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.

Blended Learning in an Introductory Physical Geography Course

The following was presented at the 2012 annual conference of the National Council for Geographic Education.

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Today I’d like to discuss the development of a blended or hybrid introductory physical geography course. I also want to share a preliminary, comparative analysis of student achievement in the hybrid and totally online versions of the course.

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Those of us who teach laboratory courses know that they play an important role in science education. In the laboratory students apply the conceptual content of a course. It is also an opportunity for students to socially engage in a less formal, applied, collaborative way to promote learning.

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Compared to other types of courses, lab science course have been slower to move online. Jeschofnig & Jeschofnig (2011) found several reasons for why lab science courses are not offered online:

  • Uncertainty about how to offer a valid lab component with online courses
  • Difficulty moving outside the box of the campus laboratory experience
  • Doubts that students can independently perform lab work in nontraditional places
  • Doubts that off-campus lab work can be as effective as formal laboratory work
  • Fear about safety and liability issues if students experiment without supervision

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Like other disciplines, e-learning in geography is gaining broader acceptance in higher education but not without concern over losing the soul of the discipline , especially its deep connection with places as AAG past president Gober (1998) warned us over a decade ago.   A survey of geography departments that I recently conducted echoed the concerns presented by Jeschofnig & Jeschofnig. After faculty resources and interest, pedagogical and logistical issues were reasons for not offering totally online introductory physical geography courses (Ritter, 2012). Several survey respondents raised concerns over losing the face-to-face contact and social learning that takes place especially in the lab or field..

Others recognize the need to implement e-learning in geography education to address the special needs of nontraditional learners, employers and the ability to employ rich multimedia and active learning strategies (Lynch et. al, 2008, Glasmeier, 2012).  One approach to address these issues is to blend online and face-to-face instruction.

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Blended courses address the desire for face-to-face instruction while retaining many of the advantages of online learning.  A blended or hybrid course delivers part of the content in a face-to-face setting and a portion online.  The relative proportions of time devoted to online or in-person activities varies widely across blended courses and instructors. Blended learning lets the instructor reallocate class time for other purposes. Bended course enables the transition from teaching centered learning to student centered learning, or learner centered teaching. Students can be assigned pre-recorded lectures rather than passively sitting through a lecture,  and then meet face-to-face to discuss and actively engage in the course content.

Those teaching blended courses make the assumption that students derive benefits from face-to-face interaction with their peers and instructors while taking more control over their learning in an online environment (Osguthorpe and Graham, 2003). Blended courses also cater to a range of learning styles (Mitchell and Forer, 2010). The 2012 ECAR survey of students showed that seventy percent said they learn more from blended courses Dahlstrom (2012).

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At UW-Stevens Point we offer a traditional introductory physical geography course. Students meet three days a week for lecture and twice a week for a 110 minute lab.

In my conventional face-to-face sections I’ve offered an online component, the biosphere unit, since 1997. Surveys of students showed a desire for a totally online version, but most preferred  a conventional approach.

I’ve offered a fully online version of the course since 2003 during the summer and as a part of my regular academic year course load since 2008.

In order to provide more flexibility to students, especially non-traditional students who wanted some face to face seat time, a blended (hybrid) version was created. Three 50 minute periods are allocated in their schedule but we do not meet face to face for the lecture. Lecture content is delivered through a custom online textbook, videos and podcasts. The students do meet for a conventional, 110 minute lab twice a week. A short introduction to the lab is given and then students work in groups of 4 students. Each student is responsible for submitting their own lab assignment.

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Conceptual content delivered in a typical lecture has been moved to an interactive, multimedia physical geography textbook I’ve authored. Podcasts and videos are assigned to bring additional context to the textbook material and appeal to visual and auditory learners.

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Lab content is delivered in-class in the blended section of the course. The first twenty to thirty minutes are used to relate the exercise of the day to the course content students have been studying online.Students break into groups of two to four students to complete an activity in a conventional printed lab manual.

Introductory remarks for the online section are communicated through podcasts and text material. It is assumed that the online students are working independently of one another.

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Concept review assignments are 10 to 15 short answer questions that relate to the content of a course topic. These are graded as complete or incomplete. They are class participation credit so to speak.

Lab exercises from a printed commercial manual written by instructors at UWSP are also assigned. These too are graded as complete or incomplete.

Online assignments – students gather data from the web or use digital technologies like Google Earth to explore physical geography

Capstone assignment – Physical Regions of Wisconsin – students gather data for their home region and compare to another of there choosing. Explain similarities or differences based on their knowledge of physical geography.

Unit Exams – 75 questions, 50 conceptual, 25 lab. Timed, grouped by content with both the questions and answers randomized.

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After running the hybrid course for two years I was curious to know if there were any differences in the achievement levels of those enrolled in these two types of courses. Based on the literature I expected that students in the hybrid might be achieving at at higher level. I’m also curious to see if there are particular concepts or lab activities that students in the online version might have more difficulty with and require additional help that the hybrid students have access to.

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Based on the current literature, I expected the hybrid course to better than the totally online version of the course. My null hypothesis is that there will be no difference, and alternative hypothesis that the hybrid section will achieve higher scores.

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The data for this analysis was gathered during the 2011-2012 academic year from 111 students in 3 sections of the hybrid course and 94 students of 3 sections from the totally online course. Course, unit exam, and unit exam lab scores were used in this analysis.  For each version of the course I examined the achievement on four unit exams and the performance on the lab portion in for both online and hybrid versions of the c course were compared in this analysis. The course grade data includes performance on assignments and exams. Because of the way assignments are graded, exam scores are likely to tell us more about student achievement. The combined course data indicates there is no statistical difference between online and hybrid. The implication is that students can succeed in the course in a totally online learning environment.

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A comparison of means for the course grades during the 2011 – 2012 academic year using a Student’s T-test showed no difference at the  .01 level of significance. Thus, overall student performance in the course does not favor one learning environment over the other. Running the T-Test at the .05 level yielded the same result of no difference in means.

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The overall course grades include to the scores attributed to the concept reviews for which students simply need to turn in reasonable responses to questions even though not quite correct. To get a better idea of student learning, performance on unit exams was compared. Again, a comparison of means test showed not significant difference between online and blended learning.

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To tease out the effect of hybrid versus online learning in a lab setting, the performance on the lab portion of exams was compared. This filters out the influence of conceptual content from the applied content delivered via the lab assignment.  In all cases, there was no significant difference in the mean scores of the hybrid and totally online versions of the course. Even so, the hybrid version was six percentage points higher on the first exam, with the difference between versions of the course substantially narrowing for the remainder.

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This study focused on student performance in a lab section of a hybrid and online course.  The results of this analysis imply that students can achieve equally well in a hybrid or online version of the course  in this study. It calls into question whether the collaborative learning of the face-to-face lab session has any effect on student performance if similar instructional support is given to those in an asynchronous online laboratory version of the course. Online students access to some instructional materials is more flexible than those in the hybrid section, especially for the lab portion of the course. Online students have the advantage of replaying the instructional videos that explain lab procedures. Students in the hybrid section have only the one time explanation during class.  What impact this has on difficult topics can be teased out through a more detailed analysis of exam results and a survey of student use.

Studies show those who do best in totally online courses tend to be self-motivated and independent learners (Abrahamson, 1998).It has been assumed that those students in the online section of the course worked independently.  Schutte (1996) found online students scored higher on tests than their face to face counterparts. He attributed the performance differences to enhanced opportunity for online collaboration.  A survey of students in the online course investigated here would check the validity of this assumption and provide additional insight into this and what characteristics influence student achievement in online and hybrid courses.


Abrahamson, C. E. (1998). Issues in interactive communication in distance education. College Student Journal, 32(1), 33 – 43.

Dahlstrom, Eden, with a foreword by Charles Dziuban and J.D. Walker. (2012) ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2012 (Research Report). Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, available from

Gokhale, A 1995 Collaborative Learning Enhances Critical Thinking Journal of Technology Education. Volume 7, Number 1

Gober, P. (1998). Distance learning and geography’s soul. AAG Newsletter, 33 (5), 1-2.

Hofstein, A. and V. N. Lunetta (1982) The Role of the Laboratory in Science Teaching: Neglected Aspects of Research. Review of Educational Research Summer, 1982, Vol. 52 (2), 201-217

Hofstein, A. and V. N. Lunetta (2003) The Laboratory in Science Education: Foundations for the Twenty-First Century. Science Education. Volume 88 (1), 28-54

Illinois Online Network (ION). Weakness of online learning. Visited 6/10/2011

Jeschofnig, Linda; Jeschofnig, Peter (2011). Teaching Lab Science Courses Online: Resources for Best Practices, Tools, and Technology (Jossey-Bass Guides to Online Teaching and Learning) (Kindle Locations 330-333). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., Jone, K. Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, Washington, D.C., 2010.

Mitchell, P. & Forer, P. (2010) Blended learning: The perceptions of first-year geography students. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 34(1), pp. 77–89.

Osguthorpe, Phillipa and Pip Graham (2003) Blended Learning: Perceptions of First-year Geography Students. Journal of Geography in Higher Education. 34 (1) pp. 77-89

Osguthorpe, Russell T. and Charles R. Graham (2003) Blended Learning Environments: Definitions and Directions. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education. Volume 4(3) pp. 227-233

Ritter, M. (2012) Barriers to teaching introductory physical geography online. Review of International Geography Education Online. 2(1) pp. 61-77.

Schutte, J. G. (1996). Virtual teaching in higher education: The new intellectual superhighway or just another traffic jam? [Online]. Retrieved June 11, 1998 from the World Wide Web:

Vavala, Robert V.,  Deana Namuth-Covert, Courtney Haines, Donald J. Lee, James W. King, and Carol Speth (2010) Community in Three Undergraduate University Science Courses: An Analysis of Student Perception.  Journal of Natural Resources & Life Sciences Education • Volume 39, 157 -164

Geography Awareness week: The Geospatial Revolution

It’s Geography Awareness Week and you are a part of the geospatial revolution!

Blended Learning in an Introductory Physical Geography Lab Course

I’ll be presenting the following paper at the 2012 National Council for Geographic Education conference in San Marcos, TX  on October 6, 2012, currently scheduled for 11:00 am in Veramendi C. The full presentation will be posted after the conference has concluded.

Blended Learning in an Introductory Physical Geography Lab Course
Dr. Michael Ritter
Department of Geography & Geology
University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point
Stevens Point, WI. 54481

Online courses bestow many advantages to learners when getting their education at a distance. Laboratory courses have the potential to enhance social relationships, cognitive growth and student success but conducting them online is challenging. The lack of face-to-face interaction among students and with the instructor, access to laboratory equipment, and fieldwork is often cited as impediments to online laboratory courses. Blended or hybrid learning combines the best qualities of face-to-face and online learning in a single course.

This paper describes the process of creating and deploying a blended introductory physical geography lab course. Course content previously delivered as a face-to-face lecture is now accomplished with online media. Students continue to meet face-to-face for laboratory instruction. A comparative analysis of student achievement in the blended and totally online versions of the course is also presented.

Earth Online Media site is live

The fledgling Earth Online Media site is up and running. Earth Online Media facilitates the distribution of open source and low-cost media related to geoscience. Though online, heavy construction ahead for a while.

Making Professional Connections with Twitter

I’m currently serving on an ad hoc marketing committee for the National Council for  Geographic Education (NCGE). One of my goals is to encourage the use of social media to facilitate connections between the organization, its current members, potential new members and nonmembers alike. Twitter is a vehicle that can accomplish my goal even for the less-tech savvy and social media sceptics.

Twitter is more than a microblogging app to push thoughts out, it’s a way to make and develop connections. Twitter has become an important tool for me to stay up-to-date with my professional interest in technology-integrated teaching and learning, especially in geography. It has also expanded my personal learning network and professional connections tremendously.

An excellent example of using Twitter for professional connections occured recently. Dr. Andrew Shears(@andrewshears) and I  connected on Twitter over a year ago. Our connection drew closer when he accepted his first full-time geography position at UW- Fox Valley. I’ve been “down the road” from his new home at UW-Stevens Point for 26 years. One Sunday morning Andrew posted a question to Twitter and I was able to help him out. The conversation is included on the right. The power and immediacy of social media like Twitter becomes clear from this example. A new faculty person connecting with an experienced one sharing and addressing issues related to their careers.

Some would say that they are not “techy” enough to be using Twitter. I would argue that those are just the people who could benefit from Twitter if they are curious about using social media for professional development. The key issue for most is knowing how to connect to the right people and how to filter the “wheat from the chaffe”. Those are topics for a future blog post.

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