Is Online Education the Answer for Geospatial Professionals?

by Douglas D. Fisher
15 May 2013

Tagseducation, geospatial, gis, mapping, surveying

Courtesy: Joseph McClain, College of William & Mary 

Stuart Hamilton, center, director of the Center for Geospatial Analysis at the College at the College of William & Mary, works on a mapping project with Cassie Prena, left, and Barbara Watkinson, professor of art history. The college has started a graduate certificate program in GIS for students in the Washington D.C. area.

Although it seems inevitable that more colleges and universities will turn to online courses to educate geospatial professionals, at least one college is expanding its old-fashioned brick-and-mortar offerings to entice prospective students.

The Williamsburg, Va.-based College of William & Mary recently announced that it is accepting applications for a certificate program in geographic information science (GIS) for students based in the Washington D.C. area. The program is intended for students who already have a bachelor’s degree and are working professionals, as all classes are to be held in the evenings.

So why did William & Mary decide to offer face-to-face classes, instead of opting for a more cost-effective online approach?

Stuart E. Hamilton, associate research professor in the geology department and GIS program director at the college’s Center for Geospatial Analysis, said one of the strengths of the school, in general, is its focus on one-on-one mentoring of students, who are required to engage in independent research for their bachelor’s degrees. Hamilton said it was important that the GIS graduate certificate program carry on this tradition.

“One of the unique components of our GIS program in D.C. is that students, often working professionals, will be able to bring their GIS questions, problems, data, etc., into the classroom and work on them in a group setting with other students or one-on-one with a faculty member,” Hamilton said. “This type of interaction is difficult online. For these reasons, and the fact that GIS is a constantly changing and updating discipline, we decided that the mentoring style of instruction was the best approach for our program at William & Mary. Put simply, it is what we do well.”

Hamilton is not knocking online GIS education. On the contrary, he praised online GIS certificate programs such as those at Penn State University and the University of West Florida, because online education can be a viable and worthwhile option for many students. In particular, military families, caregivers, working professionals or students living in rural areas benefit from an online degree.

“For these reasons, and the advancement in methods of online curriculum delivery and interaction, I am a big fan of online GIS programs,” Hamilton said. “Obviously some disadvantages exist, but they can almost all be overcome with technology and quality instruction.”

An online GIS education proved invaluable to Kristifier Paxton, who served in Iraq for 18 months with the U.S. Army National Guard. Paxton was trying to juggle his education with surveying jobs, a wife and a toddler after getting out of the Army. Since there were no four-year GIS programs within 75 miles of his Arkansas home, he researched online programs such as Penn State and Oklahoma State, before settling on American Sentinel University, an online-only school.

“I am satisfied and proud to be an American Sentinel alumni and also to be an American Sentinel graduate student in a well-organized institution that is both military-friendly and has a great relationship with the GIS community … teaching what matters to hiring organizations,” Paxton said.

Having attended an in-person school for his associate’s degree at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, Paxton can speak to the differences between online and traditional education. Although there still is a stigma associated with an online GIS education, that attitude will change as these degrees become more prevalent. He said he tells prospective students that an online certificate or master’s degree program is not any easier than a traditional approach to education.

He said the accredited program at American Sentinel allows students to work on real-world, individualized projects, which are guided by instructors. This track can be beneficial to already-active geospatial professionals, he said. Last week, he landed a job last week as the GIS coordinator for the city of Van Buren, Ark.

“There are naysayers about online programs, but those are often people that simply do not understand how the process works. I spend, on average, 20 to 30-plus hours a week on my homework and class time for two courses,” Paxton said. “If I were taking those same two courses at a brick-and-mortar, I would spend that same amount of time and energy to do the same work. So I suggest the online route, especially if you want to participate in a program not offered by a local university and cannot move out of town to go to school.”

Jerry Taylor, associate professor and program coordinator for surveying and mapping at East Tennessee State University, said his school offers about 80 percent of its bachelor’s degree in surveying online. Although it works for many students who are unable to attend in-person classrooms, an online education still has drawbacks, he said.

“It is more difficult for the student to learn well this way,” Taylor said. “Distance learning is a poor substitute for traditional classroom and lab instruction and should only be sought by those who truly have no other alternative. Like any other tool, there are appropriate circumstances for using it – and inappropriate ones, too.”

William & Mary’s Hamilton said that hands-on instruction and helping to solve real-world problems can be a significant advantage for face-to-face education of geospatial professionals, if it is not incorporated into an online curriculum. And online-educated students can sometimes be pigeonholed as less worthy by perspective employers.

“One of the problems that has been suggested, that I hope will be overcome, is that employers and maybe even graduate schools do not always hold online credentials to the same level as traditional, in-person credentials, even when the accreditation is the same,” Hamilton said. “I am hopeful this is changing. It is really a student choice as to pursue an online or an in-the-classroom education.”

Douglas D. Fisher

Douglas D. Fisher is the managing editor of GeoDataPoint and POB. He can be reached at fisherd@bnpmedia.com.


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