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.


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.

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