Virtual Classrooms

Penn State offers a variety of online geospatial courses


With a growing demand for geospatial professionals and the consistent advancement of technology, online programs are emerging as a popular option for geospatial students. Pennsylvania State University is one of the first and few universities in the country to provide a variety of certificates and graduate degrees in geospatial studies virtually.

“We started offering these online programs because we were responding to the growing need for geospatial professionals,” said Dr. Anthony Robinson, Penn State’s lead faculty for online geospatial education. “These online programs are a way of broadening our audience and creating options for people located beyond our campus.”

Penn State offers four online geospatial programs: a post-baccalaureate certificate in GEOINT applications, a graduate certificate in GEOINT analytics, a post-baccalaureate certificate in GIS, and a master of GIS degree. These programs are offered by the Department of Geography through the university’s John A. Dutton e-Education Institute within its College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Both the post-baccalaureate certificate in GEOINT applications and the graduate certificate in GEOINT analytics offer a USGIF Geospatial Intelligence Certificate upon completion. These programs became USGIF-accredited in 2007, and Penn State is among the eight universities that have achieved USGIF academic accreditation. Penn State was recently joined by George Mason University as the only other USGIF-accredited school to offer an online GEOINT course. The other six USGIF-accredited programs are University of Missouri, University of Texas at Dallas, University of Redlands, University of Utah, U.S. Air Force Academy, and U.S. Military Academy.

The online post-baccalaureate certificate in GEOINT applications consists of 11 academic credits for students with little to no prior knowledge of GEOINT, preparing them for a career as a geospatial intelligence or imagery analyst. The online graduate certificate in GEOINT analytics is a 13-credit program for advanced GEOINT professionals looking to expand their knowledge in topics such as national security, disaster response, environmental resource preservation, and business. Dr. Todd Bacastow, professor of practice for geospatial intelligence, leads these programs.

“This year we have seen many more students enrolling in the post-baccalaureate certificate in geospatial intelligence applications, which shows more students around the world are expressing interest in GEOINT,” Bacastow said. “Offering these certificates online is a great way for us to deliver GEOINT education to our students.”

In total, more than 5,000 students have participated in all four of Penn State’s online geospatial science programs, and around 2,500 of those students have already completed the programs.

Vanessa Damato, an analyst with DigitalGlobe, received a graduate certificate in GEOINT analytics in 2009 and a master of GIS in 2012.

“I had a very positive experience in both programs,” Damato said. “This curriculum gives you the latest and greatest options. It really builds the foundation and enhanced my technical skills, and helped conceptually strengthen my knowledge.”

Nick Wiley, founder and president of VisiTime, adds that completing the online post-baccalaureate certificate in GIS in 2012 increased his geospatial skill set and benefited his business, an augmented reality touring service.

“I’m definitely proud of my experience with the certificate program,” Wiley said. “The more you learn about mapping, the more you learn about its applicability and use in the real world.”

Penn State has continued to enhance its geospatial science offerings with the launch of its first massive open online course (MOOC), called Maps and the Geospatial Revolution. The five-week MOOC began in July 2013 and taught participants how to make maps and analyze geographic patterns.

“The MOOC was a way of expanding awareness of what we do and getting people to participate without being required to come to campus or pay tuition,” Robinson said. “We had all walks of life enroll in the MOOC, such as people with an interest in geography, retired individuals, and those who lived outside the United States.”

Approximately 48,000 people from more than 150 countries enrolled in the MOOC. Because the course had such a high number of participants and received positive feedback, it will be offered again starting April 30, 2014.

“We’re using MOOCs to create gateway experiences in this discipline, and targeting a baseline understanding of what we do,” Robinson said. “MOOCs offer a huge outreach strategy for us.”

Penn State’s geospatial sciences faculty expects the number of students participating in the online certificate programs to continue to increase, further contributing to a robust GEOINT workforce.


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