Online Geospatial Education: Introduction to Remote Sensing

Sara Hanna

Department of Forestry and Wildland Resources

Humboldt State University

Course Name & Description: GSP 216: Introduction to Remote Sensing - Introductory course in remote sensing focusing on broad topics pertaining to nature of radiation, aerial photography and interpretation, multispectral scanners, and image data and processing.

Project Abstract: GSP 216: Introduction to Remote Sensing is a core course in the geospatial science curriculum at Humboldt State University. There has been an increasing demand for geospatial science courses and capacity is currently limited by the availability of lab space on campus. The goal of this project is to create online content and virtual labs for a fully online, asynchronous version of GSP 216. This project is part of an ultimate goal of creating a fully online suite of geospatial courses at Humboldt State University. A significant amount of the online course material will be open content. This will allow students in the face-to-face course to access the online material as well as students not enrolled in the course. This will benefit all students as they will have constant access to online lessons, activities and learning exercises.

Keywords/Tags:Online, Open Content, Virtual Labs, Interactive Content

Instructional Delivery: Online

Pedagogical Approaches: Virtual Labs, Videos, Open Content, Interactive Content

Class Size: 48 Students

About the Course Redesign

Stage 1

Background on the Redesign

Why Redesign the Course?

  • Geospatial science courses at HSU have been increasing in demand and over the past year GSP 216 has quickly filled to capacity each semester. This course has traditionally been part of the forestry curriculum and for many years was offered as "Forest Remote Sensing & Geographic Information Systems". In 2010 the Humboldt State University Geospatial Task Force was formed to coordinate and improve the geospatial curriculum. The goal was to develop an effective series of geospatial courses that would serve students across multiple programs. In 2013 the course was renamed "Introduction to Remote Sensing" and offered as GSP 216. In addition to being part of the core geospatial curriculum, the course also serves many other disciplines and is part of the Forestry, Rangeland Resources and Environmental Science curriculum.
  • Capacity in GSP 216 has been limited by lab space on campus. Offering a fully online version of the course will allow us to increase the seat capacity to better serve the student demand and reduce bottlenecks.
  • This course will be redesigned into an 8-week, fully online asynchronous course. This will allow students more flexibility in their schedule and help alleviate potential course conflicts.

How Will the "Redesign" Lead to Better Learning?

  • An online version of this course would increase accessibility and convenience by providing students with 24/7 access to labs and online course content.
  • Labs are an essential component of this course and provide students with a hands on learning experience. Having the lab content online will give students the ability to review, pause and return to content as when needed, making the learning process more customizable to each student.
  • The online content will provide frequent, hands-on activities that reinforce key concepts in the course. The labs and activities will also provide student with frequent feedback to assess their learning.
  • Online course material will be open content and available to all students. Students will be able to review concepts, access interactive learning exercises and lab material at their own convenience.

About the Students and Instructor

Stage 2

About the Students

  • Due to the interdisciplinary nature of geospatial science, GSP 216 serves a wide variety of majors. In addition to being part of the geospatial minor and certificate program, the course also serves many other disciplines and is part of the Forestry, Rangeland Resources and Environmental Science curriculum. In 2014-2015 the common most majors enrolled in GSP 216 were Forestry, Environmental Science/Management, Wildlife and Geography.
  • While this is a 200 level course, over the past year the majority of students enrolled in the course have been Seniors. This is most likely due to the fact that the course fills quickly and most lower division students are not able to enroll.
  • In 2014-2015 the DFW rate for the course was 12%.
  • The class size is typically 48 students, with two lab sections of 24 students. For the first fully online offering class size will be limited to 24.

Course Learning Outcomes/Objectives

The overall goal of this introductory course in remote sensing is to gain an understanding of some of the fundamental concepts of remote sensing. After completing GSP 216 students should be able to:

  • Understand and explain the nature of electromagnetic radiation and the uses of this radiation in remote sensing systems.
  • Understand the basic characteristics of different remote sensing system, particularly aerial photography (black and white, color, infrared, and color infrared), multispectral scanners, thermal, and other systems including Radar, and LiDAR systems.
  • Characterize remotely sensed data, including spatial, spectral, radiometric and temporal resolutions.
  • Select and acquire appropriate remote sensed data for a variety of applications.
  • Understand image processing and analysis techniques and apply these techniques using computer software (ENVI and ArcGIS).
  • Understand the importance of ground truth data and use of field data (ground truth data) for accuracy assessment.
  • Use remote sensing techniques to analyze real-world issues and produce professional style reports.

GSP 216 Syllabus (Before Redesign)

GSP 216 Syllabus (After Redesign)

Advice for Students

  • Students will be advised to prepare for the course by installing all necessary software the week before the course begins. We are developing a detailed website that will provide students with the technical requirements for the course and software installation information. This will allow time to resolve technical issues before the class begins.
  • Students will be reminded the importance of keeping up to date with the assignments, particularly since this is a shortened 8-week course.

Accessibility, Affordability, and Diversity


Content will be provided via a website developed for the course and the learning management system, Moodle. The online content will be a mix of text, images, videos, and interactive tools and activities. All content will meet CSU accessibility standards and videos produced for the course will be captioned.

GSP 216 Course Website


This course does not require a textbook and all of the online content is free and/or open source. Students enrolled in the course will receive a student license for ArcGIS at no cost. Funding from the Course Redesign grant was used to purchase students licenses for the remote sensing software, ENVI. Students may need to purchase a student license for the ENVI/IDL software at a cost of approximately $150. All other software and technology used in the course is free.


The flexibility of a fully online course will accommodate a wide variety of students, including those with work schedules, family obligations, class conflicts and those who may live the surrounding remote rural communities.

About Me

Sara Hanna, Department of Forestry and Wildland Resources

I am a lecturer in the Department of Forestry and Wildland Resources at Humboldt State University. I currently teach GSP 216: Introduction to Remote Sensing as a traditional face-to-face class and am looking forward to developing it as a fully online class. GSP 216 is a core component of the Geospatial program, which is an interdisciplinary program with courses offered through the departments of Environmental Science & Management, Forestry, and Geography. My academic background is in environmental science and natural resources and my research interests are wide ranging but are generally focused in ecology. In addition to traditional field based ecological work, I am extremely interested in interdisciplinary research approaches using geospatial analysis techniques.

Redesign Planning

Stage 3

Implementing the Redesigned Course

  • The course was redesigned from a traditional 16-week, face-to-face course to an 8 week, asynchronous fully online course. This included all lecture material and activities as well as weekly lab exercises.
  • The course content was delivered through web pages. Quizzes and assignments were turned in using a Learning Management System (Moodle).

GSP 216 - Introduction to Remote Sensing Website

  • The course web page presents weekly learning which consist of mixed media, including text, short videos, animations, diagrams and interactive tools. Two learning modules were presented each week with a lab exercises accompanying most learning modules.

View Example Lesson Page »

  • The lab exercises re-enforced the concepts learned in the weekly modules and allowed students to apply their knowledge with the software. Students received licenses for ArcGIS and ENVI to install on their home computer. Students also had access to on-campus computer labs with the software. The labs guided students through real-world geospatial applications and prepared them to complete their final project for the class.

View Example Lab »


  • Web pages and graphics were created using Adobe Dreamweaver and Photoshop. Additional interactive tools were created using HTML5 and javascript.
  • Camtasia was used to create a variety of videos and animations for the course. Videos include lecture material and step-by-step software demonstrations for the lab. Animated GIFs were also created to show quick step-by-step instructions. Below is an example of a short animation that was created to show students how to use formulas in Microsoft Excel.
  • Moodle was used to administer quizzes, turn in assignments and complete all grading for the course.
  • Students received licenses and installation instructions for ArcGIS and ENVI to install on their home computer.

Professional Development

  • Throughout the course redesign process I meet regularly with Instructional Designers at Humboldt State University to review the course.
  • I also attended regular online Professional Learning Community meetings and Virtual Lab meetings. The meetings covered a variety of topics related to the redesign including flipped/blended course models, virtual labs and assessing the effectiveness of the redesign. The meetings also provided me with the opportunity to see how other faculty in different disciplines have attempted course redesigns.

Redesign Results

Stage 4

Results & Findings

Course Redesign Impact on Teaching and Learning

  • Many student expressed that they appreciated the online option, as they were unable to take the regular face-to-face course due conflicts with their schedules. The online course allowed students more flexibility in their school and work schedules. For several students the fully online course helped them graduate in a timely fashion, when they may have been otherwise forced to stay an additional semester to take the course. The online course also allowed for increased enrollment without the need to schedule additional physical lab space and time.
  • Students demonstrated their mastery in their final projects. Students completed individual projects where they to select a unique topic and complete a geospatial analysis and professional report. The final projects require students internalize concepts and apply the knowledge they have learned throughout the semester. The final project were high quality and the grades did not differ significantly from the face-to-face course.

View Excerpt of a Final Project »

Assessment Findings

  • Overall student performance in the online course was very similar to the face-to-face course. A comparison of the grade distributions is presented below.
  • The DFW rate for the online course was 17%, which was slightly higher than the 12% average for the face-to-face class in 2014-2015. The students who failed the course quit participating in the course relatively early in the semester and didn’t complete over 75% of the assignments.

Student Feedback

Feedback from students was generally positive. Many students expressed that they like the asynchronous online format because it allowed them to fit the course into their schedule when it otherwise wouldn't have been possible. Students enjoyed the labs and the final project. The lab exercises and final projects engaged students and provided hands-on experience. Students selected their own individual topic for their final project and applied the geospatial skills they learned throughout the semester.

"I really felt engaged in the course for the final project. I felt like I was doing something applicable and possibly important to someone else."

The students were challenged by the material and some students expressed difficulty with the accelerated rate of the material. Many students indicated that they would have preferred a 16-week online course.

"This class was fantastic! Fast passed, difficult to keep up, but one of the more challenging classes (in a good way) that I have taken at HSU."

Lessons Learned & Tips

Teaching Tips

  • Encouraging communication between the students and the instructor was crucial. Students who participated in discussions and maintained regular communication with the instructor were the most engaged and performed well.

Course Redesign Obstacles

  • Software installation and licensing was a large obstacle. While many students had little difficulty installing the software some of the students that struggled and/or quit completing assignments had difficulties installing the software. This took a significant amount of instructor time to troubleshoot and was a frustrating process for both students and the instructor.
  • The quiz functionality of Moodle was problematic, with students experiencing many errors and time-outs while taking the quiz. This was stressful for many students and created a significant amount of extra work for the instructor.

"The quizzes were miserable. Not the teachers fault, but the program created through moodle was full of errors. It made me so frustrated that I didn't care if I passed/failed the quiz."

Strategies I Used to Increase Engagement

  • I emailed students on a weekly basis reminding them of the week's assignments and to encourage an open line of communication. I also encouraged students to come by my office hours so we could meet in person and discuss their questions and project ideas. Many students expressed that they really appreciated this time,
  • There were frequent lab assignments where students had to apply the concepts learned in the weekly lessons. Students received frequent feedback on their assignments. I also made a point of replying to student emails in a timely fashion to provide them assistance and feedback.

"Talking with Sara helped me to better understand the material. She was ALWAYS available even outside her office hours. Very quick response time on emails."

Instructor Reflection

Overall teaching this course was an enjoyable process, albeit time consuming. I spent a significant amount of time dealing with software licensing and installation issues. While most students remained engaged in the materials and assignments, those who didn't were difficult to reach. I contacted some students several times to ask if they were having issues or needed assistance but didn't receive any response. This made it difficult to gauge with issues the students were having. For many students I spoke with they indicated that the 8-week accelerated course was hard to keep up with, particularly since most were enrolled in a full course load. After talking with students and receiving feedback I would consider holding an in-person orientation the first week of class to introduce the material and review the software installation process. It might also be beneficial to organize informal, in-person study sessions lead by myself or a teaching assistant.