A Distance Education Approach at the University of Florida

Florida expands graduate geomatics teaching programs through distance education with their “on-book” and “off-book” non-thesis Master’s program.
By Hartwig H. Hochmair, Adam Benjamin, and Bon Dewitt
Over the past few years, geomatics programs at universities in the United States have faced decreasing student enrollment numbers with corresponding consequences. Some programs have struggled and subsequently closed, such as the University of Wisconsin, while other programs were restructured, such as the University of Maine and the University of Florida.

Increasing student enrollment is a continuous challenge for geomatics educational institutions in the United States, particularly in light of reduced state funding provided to academic programs as a result of the poor economic climate. One reason for low enrollment is the increasing cost of study, including tuition and housing. Another reason is that potential students are place-bound due to jobs and family.

This article outlines the innovative distance education approach taken at the University of Florida (UF) geomatics program that aims to reverse this negative trend and attract more students into geomatics educational areas. Master’s degrees in geographic information systems (GIS) are available at other universities, such as Penn State University World Campus, the University of Southern California, and Northwest Missouri State University. One can also find online GIS graduate certificate programs, e.g. the University of North Dakota, the University of West Florida, and Johns Hopkins University. However, these programs lack courses in advanced land surveying and mapping, which are also core areas of the geomatics profession.

Statewide Geomatics Teaching

Since 2007, the UF geomatics program has reached out to place-bound students in and outside Florida by taking advantage of innovative distance-education methods and continually expanding its course and program offerings. The UF geomatics program resides in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation on the main campus in Gainesville, Florida. UF geomatics has expanded to two UF satellite campuses, called Research and Education Centers, in 2007 (Plant City in southwest Florida near Tampa and Fort Lauderdale in southeast Florida near Miami), and to a third one in 2010 (Apopka in central Florida near Orlando).

Since this expansion, the program (both undergraduate and graduate) has been taught statewide. Distance-education technologies allow for both synchronous learning for full-time students and asynchronous learning through recorded lectures, discussion boards, and chat rooms for students with busy professional schedules.

In 2011, the on-book non-thesis MS degree in forest resources and conservation with a geomatics concentration was created. This is a purely course-based MS program without a thesis. This MS was established in response to demand for graduate education by place-bound professionals in Florida and the southeastern United States wanting to enhance their geospatial skills without undertaking a large research project such as a thesis.

All necessary courses are offered through online methods. On-book means that students need to be admitted to the program through the University Office of Admissions to obtain a degree. The students also need to be associated with one of the four campuses that offer the geomatics program. Thus far, most graduate students are Florida residents. Some students enroll from another state or a foreign country with financial support by research projects and teaching assistantships. For international students, this means traveling to the United States and obtaining a visa. Without an assistantship, out-of-state and international students need to pay the out-of-state fee, which is prohibitively high for many applicants. 

Self-funded Programs

While the on-book MS program satisfies the needs of in-state students, inquiries by prospective out-of-state and international graduate students indicated a demand for an online degree in geomatics by working professionals who live outside Florida.

This demand led to the establishment of the geomatics concentration for the non-thesis MS degree in forest resources and conservation as an off-book program with self-funded status in 2012. This off-book program has the following advantages:

  • students can earn their MS degrees from outside Florida, i.e., nationwide and internationally, without having to travel to Florida;
  • increased student access to geomatics program provides global leadership in the expanding field of geospatial science;
  • tuition rates are equivalent to in-state rates, which makes the MS degree affordable to out-of-state students; and
  • online courses have already been developed for statewide delivery; therefore, minimal changes were necessary to make the courses ready for off-book distance education delivery.

MS Program Structure

The MS degree concentration in geomatics requires a total of 30 credit hours with at least 15 credits from SUR-designated courses and the remaining credits from other online courses. The courses in the curriculum are fully developed online courses and have already been taught. Details on departmental course offerings are at http://distance.ufl.edu/geomatics.

The remaining 15 credits (about five courses) of the required total of 30 credits can be chosen from the remaining geomatics concentration courses, a list of elective courses in other departments (e.g. soil and water science, engineering), or other relevant online courses subject to departmental chair approval.

The off-book non-thesis MS degree with a concentration in geomatics has the same admission requirements as an on-book MS (thesis or non-thesis) degree including GRE score, proof of funds, etc.

Distance education brings valuable educational opportunities to professionals and has the potential to reverse the trend of decreasing student enrollment numbers in United States geomatics programs. The non-thesis master’s degree offering such as that implemented within the UF geomatics program reaches various groups of potential geomatics students, including full-time students and working professionals from a variety of geospatial disciplines. With the off-book option, this degree becomes available to students outside Florida at an economical cost.

Hartwig H. Hochmair, Adam Benjamin, and Bon Dewitt work with the geomatics program in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida.

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