The OU centre for STEM pedagogy
Geospatial technologies (that underpin services such as Google Earth™, ArcGIS™, remote sensing and GPS) can be used to help students grasp difficult or threshold concepts, such as 3D visualisation, and improve their spatial thinking skills, or ‘spatial literacy’. These technologies are mostly fairly new to OU teaching, but have the potential to enhance the student experience, particularly for distributed students who can share geolocated data, images and representations online.
Spatial literacy and GIS techniques are skills that are very much in demand from a wide range of employers and need to be enhanced in a modern environmental and geoscience curriculum. In this project, we developed a ‘Geology Photo Blog’ tool, based around a Google Maps™ interface, to enable OU geology students and tutors to share pictures related to their studies and encourage discussion. Each posted picture was linked to its location on the map, and accompanied by a brief description. Other students and staff could post comments on these images on the blog page, generating discussion. This tool was developed for S276 Geology, and finally embedded in the replacement, 60 credit module S209 Earth science.
A parallel strand to the project analysed the experience of a 6-week ‘Remote observation’ topic in the Practical science module, S288. This topic required the students to use an open-source GIS software application to pursue practical investigations from very diverse science disciplines. The bulk of the analysis was conducted by collating data from the intense online forums that supported the students during the 6-week topic, across three presentations (2012B, 2013B, 2014B).
Perhaps the primary finding of this project was the value of peer support in distance learning communities, and the various strategies for promoting and encouraging this. In the current (2015) trend towards more fully online modules, peer support is a very valuable asset not just for students, but also for the module teams designing online materials.