Skip to main content

How U of T professor Don Boyes uses self-directed learning to teach GIS

GIS is traditionally taught at universities as a lecture-based course with labs and assignments based on carefully selected data. Last year, University of Toronto professor Don Boyes decided to try a different approach with his GIS courses: he moved lectures and demonstrations to online videos, spent class time in discussions with students and created self-directed, problem-based assignments. Learn more about how he redesigned the courses and his insights after using the new model last fall.

Once upon a time, university students had to attend lectures and take notes to learn the course material. If you missed a lecture, you had to find someone who was willing to share their notes or hope you hadn’t missed anything that would be on the exam. As the use of slide presentation software became more common, many instructors started making their slides available to students online but in-class lectures were and still are the primary teaching tool.

A recent survey of online and distance post-secondary education in Canada found that between 12% and 16% of all post-secondary teaching for credit now occurs online, which means that between 84% and 88% of teaching occurs in-class. However, it also found that almost all institutions use a learning management system (LMS) to deliver and manage courses. An instructor posting their slides in an LMS might be considered a first step towards online teaching. They can also use an LMS to allow students to submit their assignments, write quizzes and engage in group discussions online.  

When online activities replace a portion of in-class time, a course is called a hybrid course. Recently, Don Boyes, Associate Professor in Geography & Planning at the University of Toronto, decided to try to adapt three of his GIS courses to the hybrid model. His goal was to provide deeper and more meaningful learning opportunities for students. Don gave a presentation at the GIS in Education and Research Conference in October about his course redesign. At the time, he was only part-way through the first term of teaching them. I followed up with him, via email, to find out more about the courses and the successes and challenges he has encountered.  

What hybrid courses are you currently teaching?

I am teaching three hybrid courses this year:

  • GGR272 Geographic Information and Mapping I (essentially intro to GIS and cartography). I had 130 students in the fall term and am now using the same videos and course structure for a purely online version of the course this term (114 students).
  • GGR273 Geographic Information and Mapping II (intermediate GIS) with 91 students this term.
  • JPG1906 Geographic Information Systems (intro to GIS for grad students) with 24 students in the fall term.

The two undergraduate courses (GGR272 and GGR273) are part of a GIS minor program in the Geography & Planning Department. Students from a variety of programs and disciplines also take the courses. This is especially true with the graduate course, which, for example, students in forestry, civil engineering, anthropology and public health might take, as well as geographers and planners from my own department.

How are the hybrid courses structured?

Topics are taught in two-week modules, in which students watch lecture and software demonstration videos, complete a quiz and start an assignment all online. This not only provides flexibility and convenience, but it also allows for a tighter connection between theory and practice. With this approach, students can learn about one concept, watch a video that demonstrates how that concept is implemented in the software and then try it for themselves. This can be done on their own schedule and at their own pace.

The class meets every second week well in advance of the assignment deadlines. Class time is focused on helping students understand the concepts and how to apply them in their assignments through discussions with the instructor and teaching assistants.

Students are also encouraged to form learning communities with other students who share their interest in particular applications of GIS.

What types of assignments do you give the students?

Freeing up class time and providing structured guidance allowed me to redesign some of the assignments to use a more self-directed, problem-based learning approach where students are encouraged to find their own data and develop their own project scenarios related to their interests. For example, the very first assignment in my introductory GIS course had them digitizing in ArcGIS Online, as I wanted them to see how data are constructed as we talked about the vector data model. I encouraged them to digitize whatever they wanted, from any part of the world, using the Esri satellite image basemap.

Andrew Harris, a PhD student in Anthropology, created a map of temples and other sites of interest in the Angkor Region of Cambodia and included it in a Story Map Cascade about Theravada Buddhism at Angkor Thom. Andrew is currently doing field work in Cambodia and credits making the story map with helping him get excited about doing it again.

My goal from the very beginning was to help them connect what they were learning to their own interests both in terms of topics and geographic regions. The next assignment, on map design, asked them to find their own GIS data (either from the ArcGIS Online portal or from Open Data sites) on a topic of their choice and learn about data acquisition, metadata and basic map design. They were then able to use the same data in their next assignment on map projections.

I was a bit worried about using this open-ended approach, but I felt that having the class time freed up with the hybrid approach would allow me to address any bumps in the road as we went along, which it did. 

Have you faced any challenges with the new course and assignment structure?

The biggest challenge I have faced is giving students the freedom to direct their own learning, while still providing enough structure and support, so that they can learn in small enough increments that they don’t feel overwhelmed. I had originally planned to have all the assignments be self-directed, but when it came to more advanced concepts and tools, I had a hard time figuring out a way to let them use their own data but satisfy the requirements I had set out. For example, as they were first learning about performing attribute and spatial joins, field calculations and reclassification, I didn’t think it would be fair to also ask them to find their own data and come up with their own analysis scenario where they would need to apply all those concepts and functions. So, I reverted to a more traditional format where I provided the data and scenario that they all used. I explained why I had done this, and they generally agreed that that was a good idea. Ideally, a subsequent assignment would then build on this but with their own data. 

What has the response from students been like?

I have been gratified to see that the response has been quite positive overall. I conducted a mid-course survey in both fall courses. 84% of respondents in the undergraduate course either agreed or strongly agreed that the "hybrid course model is a good way to teach this course," and it was 100% of respondents in the graduate course. I also asked if they could take the course again, would they choose a hybrid version or traditional lecture, and the results were the same. 84% of undergrad responses and 100% of graduate responses were for hybrid.

How do you feel about your first experiments with the hybrid model?

I was really pleased to see students making maps with diverse themes and areas, and I have to admit the “class meetings” (I deliberately did not refer to them as “lectures”) were much more enjoyable for me, as I got to spend time with students individually and in groups, talking about how they were using GIS. It’s also more efficient because we can quickly zero in on what they are having trouble with. The sage on the stage is not completely gone, as I’m still lecturing in the videos, but the guide on the side has certainly taken a more prominent role.

The Story Map Cascade that Thomas Bamford, a PhD student in Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, created is a helpful guide for finding a place to legally fly a drone for recreational or research use.

Have you used a blend of online and in-class teaching methods in a course? Share your story with us in the box below.

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Specialist with Esri Canada. Her career in GIS started when she came across the Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering program at the University of New Brunswick and thought it sounded interesting. She earned a PhD in Geomatics Engineering, focusing on lidar data classification, and now she supports teaching and learning with ArcGIS at colleges and universities across Canada. Krista particularly enjoys interacting with the students who receive an Esri Canada GIS Scholarship or apply for the Esri Young Scholars Award each year. She also enjoys playing with apps and doing a bit of coding when she has time.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins