Teaching GIS online requires a diverse skill set

I am considering teaching an online GIS course this fall. The course proposal is currently winding its way through various approval processes and so, in the meantime, I am devising a work plan for preparing the course. I’m really excited at the prospect of teaching online, and I’m optimistic that this teaching mode can offer real advantages for learning over face-to-face, at least for some students (I have proposed to teach the same course in both traditional and online modes, so students will have their choice).

As I begin to plan what needs to be accomplished over the next few months in order to prepare my online course, I have realized that it is a daunting task. There are three main areas I need to work on, each with its own set of required concepts and skills: content, pedagogy, and technology. Yes, anyone teaching virtually anything these days has to work on those, but here I am going to address how they specifically relate to teaching GIS online.


I have written before about curriculum design, textbooks, training vs. education, and working through an inventory of topics using tools such as the Geospatial Technology Competency Model and the UCGIS GIS&T Body of Knowledge. I will only add here that teaching in a discipline that is so technology-dependent is both a blessing and a curse: rapid changes to the field keep things relevant and exciting but, because the software and methods change so often, a significant amount of an instructor’s time has to be spent trying to stay current, both for their own professional development and for the sake of their courses and students. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining, and it’s something that anyone teaching in this area must do, regardless of whether it’s online or in person or a hybrid of both. It keeps things fresh and interesting for both me and my students, but it does require a substantial amount of time.


Beyond the GIS-oriented pedagogical considerations mentioned above, there are others specific to teaching online. I have just finished reading e-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Clark and Mayer (3rd ed., 2011) and it has been extremely helpful. Their book is based on years of empirical evidence gathered from their own work (Mayer has been especially prolific and influential) and others about how people learn (or don’t) with multimedia. First, I was relieved to see that I have actually been using some of their recommended methods for years, which I have found through other readings (e.g., Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology) or just from experience and instinct. However, there is much more I can adopt as well. A detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this discussion, but I think anyone considering online teaching should familiarize themselves with the basic principles of Mayer’s cognitive theory of multimedia learning (e.g., Mayer 2005; Clark and Mayer 2011) and other studies of teaching online in general (e.g., Balram and Dragic 2008; Nazari and Webber 2008; Ary and Brune 2011). Other pedagogical concepts to explore are problem-based learning (e.g., Drennon 2005; Pawson et al. 2006) and blended/hybrid learning (e.g., Olapiriyakul and Scher 2006; Detwiler 2008) and the increasing popularity of the flipped classroom. It’s certainly an exciting time for the development of technology-supported learning in its various forms.


Teaching GIS in general, and certainly online, requires more than a passing familiarity with a host of technologies. I have been thinking about the software I use, or might use for my online course. Just off the top of my head, the list includes: PowerPoint; Adobe Photoshop, Captivate, Presenter, Premiere, and Connect; Blackboard; and Citrix XenApp. I also have to understand issues concerning bandwidth, mobile devices, podcasting, open learning, etc. As a technophile/early adopter, I love learning about all these things, but it takes a lot of time. For every technologic tool or solution, I have to be mindful of the actual benefits for improving communication, teaching, and learning and judge whether the invested time will be worth it.

Instructors need support

I look forward to launching my online course, and to exploring the potential of integrating technology and pedagogy in all of my courses, whether they are face to face, blended, or completely online. I am fortunate that my university has a Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation (CTSI) that, as the name implies, is a great resource for professional development and teaching support. I think all universities that are expanding their online and blended teaching have to recognize the necessary level of investment in time, energy, and resources in order to make the most of these new approaches. Even with great resources such as the CTSI, it seems as though faculty are often still left to their own devices to learn about and, hopefully, master the skills, methods, and concepts of effectively teaching with technology. This jack-of-all-trades approach is fun for me, but many faculty do not share my love of technology. Georgina and Olson (2008) list a number of impediments to the integration of technology and pedagogy, as well as some great recommendations, such as providing release time for instructors to acquire training, arranging technology mentors, and supplemental pay increases for faculty who are most involved in teaching with technology (I like the sound of that!).

Universities need to develop and maintain a team of experts in graphic art, 3D modeling, animation, video production, web design, presentation skills, and instructional design to work with faculty to develop rich content for delivery in class and online. A Hollywood director is not expected to create a finished movie, complete with soundtrack, special effects, lighting, cinematography, etc., all by themselves. Likewise, instructors should not be expected to produce high quality, digital learning content and use effective new technology-oriented teaching methods all by themselves.

I’m looking forward to teaching online, and will no doubt be writing more on the subject in the future!



Ary, Eddie J, and Christopher W Brune. 2011. “A Comparison of Student Learning Outcomes in Traditional and Online Personal Finance Courses.” Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 7 (4): 465-474.

Balram, Shivanand, and Suzana Dragic. 2008. “Collaborative spaces for GIS-based multimedia cartography in blended environments.” Computers & Education 50: 371-385. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2006.07.004.

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.

Detwiler, James E. 2008. “Comparing Student Performance in Online and Blended Sections of a GIS Programming Class.” Transactions in GIS 12 (1) (February): 131-144.

Drennon, Christine. 2005. “Teaching Geographic Information Systems in a Problem-Based Learning Environment.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 29 (3) (November 1): 385-402.

Georgina, D, and M Olson. 2008. “Integration of technology in higher education: A review of faculty self-perceptions.” The Internet and Higher Education 11 (1): 1-8.

Mayer, Richard E., ed. 2005. The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nazari, Maryam, and Sheila Webber. 2008. Conceptions of geospatial information in online distance learning GIS programs. In IADIS International Conference e-Learning 2008, ed. Miguel Baptista Nunes and Maggie McPherson, 6:161-168. Amsterdam, The Nethelands.

Pawson, Eric, Eric Fournier, Martin Haigh, Osvaldo Muniz, Julie Trafford, and Susan Vajoczki. 2006. “Problem-based Learning in Geography: Towards a Critical Assessment of its Purposes, Benefits and Risks.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 30 (1) (March 1): 103-116.






One response to “Teaching GIS online requires a diverse skill set”

  1. […] 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 […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *