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Teaching Geographic Information Science concepts with QGIS and the Living Textbook - towads a sustainable and inclusive Distance Education

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Teaching Geographic Information Science concepts with QGIS and the Living Textbook - towads a sustainable and inclusive Distance Education
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Release Date2023

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In recent years, the need for distance education solutions has been a point of attention for the Faculty ITC of the University of Twente (The Netherlands). Starting in 2017, a fully online program spread over nine months offered an alternative path to start an MSc in Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation. As using proprietary software is more difficult in distance courses, the focus shifted towards open-source alternatives. The experience and lessons learned came to their full potential when, in 2020, many students could not travel due to the travel restrictions imposed by the COVID pandemic. In response, ITC offered the fully online course Principles and Applications of Geographic Information Systems and Earth Observation as the first quartile of what is supposed to be a fully presential MSc Program. The course was developed around four fundamental principles: (1) The course was exercise led; (2) Every concept taught should be demonstrated and operationalized; (3) The number of different software tools should be minimized; (4) The software tools should be inclusive and encourage technological independence. Two Open-Source tools were selected: The Living Textbook a digital textbook developed and maintained by us [1], and QGIS to operationalize the concepts. For synchronous communication and iteration, Big Blue Button Conferences were integrated into the Learning Management System environment and organized according to time zones to serve a student population spread across eight time zones. After running the course, the impact of the new set-up on students (satisfaction and performance) and staff (attitude towards open source tools and open courseware) was evaluated. Additionally, we also evaluated the impact of the course in strengthening the wider Open Science initiative. Results show that for students, both satisfaction levels and attainment levels of the course’s learning outcomes were high. For the teachers, the feedback was generally positive, highlighting the importance of using flexible and inclusive tools. The courseware developed for the course is now offered to the Open Science community as open courseware [2] . It is the basis of having the Faculty recognized as a QGIS Certified Organization, thus strengthening the relationship between academia and FOSS4GIS, particularly QGIS. Internally, this experience brought essential insights into successful online course design. These include but are not limited to (A) consistency – the tools and support materials of the course should remain the same during the course; and (B) accessibility – the tools used should not have any accessibility barrier, especially when it comes to licenses, but also when it comes to imposing operating system platforms or assuming file format preferences. Important results include changing the teaching staff attitude towards a more aware and confident use of FOSS4GIS. That change resulted in new paradigm shift faculty-wide paradigm where FOSS4GIS is now the primary choice for teaching. Finally, on a larger plane, the commitment of ITC to the Open Science agenda has, in its compromise to adopt and contribute to the development of Open Source Software, an essential element of the Open Science agenda.