May 022013


I was recently contacted by someone asking for advice about developing and teaching an online GIS course.  What follows is based on what I wrote in my e-mail response.

I’m pretty new to this myself, having taught my first online GIS course last fall, but perhaps that’s a good thing, as the experience of going through the start-up process is still fresh in my mind.  I’m also getting ready to teach this same course again in a couple of weeks as an accelerated summer course and I have already started to adjust based on what I learned the first time around.

I could write an enormous amount on this, but will try to be brief for now and hopefully will expand on some of these topics in future posts. Here are just a few things that come to mind:

Give yourself plenty of time: Preparing an online course is extremely time-consuming (think in terms of hundreds of hours).  I had to plan everything much farther in advance than a regular, face-to-face course.  I was going through several learning curves at once, and it was just not possible to do things at the last minute (or if you do, it will be pretty stressful).

Start with course design, not technology:  I took a two-day Course Design/Redesign Institute at my university that was really helpful in getting a fresh perspective on what I was trying to do and why.  There was a big emphasis on starting with defining learning outcomes and then working backwards from there.  They used L. Dee Fink’s book Creating Significant Learning Experiences as a framework (references below).  I read it cover to cover and found it quite helpful. Coming up with useful learning outcomes, and ones that are in alignment with what you actually teach and assess, is not easy (as Diana Sinton touches on in her post Assessment of GIS Learning).

Another book I found to be really useful is E-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Clark and Mayer.  This gave me a good foundation for general e-learning principles – what has been shown to work, and what doesn’t.  I’m currently reading E-Learning by Design by Horton, which is also useful.  These three books represent separate but equally important dimensions: Fink for course design, regardless of whether it’s online or not; Clark and Mayer for understanding how people learn online; Horton for options on current e-learning tools and best practices.

Have a technology strategy: If you teach GIS, you’re probably pretty good with technology.  One thing that will come up though, is how much you want to do yourself, and how much you want to try and rely on others.  I got great advice about course design and technology options from our amazing University of Toronto instructional technology staff, but when it came to actual implementation, I wanted to do everything myself.  Some colleagues of mine prefer to let someone else worry about the technology.  For example, they have someone else set up their recording sessions for their lecture podcasts, and the instructor just comes in and works through their slides.  They’re not interested in learning about the technology, and that’s fine, but I like understanding how each part works and what my options are.  This requires working through many time-consuming learning curves, so it’s important to be strategic about this.  I have written before about how teaching online requires a diverse skill set, and it’s worth thinking about your own strengths and weaknesses, and what you have time to develop in terms of new skills and knowledge areas.



Clark, Ruth Colvin, and Richard E. Mayer. 2011. e-Learning and the Science of Instruction; Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning. 3rd ed. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Fink, L. Dee. 2003. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint.

Fink, L. Dee. 2007. “The Power of Course Design to Increase Student Engagement and Learning.pdf.” Peer Review (Winter): 13–17.


Simultaneously published at with thanks to Diana Sinton.