June 24, 2013 Leave a comment
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 khanacademy.org 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.