Teaching Physical Geography Online: Old Challenges, New Possibilities

The following was presented at the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting, Seattle, WA, April 12, 2011

Geography educators have been integrating eLearning tools in their courses for many years.  But, teaching geography courses online still raises concern, especially when it comes to physical geography. The purpose of my  presentation is to share the challenges I have encountered over the past 15 years of delivering introductory physical geography online, how I have dealt with them, and highlight some new possibilities for addressing these challenges in the near future.

As I was preparing this presentation I decided to poll several geography departments regarding online course offerings. Approximately half of those responding offer an introductory physical geography course online.

A comment from the survey  expresses the concern of many who do not offer an online course.

Based on the results of the short survey and conversations with fellow geographers, I’d like to look at three teaching/learning context, classroom lecture, lab, and field.

Context: Classroom

The first task is determining how to deliver the lecture or conceptual content of the course. For many this means posting notes online and or assigning textbook reading.

Now, lecture capture technologies offer the instructor the ability to live stream and/or record their lectures. This can be done simultaneously when lecturing to a face-to-face class or from the confines of their office. This makes it an easy entry point for those wanting to transition their face to face course to online distribution. Here is  a screen capture of the Tegrity application. To the left is the video from the instructor and the right their power point.

Podcasting has been around a while and can be used for asynchronous online courses. Software for creating audio and video podcasts is inexpensive, and delivery to students fairly easy to implement.

The advantage of recorded lectures is that students  can pause and reflect on what is being said more easily than when listening for the first time in a face to face lecture.

In the past I used  audio lectures with accompanying lecture outlines but have abandoned them. Providing recorded lectures  simply continues the same passive learning that occurs in a conventional face-to-face lecture.

Lectures a good way to “get” information, but as Bligh and others have shown, a conventional lecture does not promote learning any better, or is worse than other modes of instruction  like discussion, personalized system of instruction, independent study and reading, enquiry-based learning, computer-assisted learning.  Yet today, many of us continue to employ the conventional lecture as a primary mode of teaching and expect students to learn from it. Learning comes about by doing … doing something, whether this be responding to questions, discussing a concept with peers, or writing about what is being taught.

Two noted physicists have put it this way:

I no longer lecture to my students in a  face to face course. My introductory physical geography course is  delivered in either a hybrid and totally online format.

The lecture or conceptual content has been replaced with a custom online textbook. Short concept checks and content review questions are embedded in each chapter for student self-assessment and immediate feedback as the students read the chapter. Short videos from a variety of sources related to the chapter content are included in each chapter. Students complete a concept review assignment for each chapter. Short “coursecasts” of no longer than ten minutes are used to explain common problems students have with course content. A blog is used to provide helpful study hints and reinforce concepts. Twitter is used to distribute late breaking news related to the course.

Context: Lab

For the lab component of the course, the first challenge one has is dealing with exercise distribution and submission. Students in my course purchase a printed lab manual in which they complete their assignments. To submit them, I’ve created pdf forms of the exercises and students enter their answers into form fields and construct maps/graphs using drawing and annotation tools. It does take practice to construct maps with these tools. New touch interface coming to market are making it easier to construct them using finger or input stylus than a mouse. The exercises are submitted to my LMS dropbox for grading.

Face-to-face lab sessions require a few minutes to introduce students to the exercise and how to complete it.  I’ve dealt with this by creating a number of animations which later morphed into podcasts. Flash has been used for animations and ScreenFlow to capture desktop activity that demonstrates how to use various applications. Frustrated with the hoops I had to jump through to get the podcast distributed, I by-passed my university and went directly to the iTunes store and YouTube.

Conventional hands-on lab activities often require special equipment and are not necessarily feasible for an online lab. But this does not preclude the development of experiments, gathering and analyzing data. For example, the USGS real-time water data  site can be used to examine hydrological processes and the Earthquake hazards program for analyzing earthquake occurrence. The Digital Library of Earth System Science has numerous exercises that can be done online.

There are a variety of sources online for topographic maps. Integrated into Google Earth, students can employ tools to measure distance, slope, visualize topography, etc. without the need for physical maps. Using the opacity slider one can visualize how contour lines relate to topography.

Many complain about the amount of time answering emails from students.  I employ web conferencing software for online office hours that has greatly reduced the amount of email exchange. I can communicate in real time with audio/video  or text-based chat. A whiteboard can be viewed by the student while I explain concepts. My desktop can be shared with the class to demonstrate how to use course applications.

Context: Field

Field experiences are the most problematic for online courses. Self-directed field trips to geographically significant places can serve as a substitute. We have created a self-guided tour of a local nature preserve where students examine spatial variation in vegetation communities.

Virtual field studies/trips have been used for many years and proven effective at least at the introductory level. Stumpf, Douglass, & Dorn, 2008 showed that a virtual field trip was statistically indistinguishable from real field trips in establishing basic knowledge about desert geomorphology. Virtual field trips, like mine to the Colorado Front Range, have evolved from a series of static web pages to more interactive activities employing applications like Google Earth.

Developers for new smartphones and other mobile media devices   like the iPod Touch have created apps that simulate expensive instruments for students to conduct field work. Here we have a theodolite app on the left and geocaching app on the right.

Advances in geolocation on mobiles devices has made it possible to create location-based augmented reality applications employable by students on self-directed field trips. Using the device’s GPS capability and compass, information can be overlaid on what is seen through the device’s camera. Here we have the augmented reality app for Banff National Park in Canada. Features are identified by the app as the user scans the landscape before them. Overlays of text can be linked to more in-depth information at the tap of a finger.


I’m not here to convince those that feel physical geography cannot or should not be taught online. I speaking to those who see the possibilities of widening the reach of physical geography beyond the confines of the traditional brick and mortar institutions that we work in. Creating or adapting an introductory physical geography lab course to the online environment requires accepting some trade-offs but the number and degree are fewer as advances in technology and one’s own creativity presents new prospects for learning physical geography.


About Michael Ritter
Retired Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, science textbook author, educational technology blogger, podcaster, and freelance media consultant.

One Response to Teaching Physical Geography Online: Old Challenges, New Possibilities

  1. Pingback: iPad Mini: It’s What I Need in a Tablet | The Digital Professor

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