March 15, 2004
University Distance Learning GIS Programs
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Susan Smith - Managing Editor

by Susan Smith - Managing Editor
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Message from the Editor -

Welcome to GISWeekly! Distance learning has become a popular way for professionals to beef up their GIS skills or learn completely new skills to add to their professional expertise. In an earlier
article we heard about what vendors had to offer in the way of online educational programs. This time, university program directors offer their views on the programs their institutions offer.

GISWeekly examines select top news each week, picks out worthwhile reading from around the web, and special interest items you might not find elsewhere. This issue will feature Industry News, Alliances/Acquisitions, Announcements, Appointments/Resignations, New Products, Going on Around the Web, and Upcoming Events.

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Best wishes,

Susan Smith, Managing Editor

Industry News

University Distance Learning GIS Programs

By Susan Smith

Distance learning has become a popular way for professionals to beef up their GIS skills or learn completely new skills to add to their professional expertise. A number of
vendors and universities offer online programs designed for those students who are working professionals and can't take time away from their busy schedules to take a college course. These programs have their advantages and disadvantages. University program directors offer their views on the programs their institutions offer.

Penn State's
World Campus GIS program has been going strong for five years. It offers a non-credit course designed for members of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) to “earn the maximum number of continuing professional development program credits permitted from an organization external to the AICP.” An 18-month effort has spawned a full academic credit online degree program that will offer baccalaureate as well as master's degrees, which should be launched in the fall of 2004.

What changed to make it a full credit online program, I asked David DiBiase, program director. “First of all we need to make clear, when we say 'online' people think of ESRI's Virtual Campus but this is different than that in one important way - our program is intensively instructor-led. So every day in every class a real live person walks in and answers questions and has both one-on-one discussions and group discussions, so it's very people oriented, it's not just a lot of course material that's published on the web. And also students aren't working in isolation they are working in groups so classes of people get to know each other.”

“What changed to make this a credit program is advising. The courses are still much like they were--intensively instructor -led, but what's different is that students admitted to the graduate program will have a one-on-one relationship with a graduate advisor. There will be an independent study project where students work one-on-one with an advisor on a project that benefits their own organization, or depending on their situation, prepares them for a career. Mainly the program is going to be for working professionals who are already in the field. Our students are adults, average age forty. Most of them are already working in the field. They kind of got into GIS by one route or another
don't have any formal education in GIS or geography. What they want is to get the groundwork, the formal education, to supplement the training they might have had on the job.”

A typical class is 50-60 students from all over the U.S. and North America. It is an English only program so as yet does not attract many international participants. Although based in Pennsylvania, only 50% of the students at this time live in Pennsylvania. “When I say 'class' I mean these are folks will never physically meet unless we have a professional conference, but they converse every day using threaded discussion, it's like a newsgroup set up, where somebody can post a question, everyone can read it, someone else might suggest an answer,” explained DiBiase. “They can also converse via one-on-one email, but we try to encourage everyone to communicate via threaded
discussion so that
everyone in the class can benefit from the questions and answers. We try really hard to help students get to know one another and start to build personal and professional relationships. The way we do that is that every student has to create an e-portfolio, that is they have to publish on the web a page that describes themselves. Linked to that page are all the project reports that they have to create throughout the program. Those are all published online so students can look at each other's work and get to know each other. We want students to work together and help each other as a team.”

Is there an audio component or web conferencing? I asked. “We have not relied on any web conferencing or “synchronous” communications, but when we get into the credit program we're going to rely much more on web conferencing, particularly in relation to the advising I mentioned. In the advising I think there will be some audio connections with students. I don't think we'll do that with big groups of students because students are in different times zones, and they also are working professionals, so they tend to work late at night or early in the morning so getting people all working at the same time is kind of contradictory to the benefit of the whole program, which is that
people can work
when it's convenient to them. For the one-on-one interactions, we'll use real time audio.”

What is lacking, said DiBiase, is the benefit of a live discussion, unless just one or two members at a time having a discussion. “Research in distance education shows that one of the two most prevalent ways in which students participate in class is to read other people's communications, that is, if there's a discussion between a instructor and two or three different students, there'll be a dozen more students who don't participate in that thread but they read and learn from it, and this is particularly beneficial to students who haven't been to school in a long time and can still participate in the discussion by reading it and making comments of their own. So we allow them to
in a way that works best for them so they can be relatively active and vocal or they can be quiet.”

Students' progress is assessed using their e-portfolio. “One of the big concerns people have is about academic integrity,” explained DiBiase. “They're concerned that students are actually doing their own work and there's a lot of fear among those who aren't familiar with distance ed that it might be easy to cheat. The way you take care of that and ensure academic integrity online is same way you do it in person: you get to know your students, you can then tell if the work is theirs or not. And the way we get to know them is through their portfolio.”

Close to 1,000 students have entered the World Campus program, over 400 have graduated. DiBiase said the way to make online learning successful is as follows: 1) focus on active learning --on their activities, to make sure the things they do are active experience, 2) a lot of communication; accessible instructors - instructors log in every single day, year round, and are there to answer questions, so people don't feel isolated.

DiBiase is Chair of the Education Subcommittee for the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI), a spinoff organization from URISA, which launched in January a process by which GIS professionals can earn a certificate that's independent of any university. “We're going to use that criteria for certification when we advise our students-that will be the basis of a personal professional development plan. That certification relies primarily on experience, so we can't guarantee that our students will be able to be certified after they graduate our program, but we can be assured that they will have earned the right education points they need and are on the right trajectory to earn the experience
points and contributions to the profession that they need to be certified.”

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