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.


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.

Infographic: Major Ed-Tech Trends for 2013

Please include attribution to with this graphic.

Major Ed-Tech Trends for 2013

Infographic: A Teacher’s Guide to Social Media

A Teacher’s Guide to Social Media

Success in a MOOC

A great video by one of the pioneers in MOOCs. Find out Dave Cormier’s five steps to succeed in a MOOC

The importance of a creative education

Noted photographer Chase Jarvis is disrupting education with CreativeLive. Watch his presentation at the 2012 PSFK conference in San Francisco.

The Future of Learning, Networked Society – Ericsson

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