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.


Geographical iPad/iPhone app review

Geographical Magazine, the official magazine of the Royal Geographical Society, is available as an iPad and iPhone app by  Exact Editions ( I recently downloaded both versions for free. Upon installing  the iPad version it swooped into my Newsstand app.  A tap on its icon revealed a beautiful glacial landscape as a splash screen followed by the cover of a special issue “Scott: The Man and the Myth”.

True to the developer’s company name, an “exact digital edition” of the magazine is presented. Page navigation is the usual margin tap or swiping. A click on randomly picked article brings you to the in-app purchase screen. A one-month subscription is $4.99, a one year is $35.99. The subscription includes access to back issues through September 2006. A shared access code can be entered for an existing subscription. I purchased a 1 month subscription. The app asked me to confirm the purchase and an iTunes password prompt appeared.  Next the app asks for the use of your name, email, zip in accordance with their privacy policy.  I chose, “Don’t Allow”. User control over sharing their information is an important issue with Apple and me, I’m happy that Geographical obliged. The subscribtion was quickly activated over my Wi-Fi connection.

On my iPad (ver. 1), pages rendered in about 3 to 4 seconds depending on the content when swiping between them. Top to bottom rendering allows the user to begin reading while rest of page renders. I suspect this is less of an issue with the more capable iPad 2. Navigation was very straight forward, tap on either left or right margin to turn pages or swipe between them. Tap in the middle to bring up top and bottom navigation bars. Double tap to zoom, pinch to reduce. Tapping on the open magazine icon in the bottom navigation bars allows you to swipe through pages quickly in a cover flow like manner. Tap a page and it expands to full size. Tapping the “Issues” button spawns a  drop down menu of previous issues. Embedded hyperlinks to additional web-based content opened in mobile Safari.

After exploring the iPad app I turned to the iPhone version on my  iPhone 4s. The app proceeded to sync my subscription information to my iPhone with no issues. The same top to bottom rendering occured on the iPhone, but was much quicker largely due to the difference in processor. Obviously the magazine loses a bit of it’s visual impact on a smaller screen, but the convenience of access is handy.

I found the reading experience very good. Absolutely brilliant color photographs and the text was readable at default settings.  It is an exact copy indeed, right down to the ads. My only qualms with the app is the lack of bookmarking, highlighting or annotating text on a page. These features should be standard for  magazine apps as they (mostly) are for eBooks. This magazine is a wonderful resource for geography educators and highlight/notetaking tools are important for learning. And in my wildest dreams, being able to link articles to a note in Evernote would greatly enhance ones productivity.

If you’re looking for the same reading experience as a print magazine, Geographical Magazine’s app is for you.

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