience with geospatial technology and analysis. Web GIS tools today make it completely possible for novices to create and share thematic maps with very little technical expertise and no need for desktop software.

Evaluating student success in a MOOC requires the use of scalable methods of assessment, including quizzes, exams, and peer review activities. This poses limitations on the design of a massive online course compared to a traditional online class where scaling assessment is not often a major consideration. However, methods like peer review can be leveraged in a greater way with a cohort of thousands than it can in a class of fifteen. For example, the final project in the Maps MOOC requires students to create a thematic map designed to tell a story. As part of a peer review activity, students grade five peer submissions for this project, and have the chance then to see a sizable swath of examples to help place their contribution into context with their classmates.

It is clear from the response to this class that there is broad interest among non-experts. Combined, the 2013 and 2014 offerings of the Maps MOOC have drawn more than 70,000 enrollments from every corner of the planet. Students in the course have watched over 240,000 lecture video streams and generated more than 100,000 discussion forum posts about geography, mapping, and related topics. The scale of this interaction is staggering to witness. Activity in the course happens every hour of every day, and at such a fast pace that it is impossible as the instructor to see everything. While MOOCs seem to have expanded what is possible in terms of scaling the delivery of content and some types of assessments, there is much work to be done in order to scale the interaction possible from one instructor to so many students.

A hexbin choropleth map showing the locations mentioned by students in over 90,000 discussion forum posts from the first session of the Maps MOOC taught in July, 2013.

Expanding reach
MOOCs provide an opportunity to take major strides toward expanding awareness of spatial sciences and their impact. The teaching and learning affordances of MOOCs translate well to introductory experiences that can be assessed through relatively simply means that scale to thousands of students at once. Advanced topics and learning objectives (the iterative refinement of a map design, for example) remain difficult to tackle at scale. Critics of MOOCs have pointed out that a small percentage of students complete these courses. It is common that less than 10% of students earn a passing grade in most MOOCs. In the Maps MOOC, there is a completion rate of around 8% of the total number of active students. After two sessions, over 4,400 students have earned a passing grade. And although the percentage of people earn a passing grade is low, it is observed larger groups of people (20-30% of the overall total) who stay engaged with the course until the end but do not participate in graded assessments. It is clear that not all learners engage with a topic solely to earn a grade, and a key part of expanding the reach of geospatial education will require us to adapt to a more diverse range of learner motivations and commitment types. New learning experiences like MOOCs help reduce barriers associated with distance and scale in geospatial education, but they do not reduce the importance or relevance of location. In fact, it has been observed that location is absolutely central to the discussions that students have in a class like the Maps MOOC. Students look for opportunities to ground their learning in the context of places they know, and places they wish to know in the future. The immense global cohort in a MOOC immediately begins to spawn a large set of study groups, most of which are identified by a specific location. The course itself may operate at a global scale, but engagement with geospatial concepts and skills often narrows down to the local level for students.

Since the Maps MOOC was first developed, many additional geospatial topics can be found on MOOC platforms like Coursera, EdX, and Udacity. The Maps MOOC will be offered again in March, 2015 (www.coursera.org/course/ maps), and consistent demand gives rises to hopes that we have just scratched the surface in terms of global demand for basic education in spatial sciences. Learner engagement through new online methods like MOOCs is expected to ensure the sustainability of face-to-face and traditional online education efforts. Reaching new audiences means we have the chance to convince people to choose our discipline for further study. Now is an excellent time to aggressively pursue expanded awareness of what we do, as so many around the world now leverage geospatial technology and analysis in their daily lives through mobile devices and web mapping services.