Perspectives on Teaching Geography Through Information and Communication Technology

Robert Bednarz (Texas A&M University, USA), David Rich (Macquarie University, Australia) and Geoffrey Robinson (University of Leicester, UK)

1   Geography Teaching and ICT
1.1   Uses
1.2   Potential Benefits
1.3   Issues
2   Inter-institutional Collaboration in ICT-based Geography Teaching
2.1   What Does Collaboration Involve?
2.2   Potential Benefits
2.3   Issues
3   Towards International Collaboration
3.1   What Might International Collaboration Involve?
3.2   Potential Benefits
3.3   Issues
4   Reflections and Questions
5   References

This contribution explores some of the experiences of and issues arising in the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in Geography teaching. It is important not to conflate the use of ICT with inter-institutional collaboration in teaching (whether or not that collaboration is international): the two can and do occur independently of one another. However, the use of ICT can profoundly alter teaching and learning, and can likewise raise new opportunities and issues in collaboration.

The discussion first provides a sketch of uses of ICT in teaching and learning, summarises the potential benefits and canvasses issues that need to be considered. The second section considers inter-institutional collaboration in ICT-based teaching, again reviewing potential benefits and issues. Next, it considers what additional benefits and problems there might be in extending such collaboration to the international level. Finally, the contribution ends by posing some challenging questions about the extent of our knowledge of the impact of ICT on student learning. While our intention is to illuminate the specific case of Geography, discussion attempts to draw on experiences from other disciplines where relevant: discipline-based collaborative networks are potentially very valuable, but we need to be wary of being confined by them.


1  Geography Teaching and ICT

1.1  Uses

There is a long history of using computers to assist teaching in Geography as in other disciplines, but over the last decade there has been an explosive growth in the range, sophistication, penetration rate and potential implications. This is partly due to the rapid rise in computer power and fall in computing costs and particularly since the rapid emergence of the Internet. It is salutary to note that the World-Wide Web became readily accessible only from 1993 after the appearance of Mosaic, the first big browser, rapidly followed by the transmission of pictures and the founding of Netscape. Some, at least, argue that ICT in general and the Web in particular raise the possibility of fundamentally changing teaching and learning across higher education (e.g. Rich et al, 1997), although so far the impacts are extremely uneven. A challenging task remains to ensure that the technological tail of increasing capacity does not wag the dog of educational need and good pedagogy (Castleford, 1998).

Already, though, there is a wide range of uses, and more are being explored. The Internet can be used by staff to support efficient course administration (e.g., there are many useful tools in delivery platforms such as WebCT) and to assist students to manage their learning. It can assist in achieving many features of flexible delivery, including student choice in the time, place and pace of study. While often-important motivations, these dimensions are not explored further. Instead, we emphasise the use of the Internet to support a variety of teaching and learning tasks, including:

  1. Distributing information that could be conveyed in other ways: e.g., a course syllabus is available electronically instead of on paper, or photos appear on a website instead of being shown in class;

  2. Giving access to information storehouses: e.g., the Internet can be used as an online library giving access to information sources and databases. (The CTIGGM website has a GeoInformation Gateway that links to many useful sources - see also CTIGGM, 1999. A US site Electronic Resources for Geography is another frequently updated large set of categorised resources about geography);

  3. Providing alternative means of communication (e.g., email, bulletin boards, chat rooms, desktop videoconferencing) for both administrative and instructional purposes;

  4. Delivering formative and summative assessment tasks: this is a rapidly growing field in the UK. (The commercial product QuestionMark has wide usage, being the chosen package in perhaps two-thirds of all those Higher Education Institutions that are using Computer Aided Assessment. Developed primarily as a Windows-based version, their relatively new product Perception is Web based. Many non-commercial development projects have received central funding: e.g. Castle whose struggle to advance its generic package to the functional level of the commercial product exemplifies the cost and effectiveness issues faced when adopting a particular suite of software; others have been custom made for particular disciplines, e.g. the multi-institutional Triads project, largely devoted to the Earth Sciences);

  5. Supporting online course and staff evaluation exercises;

  6. Delivering materials in multiple media that would be difficult to transmit by other means: e.g., a text explanation can be supplemented with pictures, sounds, video clips, links to other sites, simulations. (CD-ROMs are widely used for storing and distributing large data sets of numerical, graphical or cartographic information: for example, Wilson et al's (1993) AusWatch which provides satellite imagery and other data to assist the study of landcover change);

  7. Giving students active, hands-on, interactive experience in analysing information or solving problems: e.g., a student acquires data, processes it, makes a map, and develops a presentation. (An excellent example, available on CD-ROM, is Exploring the Nardoo (University of Wollongong, 1996), a virtual inland river environment where research questions can be explored and environmental management strategies simulated);

  8. Allowing students to work collaboratively (e.g., students at different universities work on a common research problem). A well-developed example is the 'Middle East Politics Simulation' developed at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, wherein students participate in role-playing exercises conducted using the Internet or by videoconferencing. Groups of Political Science students in Australia, New Zealand and the United States play the role of prominent leaders in the Middle East, USA or Europe, attempting to resolve a specific political, social, economic or environmental issue, after carrying out research to identify the background, interests and agenda of their particular character. In other cases, the simulation has been modified to involve scenario building between groups of Political and Environmental Science students, for example in exploring conflicts over water allocation in the Middle East. For discussions, see Alexander & Blight (1996, pp. 23-26); Alexander et al (1998).

Broadly, the Internet has been used most commonly for tasks 1 and 2, although there are numerous examples of types 3, 4 and 5. The real challenge is to undertake tasks 6, 7 and 8 effectively, so that the real potential of the technology may be exploited.

1.2  Potential Benefits

1.3  Issues

Increased use of ICT in teaching and learning also raises a wide variety of issues - technical, pedagogic, industrial, financial and strategic. For example:


2  Inter-institutional Collaboration in ICT-based Geography Teaching

2.1  What Does Collaboration Involve?

There is a range of possibilities, including:

2.2  Potential Benefits

There are many reasons for developing inter-institutional collaboration in teaching and learning, and many potential benefits. These include:

2.3  Issues


3  Towards International Collaboration

3.1  What Might International Collaboration Involve?

Many of the potential forms of and mechanisms to achieve collaboration remain the same whether it occurs internationally or within national boundaries, although some of the impediments may be more substantial and the issues arising more complex. In an international context, some modes of collaboration do appear to be especially attractive:

3.2  Potential Benefits

The greatest benefits of international collaboration appear to lie in two broad areas:

3.3  Issues

Many of the issues to be confronted parallel those raised in domestic cooperation. However, there are some additional matters, or new twists, to be considered:


4  Reflections and Questions

Internet Discussion Comments

Perhaps the most important reflections concern the general paucity of educational and pedagogical underpinnings of the developments made in the use of ICT to teach Geography.

There are any number of evaluations of using ICT in learning situations (e.g. Castleford & Robinson, 1998) and the MCLI site provides more than 675 (and growing) generic examples of teaching and learning on the web. But, just like itself, the Internet's use in teaching and learning is anarchic and informed by very little in the way of pedagogic guidelines based on research into its effectiveness:



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