Solutions

UNIGIS

DRAFT by Derek Reeve

UNIGIS is an international network of universities which together offer a post-graduate diploma and MSc in GIS by distance learning methods. Our students complete ten modules each of which covers a substantive GIS topic in order to gain their diploma. They may then choose to write a dissertation to qualify for an MSc award. There are no examinations, the students being assessed via the assignments that they return for each module. Contact is maintained with students primarily via Email, although telephone and fax support are also available to them. Students can elect to attend up to three workshops during their studies, but some students choose to complete their studies purely by distance methods. Further details of our programme are provided on our Web site - http://www.unigis.org.

The UNIGIS programme has been taught from the UK since 1991. We already have, therefore, considerable experience of delivering GIS education to distant students and in the context of the present meeting would offer the following observations :-

If the present discussions can lead to a situation in which GIS web-based materials are classified according to their origins, contents, quality, longevity, etc and clarifies the conditions under which they can be used by teachers, this will represent a major advance for UNIGIS and all other similar programmes. Once teaching via the Web becomes a mainstream activity of other institutions, they too will need to consider how to charge for their materials. Within the UNIGIS network we have evolved a system of royalty fees and concept payments which allows those sites which originate materials to receive a return for their effort whilst giving other sites access to materials which they could not themselves have generated. A similar pattern of fee payments will need to be generalised and incorporated into interoperable Web based teaching systems.

If a secure business model can be developed for publishing web educational objects, then it will very probably be in the interests of UNIGIS to bring its materials 'in front of the password' and to offer them generally on the open Web market. Such a Web market would then also allow UNIGIS to buy-in from other providers modules which we cannot generate internally. We can see great potential benefits in the establishment of a proper mechanism for fair exchange of materials via the Web.

The importance of national differences extends beyond concerns about content. National circumstances also affect the appropriateness of particular delivery mechanisms. In the UK, for example, our students retain a possibly exaggerated concern about the costs of online study if they have to pay their own telephone bills. In other countries in which we have students, web access is still extremely restricted. In Ethiopia, for example, there are only 60 modem connections available for the entire country. In some countries, the Web and Email remain forbidden.

It is possibly inevitable that, at least initially, that interoperable GIS online education will actually be available to students if they speak English, understand about Tiger files and Ordnance Survey data, and can afford the necessary technologies and fees. We should hope, however, that quickly such education will become multi-lingual and multi-cultural.

Our experiences suggest that the authors of interoperable GIS educational objects will generally need to have a realistic model in their minds of the manner in which their materials will be used by students, and may have to temper their enthusiasms for the latest plug-ins and other hi-tech gismos by a knowledge of the level of equipment which is likely to be available to students. At the very least, a statement of the resources needed to use an educational object should form part of the metadata associated with it. So, our experiences with UNIGIS convince us that it is certainly possible to deliver high quality GIS education by distance, and increasingly online, learning methods. We look forward to the emerging 'interoperable' education era as a welcome development and extension of our activities and will wish to contribute strongly. We are aware, however, that there will be difficulties to be resolved along the way.


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