Teaching Geospatially in an Online World

published Dec 1, 2016 3:41pm

For many instructors, there is a lot of inertia that creates resistance to teaching online. They have had success developing a face-to-face course that works for them, so if it's isn't broken, why fix it? This online teaching inertia is a characteristic attitude of many instructors, but many have been able to successfully overcome barriers to technology integration through a problem solving mentality (Ertmer, Ottenbreit-Leftwich, Sadik, Sendurur, & Sendurur, 2012). Indeed, problem solving and inquiry-based approaches are a common feature among many of the scientific and engineering disciplines (NRC, 2012) and is specifically relevant to geosciences.

Some resistance to online teaching arose as pressure mounted on instructors to consider incorporating more active learning, student-centered approaches in their courses (Ertmer, et al., 2012). As the evidence mounted to support the move to a more active-learning style, an effective strategy is to identify the primary student learning outcomes that should guide the redesign. When considering an introductory geoscience course, the first inclination may be to create a list framed around the most important geologic concepts, like the rock cycle. However, it's hard to argue that content is the most learning outcome for a student who is taking the course to fulfill their one and only physical science course requirement (Brudzinski and Sikorski, 2011). These students are more likely to benefit from a course focused on learning authentic scientific practices (e.g., developing and using models, analyzing and interpreting data, and constructing valid explanations; NRC, 2012), and specifically using geoscience as the context. In other words, online teaching may actually facilitate learning by engaging students in the actual practices used by geoscientists (e.g., using computers to acquire and analyze data, and create spatial models of Earth systems; Libarkin & Brick, 2002).

Once an instructor makes the decision to implement more student-centered activities that focus on learning the scientific method, we often rely on a variety of simple pen and paper in-class assignments. Yet many of us recognize the importance of creating more authentic learning experiences for our students. As the geosciences have modernized, this means analysis often takes place on the computer now. Asking all of the students in our large enrollment intro courses to bring laptops to class on a regular basis can be a real logistical challenge. At this point, an online course makes sense—students would already be at the computer to participate in the class. And wouldn't a series of student-centered activities focused on the scientific process be a lot more engaging than trying to implement a traditional lecture course online?

Well this is precisely what Dr. Mike Brudzinski has sought to accomplish in his online introductory geology course. With the help of Dr. Stefany Sit now at University of Illinois-Chicago, he specifically designed the assignments in this course to simulate how geoscientists collect and analyze data by retrieving data from web databases and plotting them in Excel or Google Earth (Sit and Brudzinski, 2014). Much more extensive use of Google Earth to examine geologic phenomena provides an opportunity for students to interact with geology in 4 dimensions in ways that are simply not possible in a traditional lecture format. Students collect earthquake hypocenters from the USGS and then visualize the progression of seismicity using a time-slider in Google Earth. This process reveals critical information about earthquake rates and the clustering of seismicity on faults that are used to create hazard maps. In a similar way, the ability to view aerial photography across many years from different spatial perspectives enables students to better understand how landslide processes transform the landscape over time.

Mike's experiences as an online geoscience instructor have raised a few questions that we are considering here at the GET-spatial collaborative network. In particular, we are wondering if Mike's approach could lead to improved spatial thinking, which plays a critical role in geoscience and a whole host of STEM domains. We do know that online teaching can facilitate students' engagement in actual geoscience practices that are heavily dependent on computational methods. There is tremendous inertia to overcome in creating and implementing on online geoscience course, but infusing the passion of authentic scientific practice into such a course, may make overcoming barriers much easier.


Brudzinski, M. R., & Sikorski, J.J. (2011). Impact of the COPEL on active-learning revisions to an introductory geology course: Focus on student development, Learning Communities Journal, 2(2), 53-69.

Ertmer, P. A., Ottenbreit-Leftwich, A. T., Sadik, O., Sendurur, E., & Sendurur, P. (2012). Teacher beliefs and technology integration practices: A critical relationship. Computers & Education, 59(2), 423-435.

Libarkin, J., & Brick, C. (2002). Research methodologies in science education: Visualization and the geosciences. Journal of Geoscience Education, 50(4), 449-455.

NRC [National Research Council]. (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Sit, S. M., & Brudzinski, M. R. (2014, December). Creation and Assessment of an Active E-Learning Introductory Geoscience Course. In AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts (Vol. 1, p. 06).

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