Tips on getting started with teaching GIS online

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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.

 

References

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 TeachGIS.org with thanks to Diana Sinton.

 

Live lecture/webinar hybrid experiment

I’m currently teaching two sections of the same introductory GIS course, one face-to-face (F2F), and one online.  This morning I tried a little experiment – I taught my regular F2F class in a lecture hall as usual, but I had a live webinar version of it online at the same time.  It went remarkably well, so I thought I would briefly explain what I did, why, and how.

What I did:

Students that did not attend the live lecture (in either section of the course) could see whatever I showed using the projector in class, which included PowerPoint slides, web pages, and a live demo of ArcGIS ModelBuilder.  They could hear me talking, but could not see me (no separate video feed of the instructor).  Besides this main window, there were two smaller windows, one for questions, and one for chat (these were not visible to the F2F students). I recorded the entire two-hour lecture, broken into two parts, that was then posted online for students who couldn’t watch live, as well as for those who may want to refer to it again later.  The students who attended the webinar version were from both sections of the course (I did a quick poll before class started).

Why I did it:

There were three main reasons why I wanted to try this.  I have been thinking about trying this hybrid approach for a while, but the current impetus was that I have a guest speaker coming to class next week.  After I invited him, I realized that I couldn’t ask him to do what I have been doing up until now, namely recording a separate podcast version for my online students and then teaching the lecture to my F2F section.  I wanted to have a way to capture him speaking in class in one shot.  Second, I have been a little uneasy about the fact that my online students were not benefiting from the spontaneous questions, discussions, demos, and announcements that would come up in class, and I wanted to capture that.  Third, my in-class attendance has dropped off dramatically in the past couple of lectures (I’m guessing this is due to  the F2F students having access to the online lecture podcasts) and I wanted to have another way for them to participate if they can’t (or won’t) attend in person.

How I did it:

Aside from the usual software (PowerPoint, using presenter view; ArcGIS; Chrome browser) I used Adobe Connect for the webinar.  I have used this for about two years for holding online office hours, so I was quite comfortable with setting it up.  I presented using my own laptop (Dell Latitude E6520) and used my own newly-purchased wireless lavalier microphone.  After consulting with my amazingly helpful colleagues through the U of T Educational Technology Interest Group, as well as a professional sound engineer (a friend of a friend), I decided to go with the Sennheiser ew100 G3 system.  It worked very well, although the sound today was a bit muddy.  I think this is mainly a matter of my learning the correct settings, especially mic sensitivity.  I can also increase the sound quality settings in Adobe Connect next time, which takes a bit more bandwidth, but may be worth trying.  I used my iPad (3rd generation) with the Adobe Connect app so I could see how the webinar looked from the students’ perspective, and it was easier for me to check for online questions without having to keep switching windows on my laptop.  I didn’t go so far as to monitor the audio this way, but will do so next time (at least to check the quality).

How it went:

Really well!  I had about 15 students watching online, and they were able to ask questions and use the chat window to talk with each other (this was minimal and not distracting). I got some very positive feedback and will definitely be doing this again.  I’m really pleased that my online students now have the option of participating in a live lecture.

Student view of the webinar
Student view of the webinar
Instructor view of the webinar
Instructor view of the webinar