Online Geospatial Learning Lab Is an Innovative Approach to GIS Education

Stephen McElroy, Ph.D., GIS Program Chair, American Sentinel University

American Sentinel is pleased that the Esri Education Conference — San Diego, July 6 through 9 — has asked Stephen McElroy, Ph.D,  GIS program chair at American Sentinel University, to give a presentation titled Online Geospatial Learning Lab Exemplifies Competency-Based Learning, on the last day of the conference from 10:15 am to 11:30 am in the Carlsbad Room at the Marriott Marquis hotel.

Those who want to learn GIS should find the presentation interesting because it explores how innovation can enable new learning experiences and tools for students to master a subject.

The previous post on the Geospatial Learning Lab explained how the Lab actually created a learning commons: a place where students and faculty have access to additional resources and materials to create an active learning community beyond the bounds of a physical or online classroom. A dynamic list of online GIS content, including advanced tutorials, case studies, GIS data downloads, and geospatial innovations, gives students the opportunity to move beyond the curriculum and explore aspects of GIS in depth.

This is a form of competency-based learning, a concept often discussed in higher education but rarely done. Under competency-based learning, students progress by demonstrating that they understand and can use some aspect of GIS. The goal is not to complete a certain number of units or sections, but to gain facility of skills.

For example, the Lab offers a series of badges that represent various competencies. This is a tool used in the technology concept of gamification, in which software uses techniques of challenge and reward developed in computer gaming and applies them in practical ways to encourage learning and skill development.

While pursuing badges, students can use tutorials, undertake a learning activity to learn the tools discussed, and then proceed with a self-assessment. Some self-assessment examples include review questions or puzzles in which the student pieces together something like a code segment or flow diagram. Some of these tutorials focus on more advanced topics or on specific industries such as business or health care. By meeting challenges and even having fun, students gain a practical grasp of topics that can often go missing when more traditional forms of teaching are used in isolation.

Although self-directed, students do not have to feel as though they are isolated and completely on their own. The Lab uses a number of educational technologies, such as VoiceThread (cloud-based threaded multimedia conversations), Yammer (a business-oriented social networking platform), and other interactive, multimedia resources to facilitate the interaction and exchange of ideas and information.

There’s much more to say about the Geospatial Learning Lab than one or even two posts can cover. If you find yourself at the conference, please attend Dr. McElroy’s presentation to learn more. And, in any case, feel free to stop by our exhibit and say hello.

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