Creators of Maps and the Geospatial Revolution MOOC talk rediscovering geography

Katie Jacobs, IT Communications
July 17, 2013

Penn State is continuing its release of massive open online courses today, with the launch of Maps and the Geospatial Revolution on Coursera. The free course is led by Anthony Robinson, lead faculty for online geospatial education and assistant director for the GeoVISTA research center for the Department of Geography at Penn State. Robinson designed the course with support from David DiBiase, director of education at Esri, a major mapping software company that will supply free mapping software for the students in the class.

We recently chatted with Robinson and DiBiase about the upcoming release of the massive online course, including maps, geospatial technology and how it all fits in with the MOOC revolution.

Can you give us a rundown of what the course is about and how it will work?

Robinson: This course is a five-week introduction to mapping and geographic information science. It is designed for students who may be using maps every day to navigate and make decisions but may not have ever had an experience making their own maps. The intention for this class is for students to rethink what maps can do and learn to make their own maps.

Five weekly lessons will feature short video lectures, written and graphical content, hands-on mapping activities and discussion assignments. Hands-on mapping activities will leverage Esri's ArcGIS Online tools, which work directly in the Web browser at no cost to students. Students will work with mapping software to explore neighborhood demographics, natural disasters, geo-located social media and other exciting areas of geographic analysis.

Why did you want to be a part of Penn State’s entrance into the world of MOOCs?

Robinson: Right off the bat, I was very motivated to develop this MOOC to reach a completely new audience, and to show those folks what’s so great about maps and geospatial science. Geography is a science that most people have to discover — it's not something that everyone takes in high school. I wanted to open that world for people. Also, we have a very strong tradition of excellence in geography at Penn State, so it's something I think we should highlight.

Why is it important for people to take this course and learn more about geospatial technology?

DiBiase: We’re living in an increasingly connected world — and geography is more important than ever. So, the technology that makes geography come alive is incredibly valuable to society. Whether people realize it or not, maps are everywhere, including in our phones and GPS devices. One billion people worldwide are using interactive maps, and we have the potential to help people see that maps are a much more powerful tool than anyone ever realized. We gain a better understanding of our world through technology.

Could you tell us a little bit about Esri’s role in this MOOC?

DiBiase: First off, the course will be using one of Esri's software programs, called ArcGIS Online. It’s a mapping platform available for free to anyone with an Internet connection, and it currently has approximately 1.9 billion interactions a month.

Also, I serve as part of the lead education team at Esri. Our team reaches out to universities, colleges and schools to increase awareness about geospatial technologies. When Penn State approached us about helping with this MOOC, they weren’t asking us what to teach, but how to teach and present information in this format. Our role was simply to help and we’re honored that the University reached out to us for consultation on this project.

Robinson: I worked with Esri's education team — which includes David DiBiase, Joseph Kerski and Angela Lee — on two major things. First, they were instrumental in examining my ideas for learning objectives for the course and giving their feedback. (I find my classes are always better when I get critical feedback early in the development process.)

The second major thing I did with Esri was to develop lab activities using ArcGIS Online. This environment should scale nicely to handle thousands of students at once – and it works right in the browser, so we will hopefully avoid anything cumbersome with sharing technology to such a large group of students all around the world.

What are you looking forward to most in doing this course, and what do you hope comes from Penn State’s partnership with Coursera?

Robinson: I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to help people make their first maps. I remember making my first map as an undergraduate, and that experience paved the way for what I'm doing today. And as the lead faculty for our online geospatial education programs at Penn State, I'm also eager to learn from the MOOC example to determine what might translate and lend itself to our existing online curriculum.

I hope we're able to learn about teaching online to massive audiences, and that we'll learn how to make better decisions about when these types of classes are most valuable. I'm also hoping that we'll be able to translate many years of success at teaching online courses into advancing the state-of-the-art when it comes to MOOCs to fix some of their known issues. And, of course, I'd like to see MOOC students consider Penn State for furthering their education beyond the courses we offer for free through Coursera.

To learn more about the new geospatial MOOC, visit For more IT stories at Penn State, go to

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Last Updated July 18, 2013