Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Virtual Geography Department
Originator Ken Foote
Department Department of Geography, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712-1098, USA
Tel. +1 512 232-1592
Fax +1 512 471-5049

Summary and key features

The department has been set up to link existing geography departments in the United States. Its function is primarily linked to teaching, rather than research. The production of high quality teaching materials using cybermedia is the major focus. The collaborative nature of the department allows a sharing of the time and resources dedicated to developing new materials, but also has major design implications: materials must be sufficiently flexible to fit into the teaching approaches and curricula of a wide range of institutions.

A wider concern is the pressure for universities to acknowledge the need for radical changes in their structure (organisational and physical) to benefit from the opportunities presented by cyberspace. In particular, the current model of co-location of faculty members is no longer necessary, when contact in cyberspace is so easy. Students also are freed from old constraints, and can access materials from many more sources. Their learning needs to be supported in new ways, to make sure that the materials are as well designed and as easy to find as possible.


The department has three main goals, and three subsidiary ones:

Development of the Virtual Department

The first stages have involved a series of summer workshops (1996-1998), attended by 30 faculty members drawn from 30 different institutions. Staff attending the two-week workshops have four aims:

Structure of the curriculum

The Virtual Department has an ambitious brief for its curriculum, with goals set for both the whole department and for individual modules:

Current curriculum

The Virtual Department has no over-arching curriculum, because its materials are designed to slot into the degree programmes taught at any department which chooses to make use of the materials. Each module is designed by a working group, using a common format and agreed protocols of lay-out, referencing and hyper-text links. The working groups cover the following topics: Each working group is responsible for producing a set of modules which are free-standing, and can be adapted with minimum difficulty to fit into the range of teaching programmes adopted by any institution wishing to make use of the resources available. The common format and guidelines on presentation of materials help to encourage use of more than one module, since much of the teachers' learning about the Virtual Department's approach is carried out in their use of the first module which they select. This transferability will also apply to students using the materials.

Resource implications

Once the modules are complete and freely available, they offer one way in which to increase the range of specialist options available to students, especially those in smaller departments which do not have enough staff to cover all aspects of geography. Their main use, however, seems likely to be as a supplement to existing courses, rather than a substitute.

The system may be of especial value in reaching out to students who otherwise do not have access to higher education and/or to other students. This would apply to students on courses such as those run by the Open University, whose contact with both staff and other students is increasingly being eroded by reductions in funding. It would also apply to students who, for any reason, cannot easily travel to University or to fieldwork sites.

While virtual fieldwork, as it currently exists, cannot hope to replace actual fieldwork, training can use virtual fieldwork to prepare students for their real fieldwork, thus minimising time spent on unnecessary learning in the field, that is, learning which can be done somewhere else. As both students and institutions find the cost of fieldwork increasingly burdensome, greater efficiency in the time spent in the field may help to preserve this vital part of the geography curriculum.

Another potential advantage is the exposure to topics and approaches other than those familiar, not only in a single institution, but at a national level, given the different cultures of geography which exist in different countries. If an appropriately validated set of course materials exists, and if systems of credit transfer can be established, the Virtual Department could become a pioneer for a global 'cyberuniversity', offering the advantages of a student body with a wide range of skills and experiences, and therefore with the potential to teach each other and the staff involved to ask new questions and follow new paths.

International extensions?

Clearly there is a potential to extend the virtual geography department worldwide. There is the precedent with the NCGIA Core Curriculum in GIS - which provides key course content written by leading experts world-wide for adapting to local courses (


Virtual department

This is one of the case studies which appears in the GDN Guide "Curriculum Design in Geography"

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Page created 2 October 1999
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