Past, present and future of Online Geospatial Education at Penn State celebrated

Adrienne Goldsberry
April 30, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Here is something to think about: Some of Penn State’s current Department of Geography students weren’t even born when Online Geospatial Education at Penn State offered its first class. While online classes are now considered normal, for the educators who launched these distance education courses in the late 1990s, it was a novel and risky venture.

If you follow Online Geospatial Education at Penn State on one of its various social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn), you may have noticed that it is recognizing 20 years of offering online classes in geographic information sciences (GIS), remote sensing and geospatial intelligence. In the next few months, it will be highlighting this legacy, but more importantly, focusing on what it is doing to evolve with the ever-changing field of geospatial science and technology.

“In recent years we’ve seen a dramatic shift as desktop GIS moved to the web, as new forms of remote sensing and image analysis became common, and as the software development world has collided with the mapping industry,” said Anthony Robinson, director of Online Geospatial Education programs. “We’re talking more today about spatial data science, rather than GIS per se. We’re mapping more with open data using open source tools, and professionals are expected to be comfortable with a very wide range of data types and spatial analysis methods.”

Uncertain beginnings

The idea for an online course in GIS came from Department of Geography faculty members Roger Downs and David DiBiase, who recognized that GIS practitioners could benefit from an online program through the then newly formed Penn State World Campus.

Roger Downs recalled when the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation was providing funding for universities to experiment with online courses.

“As the head of the department, I decided to take a loan to build the program. We were taking a huge risk and I was prepared for it not to work, but it did,” he said.  

Downs said he focused on the administrative and funding side of the program while DiBiase handled the curriculum.

“DiBiase’s position as director of the Deasy GeoGraphics Laboratory, predecessor to the Peter R. Gould Center, gave him the expertise to develop GIS courses,” Downs said, “and he insisted that the courses be instructor-led with a real person available. That was a key to our success.”

DiBiase became the founding director of the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. In 2011, he took a position at Esri, but he still teaches online courses with the program and serves on the advisory board.

Penn State Online Geospatial Education offered its first class, Geography 482 (at the time called The Nature of Geographic Information), in January 1999. Fifty-one students enrolled in what became the first in a four-course certificate program in GIS.

Responsiveness to student needs

Since that beginning, the program has evolved to comprise five certificates, a master’s degree in GIS (MGIS), and a Geospatial Intelligence Analytics option within the Master of Professional Studies in Homeland Security. More than 4,000 students have completed a certificate or degree from the Online Geospatial Education program. The program also has earned Esri’s Special Achievement in GIS Award (2004) and the Sloan-C (now Online Learning) Consortium’s award for Most Outstanding Online Program (2009).

Recent developments include:

  • Two new graduate certificates were added: Remote Sensing and Earth Observation in 2017, and Geospatial Programming and Web Map Development in 2018, which respond to student demand for education in these increasingly important sectors of the geospatial industry.
  • Students enrolled in the MGIS program and most certificate programs are now eligible to receive federal financial aid, which makes continuing education more financially feasible for students.
  • Initiated accelerated admissions into the MGIS program, as students who have performed well in their first three classes of a certificate program can apply directly to the MGIS program on a rolling basis.
  • Offer more than 30 classes, spanning a wide range of spatial data science topics and serving both aspiring geospatial professionals as well as those who are well established and looking to gain new skills.

“The professional landscape has changed a great deal since our programs began 20 years ago, and we’ve never stopped working to anticipate that change by offering new courses, launching new credentials, and continually improving the instructional design of our classes,” Robinson said. “In addition, we have a strong focus  on providing a robust student-centered experience. Every person coming to us has a different story, different experiences, and different needs. Our team works very hard to treat every student accordingly and to make sure that their online experience translates into something very personal. In other words, we try to take the ‘distance’ out of distance learning in every way you might imagine.”

Faculty from the program routinely attends industry events like the Esri User Conference, International Lidar Mapping Forum, Esri Federal GIS Conference, GEOINT Symposium, and the Pennsylvania GIS Conference.

To learn more about the Online Geospatial Education at Penn State, visit

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 03, 2019