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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: The Global Reach of Online GIS Education

September 14th, 2017 by Susan Smith

For several years, colleges, universities and some geospatial vendors have been offering online classes in various capacities. As companies offer fewer training courses within their facilities, and professionals have less time to travel to classes, we have seen the rise of these courses offered by universities and even software companies. What do these classes contribute to the whole educational fabric of GIS?

For students, online GIS courses offer flexibility in terms of schedule, but with the same academic rigor as a traditional on campus course, according to Sarita Field, University of Denver. Whether you’re traveling for work or on vacation with your family, you’ll have access to your online GIS course 24/7.

Some educational institutions offer “Massive Open Online Courses” (MOOCs) that allow students to take the course at their convenience, within a prescribed amount of time. While some of these courses provide limited access to professors and instructors, they serve a valuable purpose in education for those who are working professionals, or want to increase their skills in a particular area without having to sign up for a course within a specific timeframe. Also, they can be particularly useful to those working in the field or in a location that doesn’t have a university or institution that can offer the needed courses. These courses also allow thousands of students to take the course simultaneously.

Respondents to our online survey replied as follows:

What do you believe students get out of an online GIS course?

According to Adena Schutzberg, MOOC program manager, the best online GIS courses teach the same content one would expect in a face to face course, only in a different form. “One skill online students perhaps practice more than their residential counterparts relates to problem solving,” says Schutzberg. “When there’s not another student sitting in the lab doing the same exercise or an instructor or teaching assistant walking the aisles to provide assistance, online learners must take action. Online learners navigate not only course related assistance such as dedicated discussion forums for help, but also resources available on the Web and on social networks like LinkedIn or Slack.”

Upon completing UNA’s Online GIS Analyst Certificate Program, students will have learned the skills needed to be a GIS Technician/Analyst. They will learn to create maps, perform data edits, complete spatial analysis, convert CAD data and even automate processes using ModelBuilder and Python Script using ArcGIS, notes Meghan Fike, CPP, program coordinator, University of Northern Alabama

At Penn State, students can work at an individual basis, and have a wide range of motivations for taking classes with Penn State. A lot of folks are looking for a chance to pivot into a new part of the geospatial industry. For some, their programs provide the opportunity to get into the industry in the first place. And another sector of their student audience is taking an active step to diversify their skills after working in the industry for quite a while.

The University of Denver’s University College offers the region’s first complete graduate certificate program in Geographic Information Systems—available entirely online. Designed and delivered for busy adults, the GIS certificate helps professionals add to their skillset with technology skills that help solve real-world problems related to GIS.

According to Tim Nyerges, PhD, director at the University of Washington, student learning objectives and outcomes are identified for each course within the Master of GIS: Sustainability Management Program.  The objectives range from basic skills in GIS workflow development for data management, data analysis and visualization displays to more advanced skills in Python programming for sustainability management.

Learning outcomes as stated on the MGIS Program website ( are as follows:

  • Frame a sustainable system problem. Formulate a problem statement that incorporates social, economic and environmental considerations.
  • Plan the approach. Approach the problem using a geodesign workflow, a decision support method for modeling and evaluating the sustainability impact of different scenarios.
  • Gather and manage the data. Design the database. Gather data from a variety of sources, at a variety of scales and in a variety of vector and raster formats. Store and integrate data, making it available for analysis.
  • Analyze the data to reach a solution. Use GIS to analyze complex system interrelationships and model and iterate on possible interventions.
  • Report on proposed solution. Present recommendations using 2-D, 3-D and 4-D (spatial-temporal) sustainable system maps that highlight the character of system interrelationships.

What are your most popular course(s)?

“Our introduction to GIS course, called Making Maps That Matter With GIS is our #1 offering, as it’s the common gateway to most of our certificate and Master’s degree options,” says Anthony Robinson of Penn State. “That course has recently been 100% redesigned and will launch this August in its new format. I think it’s more interesting to look at popular electives, and in that case our Python programming course, GEOG 485: GIS Programming and Customization is the clear current winner in terms of raw popularity.”

At the University of Denver, based on student demand, more technical courses are offered (Python Programming), along with special topics like UAV for GIS. “The University of Denver offered the nation’s first graduate-level course in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles as they related to Geographic Information Systems (GIS),” Field says. “An emerging technology, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are used in GIS for mapping, data collection, and high quality imagery. Cheaper, easier, and more accessible GIS tools are becoming available and GIS professionals need to be fluent in these new technologies.”

All four, soon to be five, of Esri’s online courses (MOOCs) draw many thousands of students for each offering. The most popular by the numbers is Do-It-Yourself Geo Apps, which explores the many ways to build geo-enabled applications without programming, says Adena Schutzberg.

The most popular courses are GIS Programming in Python, GIS Data Analysis, GIS Workshop, GIS Data Management at the University of Washington.  These range from basic skill development courses to community project development course resulting in ‘capstone’ experience for students.

The University of West Florida offers the majority of its courses only once a year. Courses are designed to be taken in a specific order with most students completing their GIS Certificate in 1 calendar year (following the original design of the online program). Many students are working professionals who are either new or returning to college-level course work. For those who need or prefer to take fewer classes each semester, the university offer an extended course plan that takes approximately two years to complete.

UNA offers several courses as part of a unified bundled. There is not one single course which is more popular than another.

Do you offer Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)?

 Esri has been offering MOOCs since 2014. To date nearly 100,000 people have registered for their offerings. The software vendor’s fifth and newest course, Cartography. (“Cartography period”), starts Nov 1. Registration closes Nov 15.

Penn State offers Maps and the Geospatial Revolution on Coursera as well as FutureLearn. “We also offer Geospatial Intelligence and the Geospatial Revolution on Coursera,” says Robinson.

Why would a student choose to take a MOOC as opposed to a traditional online course?

“Many students find the price of MOOCs appealing,” says Schutzberg.  “Esri’s MOOCs are 100% free. Other organizations that offer MOOCs, or their platforms providers, require modest fees. MOOCs tend to be shorter and more focused than traditional semester long courses. Esri’s MOOCs are four or six weeks long, in contrast to 10-week or longer for traditional courses. Finally, MOOCs have a “fun” quality to them. While students are quite ambitious and focused on the course content, most have chosen to be involved and enjoy learning. MOOCs are a very special kind of  learning community.”

“A MOOC is a great way to dive into a new topic without making a big investment in tuition or time. I notice that a lot of our MOOC students are people coming to the geospatial sciences from other fields, and taking a MOOC provides a chance to explore something new with minimal risk,” Robinson concludes.

What are pros and cons of online courses?

“I think the benefits of learning at a distance are pretty significant – you can earn a top-tier credential in a format that is compatible with working full time and having a family,” says Robinson. “Many online programs, like ours at Penn State, are also geared toward providing courses that closely reflect professional needs. Most university online programs also cost less than their resident program counterparts.”

“UNA’s instructor-led online courses provide flexibility offered by online classes combined with the benefit of student and instructor interaction,” says Fike. “The classes meet online with a live instructor who conducts lectures and gives live demonstrations of the skills and software being used in each course. Students can ask the instructor questions during the course sessions as if they were in a traditional classroom.”

The main advantage of online courses relates to geography. Online courses can be taken by just about anyone, just about anywhere. “I recall helping a student in an Esri MOOC who worked for the US AID food program, based in South Sudan!” says Schutzberg. “A second advantage relates to time. While some online courses are synchronous (students need to be available at a specific time for live lectures or discussions), others including ours, are not. That means students can arrange study time around their busy lives.

The main disadvantage of online courses is essentially the freedom the advantages above confer. Students need to be motivated and committed, without requirements to be at a certain place at a certain time. A second disadvantage is that students may need to work harder to have valuable interactions with instructors and fellow students. That said, I think online courses are a great environment for growth in both motivational and communication skills, so perhaps these challenges are hidden opportunities.”

What are some new online courses spurred by student demand that you are now offering?

 Learning ArcGIS Pro is one such course offered by UNA. Students must complete hands on exercises utilizing the skills discussed during the lectures as well as a final project the requires them to put all skills taught in the class to use in order to complete the project.

Penn State recently launched a Graduate Certificate in Remote Sensing and Earth Observation, which reflects a growing interest across the GIS profession in working with imagery data. In that program they begin with the essentials of remote sensing and image analysis, but also include courses on Lidar, UAVs, and Hyperspectral remote sensing.

“I noted our upcoming Cartography. course which begins in November,” says Schutzberg. “The sessions on cartography at the recent Esri User Conference by Ken Field, the course’s lead instructor, and his colleagues were packed! We are excited to bring their expertise to anyone who wants to understand how cartographers think and learn to make better maps.

What technical requirements are included in the course?

 For UNA’s course, students are required to have basic computer skills. They must also have access to ArcGIS Desktop, ArcGIS Pro and ArcGIS Online licenses.

 Several of Esri’s courses are built on ArcGIS Online and require access to a device with a modern browser. Two courses use ArcGIS Pro, which has more demanding hardware requirements. Esri provides the needed licenses and software to students for the duration of each course at no cost.

Students should have a decent laptop/desktop computer and a broadband connection to the internet for Penn State online courses. They provide software licenses in the courses that require those. 99% of the time the school can do this without passing on any extra cost to students.

Students must have GIS preparation before being admitted to the University of Washington Master of GIS – Sustainability Management program. When admitted to the program, students must have an updated computer sufficient to load and work with ArcGIS Desktop.  The program introduces students to enterprise GIS through use of ArcGIS server data management. Remote desktop processing is used, followed by data and map services linking to ArcGIS Online.

What types of homework or self-study assignments are included in the course?

 “We teach about 30 different courses in a given year, and each of them is designed as a partnership between a learning designer and an expert faculty member,” says Penn State’s Robinson.  “Since we offer classes that cover a wide range from beginner to expert-level content, the assignment types and course engagement methods vary. In general, our students can expect to work through hands-on lab exercises, collaborative projects, discussion activities, quizzes, and written reports.”

At University of Washington, GIS lab assignments involve both desktop and server-based technologies, e.g. ArcGIS Desktop, QGIS, AGOL, ArcGIS Server, PostgresQL, Natural Capital Project InVEST, R, and Python.  “Both step-by-step instructions and open-ended approaches are used depending on the topic and course for assignments,” says Nyerges. “Step-by-step are used early in the program, and logic workflow is used in the latter portions.  Customized methods and instructions are developed by students within the GIS Workshop depending on the community partner needs.”

Esri’s courses include video “lectures,” that introduce the course content. Some are actual lectures, but others are interviews or group discussions. There are quizzes to confirm understanding of key points and hands-on exercises using the latest software. Students also contribute to polls and discussions each week, according to Schutzberg.


 The offerings of these and many other universities and organizations – some at no or little cost to students — broaden the educational possibilities for GIS and geospatial to such a degree that no one anywhere should have to go without that education if they want it and have the necessary resources. The fact that much software is offered as part of many courses makes it possible for anyone with an internet connection and modest computer set up to become an educated part of the professional GIS workforce.


American Sentinel University

Website: American Sentinel University

Point of Contact:

Courses Offered:

Business Intelligence & Analytics

Information Systems

University of Denver GIS

Course Name: Graduate Certificate in Geographic Information Systems


Point of Contact: Sarita Field ( or 303-871-7457)
Tuition: $15,840

Courses Offered:

GIS 4101 – Introduction to GIS
GIS 4504 – Cartographic Design
GIS 4080 – Python Programming in GIS
GIS 4110 – Geographic Statistics
GIS 4510 – GIS in Business
GIS 4520 – GIS in Telecommunications
GIS 4530 – Crime Mapping and Analysis
GIS 4540 – Conservation GIS
GIS 4570 – GIS in Public Health
GIS 4620 – Geodatabase Application
GIS 4630 – Public Domain Data for GIS
GIS 4650 – Demographic Analysis Using GIS
GIS 4660 – GIS in Municipal Government

Esri MOOC Program


Courses Offered: Going Places with Spatial Analysis (spatial analysis), The Location Advantage (location analytics), Do-It-Yourself Geo Apps (build apps without code), Earth Imagery at Work (imagery use in a variety of areas), Cartography. (cartography)

Student Level: Open to anyone, anywhere. There are no pre-requisites.

Type of Virtual Instruction: MOOC (asynchronous, four to six week courses)

Costs/Tuition: Free, including a certificate of completion for those who work through all the course material.

Point of Contact – Adena Schutzberg, MOOC program manager.

MOOC Program,, 909-793-2853

Course descriptions/registration information at:

Going Places with Spatial Analysis:

The Location Advantage:

Do-It-Yourself Geo Apps:

Earth Imagery at Work:


Harvard University

Harvard Online GIS Training

Kent State University

Kent State Online GIS Degrees

University of Kentucky

Website: New Maps Plus
Point of Contact:
Program Title: Graduate Certificate in Digital Mapping
Courses Offered:
–          MAP 671: Introduction to New Mapping
–          MAP 672: Programming for Web Mapping
–          MAP 673: Design for Interactive Web Mapping
–          MAP 675: Collaborative Geovisualization

Michigan State University

Michigan State Dept of Geography, Spatial Sciences Online

Northeastern University

Website: Northeastern University Online Learning

University of Northern Alabama

Course Name: UNA’s Online GIS Analyst Certificate Program


Courses Offered:

  • Introduction to ArcGIS I: GIS Fundamentals (September 7 – October 3, 2017)
    • $799
  • Introduction to ArcGIS II: Analysis & Editing (October 10 – November 16,)
    • 2017$1199
  • Introduction To ArcGIS Pro(December 5 – 14, 2017)
    • $399
  • Using AutoCAD® Data in ArcGIS Desktop (January 9 – February 1, 2018)
    • $799
  • Performing GIS Analysis Using ArcGIS (February 13 – March 8, 2018)
    • $799
  • Introduction to Model Builder & Python for ArcGIS (March 20 – May 17, 2018)
    • $1799

Cost if registering for all six courses:  $5499

Point of Contact:  Meghan Fike, Program Coordinator, 256-765-4289,


Pace University

Pace Online Learning

Penn State GIS

Course Name: Penn State Online Geospatial Education

Website:  Penn State GIS Program

Point of contact:
University of Phoenix

University of Phoenix Online


USC Dornsife

USC Online GIS Program

University of Washington

University of Washington GIS Online

Master of GIS – Sustainability Management

Student Level:

Intermediate – Advanced student level is recommended

Type of Virtual Instruction: Asynchronous and Synchronous, Self-directed pace for lessons and lab assignments, Twice per week real-time evening instruction and/or discussions


8-course tuition fee: $29,000+

Contact: Tim Nyerges, PhD, Director and Professor


University of West Florida

Introduction to GIS MOOC
GIS Training Academy
Undergraduate & Graduate Certificate in GIS
Masters in GIS Administration

Introduction to GIS MOOC


Congratulations to Greg Rouse, GIS Coordinator, Ross County, Chillicothe, Ohio for winning the GISCafe Sweepstakes for an Amazon Echo at our booth at the Interdrone Conference last week.
Here is a word from Greg about his GIS career: “I graduated from Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio with a degree in Geographics, focusing heavily on “hands on” use of GIS/GPS.  I have worked in the GIS industry for 20 years, and have worked as GIS Coordinator for Ross County, Ohio for the past 18.  My office is based out of the Ross County Soil and Water Conservation District office, which has exposed me to various potential GIS/UAV agricultural applications. Prior to my current occupation, I was a GIS Analyst for a forest products company in Chillicothe, Ohio. Last fall I obtained my Part 107 remote pilot certificate, allowing me to fly any necessary county projects, although the current focus is on precision agriculture.”

Here are the latest InterDrone Videos!

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Categories: analytics, ArcGIS, ArcGIS Earth, ArcGIS Online, ArcPad, asset management, cloud, cloud network analytics, data, drones, field GIS, geospatial, GIS, government, hardware, image-delivery software, indoor location technology, indoor mapping, LBS, lidar, location intelligence, mapping, mobile, MOOCs, Online GIS courses, photogrammetry, remote sensing, resilient cities, satellite imagery, sensors, small sats, survey, UAS, UAV, UAVs

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