Technology Aids Distance Learning

1 Dec, 2008 By: Andrew G. Roe,P.E.

Many educational institutions and private vendors now offer GIS curricula on line.

With most GIS professionals accustomed to scouring the Internet for data, it’s no surprise that many are turning to online sources for education and professional development. A growing number of colleges, universities, and private vendors are offering online courses, and technological advances are helping smooth the sometimes bumpy road of working with large datasets and complex software. But the human element remains a key, elusive factor valued by both students and educators weighing future education options.

The Urban and Regional Information Systems Association lists nearly 200 schools that offer GIS certificate programs — GIS-focused curricula that may or may not be part of an undergraduate degree. Hundreds of others offer at least some GIS courses. Software vendors such as ESRI, Autodesk, and Bentley offer a variety of online education and training, as do a host of third-party providers. ESRI’s virtual campus offers more than 140 courses, many of which are free.

Statistics on the number of online college courses are not readily available, but the list appears to be growing. And some schools, such as the University of Southern California and Penn State University, now offer online graduate degrees.

USC started an online graduate-level GIS program in 2007. Students located anywhere in the world can take courses in spatial data analysis, remote sensing, programming, GPS/GIS field techniques, and other areas. John Wilson, a professor of geography at USC and director of the school’s Geographic Information Science and Technology graduate programs, says the online courses have attracted a new type of student — typically established professionals focused on advancing their careers. “The students [in the online graduate program] are more mature and motivated,” he said.

Long-Distance Student
One USC student, Marilyn Gambone, has taken courses remotely while working as an IT specialist for the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. The ability to take classes from an established university located hundreds of miles away has made graduate work feasible for her. “I do not have to quit work to try and get my master’s degree,” she said. At her day job, she wears several hats, developing database, mobile, and web applications and maintaining a public web site for Hawaii’s National Flood Insurance Program.

USC’s solid reputation in GIS was also attractive to Gambone. “I would not have considered distance learning if I could not trust the university to provide me with the high standard of education I want,” she added.

On the flip side, Gambone said the lack of human interaction is sometimes a drawback to distance learning. “I miss the rapport one gets with face-to-face learning and student–faculty interaction,” she said. “One must muster every inch of discipline to keep up with the workload.”

To add a human touch, USC occasionally brings students together for a field class, an experience Gambone found invigorating. “Meeting everyone was really helpful in motivating me,” Gambone said. USC’s GIS department also has a full-time staff person who handles telephone and personal correspondence with students, according to Wilson. The department is also setting up a framework for online video discussions to enable one-one-one dialogue with professors, he added.

Data Overload
Another challenge in distance learning is dealing with large datasets often encountered in GIS applications. To address this, USC is launching a geoportal in early 2009 that will provide 24-hour access to data and allow subdivision of data into more manageable sizes. “You can take out just the piece you want,” Wilson said. To access and analyze data, USC students use a variety of computer-based tools, including ESRI’s ArcGIS and ArcView, as well as Google Earth and Virtual Earth.

Geoportals, also called GIS portals, have gained popularity in recent years as a convenient way to access geospatial information and associated services at one site. They “simplify the discovery of useful resources and may also serve as a place to catolog results of research projects,” said Marten Hogeweg, product manager for ESRI’s GIS Portal Toolkit, which provides templates and other tools needed to create geoportals.

In addition to academic uses, geoportals have been used by government sites such as Geospatial One-Stop and community portals such as the Conservation GeoPortal, Hogeweg said. Another group of state agencies has joined forces with the Library of Congress in an initiative called GeoMAPP to preserve snapshots of geospatial information that might be “at risk” of being overwritten when updates or changes are made.

Other Training Options
In addition to colleges and software vendors, GIS students and professionals can find other training and education options scattered across the Internet. UNIGIS, a network of universities cooperating in the design and delivery of GIS distance learning, offers certificate and degree-oriented courses from various locations around the world. The Geospatial Information & Technology Association provides numerous references for professional development, as do other technical societies such as the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping, and the National Society of Professional Surveyors. The GIS Certification Institute provides guidance on becoming a certified geographic information systems professional (GISP).

So opportunities are out there. With a dose of discipline and an eye on the latest technology, those wanting to further their careers can do so without straying far from their computers.

Related content:  GIS (Geographic Information Systems)

About the Author: Andrew G. Roe

Andrew G. Roe

About the Author: P.E.

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