Developing Good Educational Practice: Integrating GeographyCal into University Courses


In: Proceedings of the Institute of Australian Geographers and New Zealand Geographical Society Second Joint Conference, Hobart, Australia, Department of Geography, The University of Waikato



Principles of good practice in undergraduate education are identified and applied to the GeographyCal materials. GeographyCal is a consortium consisting of most of the geography departments in institutions of higher education in the UK which has developed computer-assisted learning modules for core topics, concepts and techniques in introductory undergraduate courses.


Mick Healey is Professor of Geography and Co-Director of GeographyCal in the Department of Geography and Geology, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education Francis Close Hall, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, GL50 4AZ, UK. EMAIL:

Geoff Robinson is Senior Lecturer in Geography and Director of the CTI Centre for Geography, Geology & Meteorology and Co-Director of GeographyCal at the University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK. EMAIL:

John Castleford is Research Fellow and Co-ordinator of the CTI Centre for Geography, Geology & Meteorology and Project Co-ordinator of GeographyCal at the University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK. EMAIL:


Although computer-assisted learning (CAL) has been used in geography in higher education for over a quarter of a century, its potential is only now beginning to be realised (Healey et al., 1996). A major reason why the use of CAL in geography is on the verge of a resurrection is due to the development of the GeographyCal project, the largest CAL project in geography in higher education in the world. This paper is concerned to answer the question "Can the GeographyCal project help promote good educational practice in universities?". First, however, a few words are necessary about CAL in general and the GeographyCal project in particular.

Computers may be used in a wide variety of ways to assist in teaching geography. Following Unwin (1991) these include:

GeographyCal focuses particularly on the last of these, although the distinctions are not watertight and aspects of information retrieval, analysis and simulation may be incorporated into computer-instruction packages. It is one of 75 institutional and subject-based projects funded by the UK Higher Education Funding Councils' Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP). The project brings together most of the geography departments in the UK in a consortium.

The aims of the project, which began in September 1993, are to specify, develop, test, and deliver a library of high quality transportable CAL modules to facilitate an efficient and effective teaching and learning environment for core topics, concepts and techniques in introductory undergraduate geography courses.

The subjects of the modules were decided following a needs survey of all consortium departments. Discrete manageable subjects were chosen. Of the 17 modules developed, 6 are in physical geography, 6 in human geography and 5 are concerned with techniques (Table I). Each module provides 1-3 hours of student activity.

The model of development used was one in which the academic materials were produced by teams of authors widely spread in consortium Higher Education Institutions and the CAL packages were produced by the development team, all of whom were based in Leicester. The materials have undergone a widespread programme of evaluation by students and tutors. The project has now completed its initial development phase and the materials produced are now being marketed. The income will be used to maintain the existing modules and to develop further products.


The key question which this paper is concerned with is: "Can using the GeographyCal modules promote good educational practice?". The literature on the contribution of CAL to good educational practice is, however, relatively small (Shepherd, 1992). Therefore it is first necessary to ask "What is good educational practice?". Fortunately there is a larger literature on this. Probably the best known guide is the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education suggested by Gamson & Chickering (1987) in the States (Table II). The application of these principles has been influential in improving teaching and learning in a wide range of colleges and universities (Gamson & Chickering, 1991; Hatfield, 1995).


Promoting good educational practice through using CAL depends on two main things. First, there is the quality of the materials produced, which includes the academic content, the pedagogic approach, screen designs, and supplementary materials. These need to be extensively evaluated. Secondly, there is the way in which the packages are used and integrated into the course. For example, they may be used as a library resource, like books or videos, which students are referred to or are left to discover for themselves. Alternatively they may be integrated into classroom activities with an introduction, specified learning objectives, and follow-up activities, which are linked in with the assessment of the course.

Taking each principle of good educational practice in turn the extent to which the GeographyCal materials meet the principle and how they might be used in the classroom to maximise the educational benefits are commented on briefly.

1 Encourages student-faculty contact - The materials themselves have been designed as user-friendly packages which can stand on their own; so encouraging staff-student contact depends on whether they are used as independent learning packages or they are integrated into classroom activities. The materials do not need a member of staff to be present to demonstrate them, but the students are likely to benefit more if the material is discussed in class and related to other aspects of the course. The learning objectives of each module and unit within a module are specified so that whether used independently or within a class the purpose is explicit. Figure 1 shows a screen shot of the learning objectives of the 'Social Survey' module, unit 1 Research Design.

2 Encourages cooperation among students - The materials may be used by students working on their own, but the evaluations show that most students prefer working with a friend and they often learn more when working with a partner from the discussions which the exercises in the modules generate. Some modules work best with a group. For example, in the 'House Hunting Game' students are asked to role play members of a family choosing a location for buying a house. It shows the application of GIS in an interesting way.

3 Encourages active learning - The materials have been designed explicitly to encourage this with plenty of activities and exercises built into each module. Some are closed exercises which test understanding, others are open ended and allow students to choose what to analyse. The following examples illustrate some of the range of exercises used.

The 'International Inequality' module makes use of the strength of computers to store large data sets which can be displayed as a graph or a map at a touch of the mouse. For teaching purposes data on international variations on twelve variables are stored (GNP per capita; population density; nutrition; health spending; military spending; official developmental assistance; adult literacy; infant mortality; debt service ratio; life expectancy; forest loss; labour in agriculture). The raw data can be listed by variable and by country and the data can be mapped with a variable number of classes. Pairs of variables may be graphed and the countries falling in various sectors of the graph can be mapped. For example, Figure 2 shows the inverse relationship between GNP per capita and infant mortality. By clicking on the top right hand cell of the graph a map can be generated showing countries with high infant mortality and high GNP per capita. Only one country falls in this cell - Gabon. Such anomalies stimulate discussion and follow up work to investigate why.

As part of the 'Global Tectonics' module students are asked to prepare a consultancy report for an insurance company using information gleaned from the package on risks of contemporary seismic activity.

Simulations are used in some modules. For example, in the 'Catchment Systems' module an Hydrograph Simulation enables students to choose from a number of land use scenarios and asks them to predict the impact on the hydrograph before the simulation is performed (Figure 3).

4 Gives prompt feedback - Formative and summative assessments are built into the modules. Discussing the content of the modules in class is another way of providing feedback. With the 'Meteorology and Air Quality' module a pre-test is used to enable users to determine their previous knowledge of the topics to be covered in the module. A post-test is also given as a summative exercise for users to judge what they have learnt from the module.

5 Emphasizes time on task - This principle is met because each module is self-contained and states the time it should take a student to complete it in full - usually 1 to 3 hours. All the modules are divided into units which also give an indication of the likely time involved to finish each. However, the time taken varies widely between individuals. Tutors can easily use units or parts of units in their classes and students can easily move from one unit to another. A 'concept map' is included in each module which can be accessed by users from each screen and reminds students where they are within the structure of the module.

6 Communicates high expectations - The GeographyCal materials are designed as introductory materials which do not make assumptions of previous knowledge. The first few screens of most of the modules are straightforward and are designed to give the student encouragement. Later screens and units in many modules are designed to stretch the students and take them on to the next stage. However, expectations are usually best set by the tutor and may be fairly routine or stretching depending on the nature of the exercise set and what purpose is specified by the tutor for using the CAL module. Thus the same module may be used for different purposes at different levels.

7 Respects diverse talents and ways of learning - This is met to the extent that the modules may be used flexibly by students and tutors. Teaching strategies need to recognise the variety of students by allowing for a variety of teaching and learning methods. The GeographyCal modules provide opportunities for diversifying the learning experiences of students, but they need to be integrated with other teaching methods. With CAL students are empowered to go at their own pace, and to repeat or miss out elements as they wish. Allowance for the range of backgrounds of different students is made in some of the modules by later units being pitched at progressively higher levels. Most of the modules have a glossary of all the terms and concepts highlighted in the text. For example, Figure 4 shows a screen shot from the glossary of the 'Biogeography and Ecology' module with a definition of 'climax community'. A reference list for further reading is also provided on some modules at a click of a button.

A key theme which runs through the seven principles of good educational practice and the way in which GeographyCal can meet them is that the role of tutors needs to shift from the traditional one of being providers of knowledge to being one of facilitators of learning. This is a challenge because it shifts power away from staff to students.


In conclusion, the GeographyCal modules provide an opportunity for promoting good educational practice. This is enhanced by:

This opportunity will only be realised fully though if the modules are carefully integrated into courses and placed explicitly into the context of the course aims and learning objectives. For GeographyCal to promote good educational practice it will depend on tutors making effective use of it for the benefit of their students. However, in the medium to long run the future of GeographyCal will depend on its ability to become self-funding, because, as Shepherd (1996) points out, courseware differs little from textbooks: they both have a relatively short shelf life. This means that developers must adopt a continuous cycle of revision and/or replacement.


GAMSON, A.W. and CHICKERING, Z.F., 1987: Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education, AAHE Bulletin 39 (7), 3-7. Return to text

GAMSON, A.W. and CHICKERING, Z.F. (eds), 1991: Applying the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. Josey-Bass, San Francisco. Return to text

HATFIELD, S.R. (ed), 1995: The seven principles in action. Anker Publishing, Bolton, MA. Return to text

HEALEY, M., ROBINSON, G., and CASTLEFORD, J. 1996: Innovation in geography teaching in higher education: developing the potential for computer-assisted learning, 28th International Geographical Congress, Commission on Geographical Education, Innovation in Geographical Education: Proceedings, Centrum voor Educatieve Geografie Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam 199-203. Return to text

SHEPHERD, I.D.H. 1992: An annotated bibliography of computer assisted learning. CTI Centre for Geography, Geology and Meteorology, Leicester. Return to text

SHEPHERD, I.D.H. 1996: Implementing computer assisted learning, paper presented to the GeographyCal National Launch, Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) 2-3 May. Return to text

UNWIN, D., 1991: Using computers to help students learn: computer assisted learning in geography. Area, 23(1): 25-34. Return to text


The GeographyCal project is funded under the Teaching and Technology Learning Programme by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland. Geoff Robinson also acknowledges the Department of Geography, University of Leicester in assisting his participation in the Conference.


Human Geography: Physical Geography:
International economic change Catchment systems (double)
Planning and development in the urban-rural fringe Quaternary environmental change
International inequalities Simulating slope development
Regional economic change Biogeography and ecology
Environmental hazards Weather and air quality
Social change at an international scale Global tectonics
Geographical Techniques:
Social survey design GIS: Introductions and applications
Making sense of information House hunting game
Map design

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1 Encourages student-faculty contact
2 Encourages cooperation among students
3 Encourages active learning
4 Gives prompt feedback
5 Emphasizes time on task
6 Communicates high expectations
7 Respects diverse talents and ways of learning
Gamzon & Chickering (1987) Return to text


List of Figures

Figure 1 Research design learning objectives from the Social Survey module

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Figure 2 The relationship between infant mortality and GDP per capita from the International Inequality module

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Figure 3 Hydrograph simulation for different land uses from the Catchment Systems module

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Figure 4 An extract from the glossary of the Biogeography and Ecology module

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