Academic Programs Make Good Use of Esri Virtual Campus

As more students gain Internet access, academic programs are finding creative ways to enhance and extend the GIS education they offer by incorporating Esri Virtual Campus Web courses in their curricula. We asked five universities how they use Virtual Campus courses in their programs and why. The universities polled are North Carolina State University (NCSU), University of California at Riverside (UCR), University of Salzburg, Austria, University of Southern California (USC), and University of Texas at Tyler (UTT).

The first thing we learned is that Esri Virtual Campus courses are used in a variety of ways—as textbooks or lab manuals in regular classes, as prerequisites to more advanced studies, and as credit-earning components of degree and certificate programs. According to Hugh Devine, professor for the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management Department and associate Esri Virtual Campus Web pagedirector for the Center for Earth Observation at NCSU, "We use Virtual Campus courses essentially as textbooks for a number of our applied GIS courses. The students complete the modules on an assigned schedule and return a digital copy of their certificate, which counts as a homework grade."

At UTT, Virtual Campus courses are an integral part of learning GIS. Jack Mills, coordinator of the Office of Research Services/GIS Lab at UTT, describes their approach this way: "Our GIS program has three integrated parts—the theory and principles of spatial analysis; the experience of working through spatial problems using Virtual Campus courses; and the struggle of putting the theory, principles, and experience together by completing a real-world final project. This final part is what sets the UTT program apart."

In other programs, taking Virtual Campus courses earns credit toward degrees or professional certificates. At the University of Salzburg, Virtual Campus courses earn credit toward a master's degree in the UNIGIS distance learning program, and at UCR, some Virtual Campus courses earn continuing education units (CEUs) toward a GIS certificate. UCR Extension Program Specialist Jennifer Campbell found another use for Virtual Campus courses. "We require Introduction to ArcView GIS as a prerequisite in our GIS summer school, allowing participants to fulfill the prerequisite without having to fit it into the already intensive summer schedule," Campbell said. She reports that the prerequisite makes students more successful in the program because they start out knowing how to use GIS software.

Because Virtual Campus courses are Web-based, they can serve both distance learners and on-campus students. Dr. Chris Williamson, associate professor of Geography and director of the GIS Graduate Certificate Program at USC, says, "The Virtual Campus is a necessary component of our distance learning courses, which include additional readings, papers, and projects. We simply could not offer GIS in a distance learning format without the Virtual Campus.

"On-campus students who like the flexibility of doing the Virtual Campus work whenever they choose also take our courses. We also assign Virtual Campus courses to undergraduates in a structured format that includes an in-class review of the lesson content. We do not have to create and/or schedule computer labs, we simply provide ArcView GIS on the campus network of all student-use computers."

Professors and program coordinators cite a variety of benefits as the reason for using Virtual Campus courses in their classes. The professors like the quality and variety of the content offered through the Virtual Campus and the students like the convenience of self-paced learning and the ability to interact with GIS students and professionals around the world.

Professor Josef Strobl, teacher and researcher at the Department of Geography and Geoinformation, University of Salzburg, had this to say: "Clearly, being able to rely on quality software training available anytime, anywhere, is a major motivation for everybody involved. One benefit for our department is that we can focus our teaching resources more on what we want to do, and less on how to operate technology. By 'offloading' software-training components to the Virtual Campus we can focus more on course content and topical discussions. Increasingly, we can now enhance accredited GIS applications courses by using the broad range of expertise available from the Virtual Campus, which offers topics on what would otherwise not be accessible to our students." Director Mills at UTT agrees. "The tutorials are broad ranging, offering many more topics than our one-man faculty possibly could," Mills said, adding, "The Virtual Campus is, without a doubt, the most effective, most efficient mode for helping students learn how to use GIS software. It saves time. It saves money. And it provides a genuine learning experience for our students. UTT saves laboratory space, the costs of buying and maintaining computers, and the payroll associated with teaching assistants."

Students clearly like the self-paced format of Virtual Campus courses, but other benefits to students were reported. Professor Devine says that at NCSU, "Student response to the Esri program has been uniformly high and course performance (i.e., median grade) has risen appreciably. Most of the students feel they optimized their learning investment by combining the NCSU material and guidance with the Esri material."

According to Professor Strobl, the UNIGIS distance learning students "appreciate Esri Virtual Campus Web pagereliable delivery and immediate feedback through quizzes and exams." He adds, "We have an English language requirement for a certain numbers of credits; this and the wider international perspective certainly appeals to students planning to work in an international marketplace."

Students at UTT like the variety and interactivity of the Virtual Campus. "With more than 75 learning modules available on the Virtual Campus, students can find out more about GIS topics than UTT could possibly provide," Director Mills said.

Based on the experiences at these five universities, the future for continued collaboration between Esri Virtual Campus and GIS educators looks good. Professor Strobl puts it this way: "In the future we hope that we can support a broader selection of credited courses by using the resources available from the Virtual Campus. Developing a proper approach to integrating these courses into an academic curriculum and to adequately support and assess students taking online courses certainly is a major challenge, but progress up to now promises smooth implementation."

A brief description of the programs at each of the five universities follows. For more information, visit Esri Training and Education. Colleges and universities that offer credit or use the Virtual Campus in conjunction with accredited programs can be listed at the campus at no charge.

North Carolina State University makes Esri Virtual Campus courses an integral part of the graduate study in natural resource management and through its College of Forestry. Esri's Introduction to ArcView GIS is required in introductory GIS and GIScience courses at NCSU. Basics of ArcInfo is an integral part of the NCSU Principles of GIS course and Programming with Avenue is a substantive section of a GIS programming course at the university. The Introduction to ArcView Spatial Analyst course is required for students in NCSU's Techniques of GIS.

University of California at Riverside offers CEUs for four Virtual Campus courses toward a professional GIS certificate through its extension program. Introduction to ArcView GIS, Introduction to ArcView Spatial Analyst, Programming with Avenue, and Introduction to ArcInfo using ArcTools each earn 1.5 CEUs toward the certificate.

University of Salzburg uses Esri Virtual Campus courses in its residential geography program and for CEUs in the UNIGIS distance education that offers a Master in Advanced Studies in GIS degree. Twelve credits from Virtual Campus courses can be applied toward the degree.

University of Southern California incorporates five Esri Virtual Campus courses in its distance learning, GIS certificate program. Esri courses earning credit toward a GIS certificate from USC are Introduction to ArcView GIS, Introduction to ArcView Spatial Analyst, Introduction to ArcView Network Analyst, Spatial Hydrology using ArcView GIS, and Characterizing Forests using ArcView GIS.

University of Texas at Tyler uses Esri Virtual Campus courses to bring theory and practice together. Students take Virtual Campus courses at the university's GIS Lab as part of their regular classes. In addition, students complete two projects on their own to earn credit in the course. Students in UT's advanced GIS class take Esri's Programming with Avenue and must complete one other Virtual Campus course and two additional projects.

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