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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

Special Coverage: Online GIS Courses Change the Face of Geospatial Education

August 28th, 2014 by Susan Smith

The face of GIS and Geospatial education has changed dramatically over the past few years, with online courses being offered in numerous subjects, ranging from GIS fundamentals to Spatial Analytics and Geodesign. What is more phenomenal is that these courses reach out to all corners of the earth, making a GIS/geospatial education a possibility for almost everyone on the planet.

Screenshot from a Washington College lecture

Screenshot from a Washington College lecture

Certificates are available for introductory education all the way up through graduate level work. Many online courses are offered within geography departments of universities and provide a lower cost and efficient way to study without having to leave home. Some online courses are free and others offered with scholarships and discounts to veterans and the military.

What’s more, properly designed online courses have been found to be at least as good as, or often better than, resident courses, in study after study.

Kevin Shortelle, student at University of West Florida's Online GIS program.

Kevin Shortelle, student at University of West Florida’s Online GIS program.

What Do You Get in an Online Course?

Most of the online courses available involve an instructor available for a period of four to eight weeks, for individual as well as group instruction. A series of materials and videos are discussed and worked with, and written work and projects are assigned as needed.

Some online courses are an adjunct to face-to-face courses. What some colleges say is that one of the advantages to online courses is community. Students are encouraged to work closely together, yet they have a tremendous amount of independence in the online learning environment.

Penn State responded to our questionnaire by saying their mission is to reach adult professionals who seek an advanced geospatial education with their Online Geospatial Education, “for whom it would be simply impossible to stop their careers and move their families to attend an on-campus experience.”

For younger students, online courses may provide a way to receive an excellent education, and not have to pay the high price of tuition and the living costs of attending a university face-to-face program.

Many students may take additional and face-to-face courses such as geography, computer science or health care while taking online GIS courses.

Diverse Offerings

Kevin Shortelle got interested in GIS as a result of his company’s need to orthorectify aerial imagery from the drones they were building for the U.S. Government. He took the University of West Florida’s Online GIS Program.

“The online course was more rigorous than I had expected,” says Shortelle. “I learned much more than I thought possible in a 24-credit hour curriculum. Course content was diverse, and provided exposure to many ArcGIS extensions, 2D and 3D spatial analysis tools, thematic mapping techniques, and ESRI support sites.”

American Sentinel University offers 100% online classes that are designed for working professionals. Students do not have to know any GIS to begin their studies.

The gaming industry is now relying on GIS for real-world assets, according to a recent announcement from American Sentinel. “Gamification” uses GIS source data to create realistic virtual worlds, which opens up an entirely new industry segment for GIS professionals. Younger students who are familiar with gaming may grasp spatial concepts in GIS easier through gamification and all students who are most comfortable with visual learning.

Practical application of gamification can enhance understanding of terrain, landscape, road structure, cityscapes and buildings. Already some aspects of gaming are fueling 3D GIS visualization in products such as Google Earth and Esri’s CityEngine.

“3D environments that simulate the real world help us to understand and plan sustainable environments,” says Stephen A. McElroy, Ph.D., GISP, GIS program chair at American Sentinel.

USC Dornsife’s GIST Program offers smaller class sizes, discussion forums, state-of-the-art software and database access, and videoconferencing tools for virtual face-to-face meetings with faculty and classmates.

GIST thesis topics at USC have spanned the full suite of geographic information science and technology, including novel applications of GIS as well as implementations of web and mobile technology. Specific projects span a wide range of fields, including architecture, biogeography, business, geology, history, human geography, public health, natural hazards, planetary sciences, and sustainability.

The most popular offerings in the self-paced online GIS Program at Washington College are their introductory courses. At the University of North Alabama, students earn a GIS Analyst Certificate and work in instructor-led online classes. During the class, they can ask questions of the instructor just as though they were in a traditional classroom setting.

At Penn State, most popular online offerings are their Python Program for GIS, LiDAR, and Cloud and Server GIS. They have recently created an all-new version of their Open Web Mapping course which focuses on contemporary Open Source web mapping technologies like OpenLayers, GDAL and TileMill. They have also launched a course on Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) for Remote Sensing.

Washington College provides non-credit online GIS for professionals in the form of introductory GIS through advanced topics such as Georeferencing and Density Mapping, but for K-12 efforts as well. Dover Area High School was awarded the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s Academic Achievement Award.

Bradley Atwood, GIS specialist at Michael Baker International, has this to say about the online GIS courses he is currently taking at the University of Denver: “The classes are challenging and very relevant to my GIS work.  I use skills acquired from the University of Denver classes on a regular basis.  The professors are always available, always encouraging, and extremely knowledgeable about GIS.  My work schedule is often unpredictable so doing the classes online makes it much easier for me.”


The advent of “Massive Open Online Courses” or MOOCs has allowed universities to take enrollment from possibly 15-25 to thousands of students. This type of course will provide videos, written materials, manuals, tests that are posted weekly. Students can study them at their own pace. These courses do not have a live instructor and set class time, but are of interest to students on the go, who must collect materials and study whenever they get the chance.

A number of MOOCs are available, including Esri’s Spatial Analysis MOOC, Open Online Education’s “Introduction to GIS and Mapping,” Simon Fraser University’s “Exploring Geographic Information Systems,” Nature Conservancy’s “Fundamentals of GIS for Conservation,” Penn State’s courses via Coursera on “Maps and the Geospatial Revolution” and “Geodesign,” and Elmhurst College’s 4-week Digital Earth MOOC.

The latest in Esri’s line-up of MOOCs is the following:  The Location Advantage, which is designed for recent graduates and current students majoring in business.

Location analytics is used by organizations throughout the world to improve their understanding of business processes, markets, and customers. This allows organizations to make critical business decisions more quickly while providing them with a competitive advantage.

The Success Factor

So far we are seeing online GIS courses offered by large universities, state universities, and some private colleges. Some of these are using an online service such as Coursera or Desire2Learn (D2L Open Courses) to provide the framework for their online courses. Another option for students enrolled in online courses are satellite tutoring centers, where they can schedule an appointment for tutoring.

Some criticisms of online education include the idea that fewer tenured faculty members will be hired to teach them, as online courses can be taught by contracted faculty or tutors.

Maybe that isn’t an issue, if the demand for face-to-face education continues. And some faculty members may enjoy balancing face-to-face education with online. For students, the lack of an “in-person” experience and the lack of networking with other students on a similar career path may be of concern, although most universities today encourage online students working together. As part of the USC Dornsife GIST Online program, the course also includes a one-week field excursion to Catalina Island to obtain practical field experience in spatial data acquisition, and gives students the opportunity to work together and with faculty to enrich the online experience.

One respondent said that the best format for online is hands-on exercises where students can use real GIS data and various software programs to apply critical thinking and problem solving skills, to address a series of multidisciplinary geospatial challenges.

In the responses we received to our questionnaire, all respondents felt that the online GIS experience was beneficial to all students. Some universities felt that the online experience offered a richer learning experience than face-to-face, as long as the courses were developed and presented well.

The Future for Online GIS Studies

Clearly, since GIS is being used in many different industries including health care, real estate, disaster planning, business, defense, and city and site planning, many more organizations are seeking people with GIS skills.

And while some GIS applications become easier to use and don’t require a degree or certificate in GIS, there is still a great need for those who are degreed in GIS to take over positions such as GIS managers, spatial analytics directors, city and land planners and analysts. In business, GIS is being used increasingly as a business intelligence tool for interfacing with ERP and CRM in large organizations. The need to use location data and spatial analytical data with other data types is a driver to send professionals back to school to learn new skills.

Online curricula are including more courses in UAS, mobile, 3D and virtual worlds that will become more important to GIS professionals as our reliance on new forms of communication, integration and collaboration shape the need for new technologies.


University/College : American Sentinel University

  • Online GIS Program: GIS Degree Programs
  • Website:
  • Courses Offered: Associate of Science GIS, BS GIS, Master of Geospatial Information Systems, GIS Graduate Certificate
  • Students: Beginner through to working GIS professionals, deployed and former military students
  • Type of Virtual Instruction: All GIS programs are offered online
  • Costs/Tuition: Contact

University/College : Esri MOOC

  • Online GIS Program: Spatial Analysis course
  • Website:
  • Courses Offered: Going Places with Spatial Analysis
  • Students: Intermediate Level
  • Type of Virtual Instruction: Self-paced, video lectures
  • Costs/Tuition: free

University/College : Penn State

University/College : University of North Alabama

  • Online GIS Program: GIS Analyst Certificate Program
  • Website:
  • Courses Offered: Intro to ArcGIS I & II, Using AutoCAD Data in ArcGIS Desktop, Performing GIS Analysis Using ArcGIS, Intro to Model Builder & Python for ArcGIS
  • Students: Beginners to GIS professionals
  • Type of Virtual Instruction: Instructor led, online, student-instructor interaction, lectures, live demos of skills and software
  • Costs/Tuition: $799-$1,799 fee, depending upon course

University/College : University of Denver

  • Online GIS Program: Master of Science GIS Online Program
  • Website: University of Denver Online Program Website
  • Courses Offered: Master of Science GIS, GIS Certificate Program
  • Students: GIS Professionals
  • Type of Virtual Instruction: Instructor led, online, with projects such as the Capstone Project included
  • Costs/Tuition: Online MSGISc students will be eligible for a discounted tuition rate at 49.9 percent of the “on campus” tuition rate.

University/College : University of West Florida

  • Online GIS Program: Online GIS Program
  • Website:
  • Courses Offered: Intro to GIS, Cartographic Skills, GIS Programming, Photo Interpretation and Remote Sensing, GIS for Archaeology, GIS Internship
  • Students: Military trained GIS professionals, non-traditional students, working professionals
  • Type of Virtual Instruction: semester-based, offered monthly, self-paced, can use geospatial learning lab, ESRI resources
  • Costs/Tuition:

University/College : USC Dornsife

  • Online GIS Program: Master of Science GIST
  • Website:
  • Courses Offered: Masters of Science GIST, Graduate Certificates in GIST, Geospatial Intelligence, Geospatial Leadership, Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization, Spatial Data Acquisition and Integration, Spatial Data Application Development
  • Students: USC graduate students to working GIS professionals who are also regular presenters at conferences & receive awards for their contributions
  • Type of Virtual Instruction: Graduate programs use Blackboard learning management system. Professors are available for individual and for group work via remote video conferencing, phone, email, etc.
  • Costs/Tuition:

University/College : Washington College

  • Online GIS Program: Washington College GIS Program
  • Website:,
  • Courses Offered: ArcGIS 9.3, ArcGIS 10.0, ENVI EX, Trimble GPS workshops
  • Students: Beginners and K-12
  • Type of Virtual Instruction: Self-paced, non-credit online GIS
  • Costs/Tuition: Some free workshops; for pricing information contact Stewart Bruce, GIS Program Coordinator at


University/College: Elmhurst College

  • Online GIS Program: Skills for the Digital Earth MOOC
  • Website:
  • Courses Offered: 4-week, online course designed to introduce how location technologies are used in society.
  • Students: No prior experience with GIS software all the way to advanced users.
  • Type of Virtual Instruction: Video lectures, discussion, quizzes.
  • Costs/Tuition: $450 per semester hour, program comprised of 20 total semester hours. Certificate program. email contact 630-617-5293

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Categories: Big Data, CityEngine 2014, climate change, cloud, crowd source, developers, drones, Esri, Esri UC 2014, geocoding, geomatics, geospatial, GIS, image-delivery software, indoor location technology, LBS, lidar, location based sensor fusion, location based services, location intelligence, mapping, mobile, Online GIS courses, remote sensing, satellite imagery, sensors, spatial data, storm surge, UAS, urban information models

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