The Digital Professor is Moving

I’ve decided to move this blog to my web hosted site at

Updating this location has been suspended. The move is largely to avoid the advertising that appears on this site.




My Strategies to Deter Cheating on Online Exams

student_laptopI’m often asked by colleagues just stepping into distance education what to do about cheating on online exams. I chuckle and admit that I don’t worry too much  about it anymore. Why?  I accepted the fact that if someone wants to cheat, they’ll find a way to do it. This became clear in my second year of teaching when I found a #2 lead pencil with notes carefully etched into each of the facets of the barrel without cracking the yellow paint covering it. People can and will be sneaky.  Here are a few things I do to inhibit cheating on my online exams delivered through DesireToLearn (D2L):

  • Address the Issue in the syllabus. I address the issue of cheating, especially plagiarism, upfront in the the syllabus. I inform the students of the potential consequences and point them to university policies they should read.
  • Open exams. I’ve made the exams open book and notes hence  cheating by  using forbidden resources is no longer relevant.  Students can use any resource they want to solve the problem-oriented questions that populate my exams. I’m a firm believer in helping student be “knowledge-able” not just “knowledgeable”. Michael Wesch describes being knowledge-able as being “”able to find, sort, analyze, ultimately criticize, and even create new information and knowledge.”  (Michael Wesch: Moving From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able. (n.d.). nancyrubin. Retrieved September 1, 2013, from
  • Problem-oriented questions.  I use problem-oriented questions addressing Bloom’s level 3, 4 & 5 in addition to those that rely on recall of basic information largely at Bloom’s level 1 & 2.  The problem-oriented questions require an understanding of spatial processes and relationships, the answers for which are not easily found online or in a printed textbook. Students are given a scenario with four to five possible outcomes. Quantitative, map reading, and graph interpretation skills are needed to answer these kinds of questions.
  • Timed Exams. Exams are accessible on a single day unless special circumstances require a student to reschedule their exam date. My introductory physical geography course has a 75 questions objective test for each of the four units of the course. Approximately fifty questions relate to the conceptual content and twenty-five  questions to the lab component. These are the same exams given to my face-to-face sections of the course. When teaching face-to-face, an entire 110 minute lab period was devoted to the exam. Thus I set the time limit for the online exam to 110 minutes.
  •  Randomization. Randomization is easy with an online exam. I have my quiz questions grouped by topic. Each set of questions in the group are randomized as are the answers to each question. It’s very rare two students get the exact same test. It does not prevent them from copying the exam and questions, but this is true of regular printed tests if you allow access to them. Performance statistics for each group of questions identifies where I need to tweak questions or course content and delivery to achieve better learning and assessment.
  •  Submission view. Desire2Learn has a variety of options for viewing exam submission view options that can be used to prevent cheating during the exam period. I allow students to view their score upon submission but not the answer key. Answer keys become available a few minutes after the exam closing time. Students can access their answers and seek help with those that were incorrectly answered at this time.

Cutting down on group cheating is more difficult. Students have the ability to meet as a group with one person taking the test while the others help and take notes. Using web cams for exam proctoring virtually eliminates this problem. In any case, trying to find a reasonable approach to controlling cheating is a challenge, made even more so by the connected culture we live in.

Ken Foote: Pioneering Open Education in Geography

Prof. Ken Foote, Geography (Photo/Larry Harwood)I met Ken Foote many years ago at an NCGE conference and instantly found a kindred spirit in the use of the web for geography education. Ken is a pioneer in open education in geography dating back to his Geographer’s Craft project. The most engaging and rewarding professional development experience of my career was participating in his summer Virtual Geography Department Project workshops. The Virtual Geography Department Project (1996-2006) was a groundbreaking project aimed at helping “geographers create innovative learning and teaching resources in the web. It also served as a clearinghouse for instructional materials geographers wished to share with colleagues.”  The workshops ran for three consecutive summers, I attended two of the three as a participant, facilitator, and became the coordinator of the virtual fieldtrips working group. Its impact on the discipline has been significant as those who participated benefited greatly and spread its philosophy across the web. Karen Lemke’s “Illustrated Glossary of Alpine Glacial Landforms“, Mark Francek’s  “Earth Science Resources for Earth Sciences and Geography Instruction“, and Susan Woodward’s “Introduction to Biomes” are just a few examples. Ken has been active in mentoring early stage faculty through workshops and publications. He is the past president of the Association of American Geographers, National Council of Geographic Education, and the recipient of numerous awards.

Given the advances in web technologies and the maturing of social media, I asked Ken to reflect on the Virtual Geography Department Project and whether its time to revisit it. Ken graciously took time from his extremely busy schedule to answer a few questions for the Digital Professor.

DP: What inspired you to undertake the Virtual Geography Department Project (VGDP)?

KF: Almost as soon as the web became available, I saw that it was a great way to share teaching ideas and course materials.  People spend a lot of time developing materials for their classes when their colleagues may have already created similar resources.  Why reinvent the wheel?  But I was also hoping to get people to realize that the web could be used to create new types of course materials that could aid student learning.

DP: What impact do you think VGDP had on the discipline of geography?

KF: I think the biggest impact was helping geographers get started in the web.  The workshops supported perhaps 100-120 of the early adopters and many of these geographers remain leaders in online education today.  Participants in the VGDP also created some remarkable examples of web-based learning materials that, I think, helped encourage others to join in the effort.

DP: The Virtual Geography Department project was one of the first, organized forays into online geography education. What’s your impression of the state of online geography education today?

KF: I was a bit concerned in the early 2000s when the web became primarily a way to manage courses.  Faculty seemed less interested in developing innovative learning materials and more interested in using course management tools that allowed them to post lecture notes and grades. More recently, I think the tide has turned again and people are again coming up with some fantastic ideas for using the web and social media for promoting effective learning and teaching.  I think some of the exciting ideas are blended.  They use a variety of online and in-person media and experiences to cultivate student learning.

DP: Do you think there is still a need for projects like the Virtual Geography Department?

KF: Yes, maybe the time has come to focus again on developing a clearinghouse or method for sharing materials.  I still come back to the question: Why re-invent the wheel when so many people have developed excellent ideas for their classes?  I look at sites like the and see tremendous possibilities for geographers to share their teaching ideas in the web.   Open educational resources (OER) are finally taking off.  The fact that Esri is releasing its learning materials as OER may be a big boost to these efforts.

DP: With the advent of social media, how could the Virtual Geography department project be re-imagined?

KF: I think the clearinghouse concept is still valid, but social media opens other possibilities that weren’t available ten or fifteen years ago.  With Web 2.0 I think it is possible to think of developing an online teaching and learning community.  This means more than just posting materials in the web.  It means developing opportunities for faculty and students to learn and teach together.

iBooks Comes to the Mac in OS X Mavericks

A pleasant surprise revealed in Apple’s preview of OS X Mavericks during the 2013 WWDC keynote address was the announcement of iBooks for the Mac. The lack of an iBook app for the desktop has been frustrating and frankly impedes my productivity. I love reading books on my iPad but I do most of my academic work on my 27″ iMac or Macbook Air. Having my iBooks only available on the iPad or iPhone stymied my note taking and research. I compose most of my work in Pages for Mac and have multiple documents open on my virtual desktop and physical books on my real one. Voice dictation into iOS  Notes with my iPhone lets me easily create notes from  physical books and synched to all devices I use to for work. However, I have not been able to easily move highlights and notes from iBooks between my iPad and iMac. Soon I will because iBooks is coming to the Mac and several new features are squarely aimed at the education market.


Multiple open books is a new feature coming to iBooks for the Mac.

iBooks on the Mac will have the same features as those on your iOS devices — turn pages with a swipe, zoom in on images with a pinch, or scroll from cover to cover. Notes, highlighted passages, and bookmarks created on your Mac, are pushed to all your devices automatically via iCloud.  iCloud even remembers which page you’re on. So if you start reading on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, you can pick up right where you left off on your Mac. Best of all is the ability to have multiple books open at the same time. When have you ever opened a book, then closed it before opening another to extract notes from, only to close it before moving to the next one? I doubt ever, especially not me. I’ve got multiple books spread out in from of me quite often to move back and forth through. Now I’ll be able to do the same within iBooks. Yes, iBooks in Mavericks puts multiple books on your virtual desktop just like your real one. Highlights, notes, bookmarks and other features are synched in iCloud and ready to use on any iDevice. A Notes pane gives you a list of all your notes and the highlighted text associated with them. The  ‘dynamic textbook functionality’  allows you to  convert notes into handy study cards.

Craig Federighi demonstrating note taking at WWDC 2013

 We’ve got a few more months before OS X Mavericks is released to the public. The new iBooks for Mac is a welcome upgrade that I can’t wait to start using. It will definitely increase my productivity and hopefully yours too.

All media courtesy of Apple Inc.

Quotes of the Week from Eric Mazur

In response to newly published research showing that lecture fluency did not significantly affect the amount of information learned, Harvard Professor Eric Mazur responded:

““With a better presenter it might seem like you are taking more in, but it doesn’t mean that anything has actually been learned..”

“The hard work has to be done by the learner – there’s not much the instructor can do to make the neuro-connections necessary for learning.”

“What is really worrying is that people are jumping on the massive open online course bandwagon, taking a failed model and putting it online. We need to rethink how people approach teaching,”

See the article “Great lecture: what was it about again?” at the Times Higher Education site

Models of Online Learning: What’s Old, What’s New: 2013 AAG Conference Panel Discussion

I’ll be participating in a panel discussion at the 2013 Association of American Geographers (AAG) conference entitled “Models of Online Learning: What’s Old, What’s New?” ( I teach physical geography in a “traditional” university environment. I’ve participated in the evolution of distance education from snail mail correspondence courses to current practices in online education. I no longer teach conventional lecture courses, my courses are delivered in hybrid or totally online  formats. Doing so takes me out of the mainstream of professors at my institution.  Though online education is making great strides in higher education, significant barriers to entry still exist, especially in the sciences and those who teach lab-based courses.   Research in online geography education indicates that doubts remain about its effectiveness and impact on the discipline (Ritter, 2012). I’m interested in how barriers to the adoption of distance education can be overcome by the creative application of technology (Ritter, 2011).

What caught my eye, and prompted me to join the panel, was a line from the abstract for our session:

 “Online learning is also a disruptive application of technology that threatens existing institutions and practices, and could ultimately prove detrimental to American higher education as a whole.”

 I do not see online learning as “detrimental” to higher education, quite the contrary. Online learning, is a natural step in the evolution of education. Is it an agent of disruption? Possibly, but to be detrimental means to do harm. Does online learning “harm” higher education? It is not harmful if students do equally well in an online course as they do in a face-to-face one, and current research shows they do (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, 2010). Some see it as harmful because online learning, in their opinion, removes the human element from education. Not only does it put distance between the student and teacher, it denies them the social experience of a residential education (Neem, 2011).

For online learning to succeed, it must address in the best and most positive way the concerns of those who question its practice.  Over a decade ago, past president of the AAG Patricia Gober warned geography educators about distance education in geography.  She cautioned us that ‘conducting online courses, even portions of a course, threatens ‘the essence of what it means to be a geographer’, particularly the ‘connection with real, live places’ (Gober, 1998).

Even though a relatively long list institutions are offering online courses as evidenced by  data published by AAG, a survey of department chairs  I conducted in 2011 showed a reticence toward moving physical geography instruction online. After lack of faculty interest and resources, pedagogical and logistical issues were important factors for not offering online physical geography courses online (Ritter, 2012). The loss of human contact, collaboration, and hands-on learning in the classroom, lab, and field that troubled department chairs the most.

William Bowmen in his 2013 book, “Higher education in the Digital Age”, expresses caution about moving into the online space. He recognizes it is necessary to explore distance education while retaining the enrichment a residential university brings to learning. He states that “learning occurs more or less continually, and more often than not, out of the classroom as in it” (Bowen, 2013, page 68 ). For geographers, out of the classroom often means in the field. Online educators need to develop means of bringing field exploration online. Sawyer, et. al. (2010) and Kolivras, et. al. (2011) have shown how remote web cams can effectively bring the field on to the screens of students. The merger of technology and reality with augmented reality smartphone apps is a unique way address concerns of removing the field from online geography education (Ritter, 2011). Expert help could be a tap away in identifying the landform, plant, or animal in your augmented reality enabled glasses.

For me, online education can be disrupting, but in a good way. Research has shown that instructors are forced to re-examine their practice when teaching online. Such reexamination and retooling carries over to their face-to-face courses. I see online education as a means to increase the reach of geography education and enhance the geographic literacy of a broader populace. For me, online geography education can only benefit geography as a discipline, not harm it.

Stop by our session if you are attending the conference I’m looking forward to a lively discussion of the issues that continue to surround teaching geography online.


Bowen, W.G. (2013) Higher Education in the Digital Age. Princeton: Princeton Univ.

Gober, P. (1998). Distance learning and geography’s soul. Association of American Geographers Newsletter, 33(5), pp. 1 – 2

Kolivras, K. N., Luebbering, C. R., & Resler, L.M. (2011). Evaluating Differences in Landscape Interpretation between Webcam and Field-based Experiences. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, iFirst article 1-15.

Neem, J. (2011) Online Higher Education’s Individualist Fallacy. Inside Higher Education. Oct. 6, 2011. Retrieved April 2, 2013

Ritter, M.E. (2012). Barriers to Teaching Introductory Physical Geography Online. Review of International Geographical Education Online. 2 (1), pp. 62 – 78.  [] Retrieved April 4, 1013.

Ritter, M.E. (2011). Teaching Physical Geography Online: Old Challenges, New Possibilities. Association of American Geographers Annual Conference, April 12, 2011.

Sawyer, C.F, Butler, D. R, & Curtis, M. (2010). Using Webcams to Show Change and Movement in the Physical Environment. Journal of Geography, 109(6), 251 – 263

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. (2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in Online learning: A meta-analysis and review of Online learning studies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

What’s Wrong With Education?

simpkins_hallPandoDaily, a blog devoted to entreprenuerism on the Internet, turns its journalistic  microscope on online education . The first post in the series, “The promise (and refreshingly low hype) of online education” by editor-in-chief Sarah Lacey points out,
“a lot of the biggest VCs have cautiously picked and chosen winners, making some big bets in this space. Some are on the tool and app side, and some are aimed squarely at solving the big problems.”
“Which big problem? Pick one. High school and elementary school are broken. College is broken. There’s a major distribution problem that the Internet is finally poised to revolutionize, and there are renewed calls to rethink basic vocational training.”
The hype has been anything but “low” for us in the education community.
 The second post, “What’s Wrong With Education?“, cobbles together clips from interviews with well-known Internet entrepreneurs and investors. Here are a few quotes that wrung a bell with me:
Peter Theil (Investor/Co-founder of PayPal): “The amount of money that has been spent on it is really high, the output is really low…. putting less money into it might be a good idea.”
Brian Chesky (Airbnb CEO) : “The way schools are going to work in the future is that they ail be much more remote, and much more in the field. So the lab is going to be labs all over the world. … you’re not limited to your campus. .. Why are schools building buildings? … That seems like a really bad thing to invest in.”
Sophia Amoruso (Nasty Gal CEO) : “There’s like free education all over the Internet. … If I’m worried about something, or think I don’t understand it, there’s a lot of ways to learn about stuff without going out and schmoozing and hoping someone answers your call.”
 Chad Dickerson (Etsy CEO) : “I believe liberal arts education is as important, maybe more important than math and science education. When you’re designing software you need more empathy for the person you’re designing the software for, you need to understand how people think and how they live. Knowing calculus doesn’t help you with that.
I’ll be following this series, you might find it of interest as well.
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