About Don Boyes

I specialize in teaching the theory and application of geographic information systems (GIS) to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Toronto. I currently teach about 200 unique students each year spread over five different GIS courses. I work with and advise students and faculty from a variety of disciplines on various aspects of GIS. I have a strong interest in the scholarship of teaching and pedagogical development. Our department is one of the oldest and largest geography departments in North America, with over 2,500 undergraduate and 200 graduate students enrolled in geography courses each term on the downtown (St. George) campus. The University of Toronto is Canada’s largest university, with over 75,000 students enrolled across three campuses.

I was recently contacted by someone asking for advice about developing and teaching an online GIS course.  What follows is based on what I wrote in my e-mail response.

I’m pretty new to this myself, having taught my first online GIS course last fall, but perhaps that’s a good thing, as the experience of going through the start-up process is still fresh in my mind.  I’m also getting ready to teach this same course again in a couple of weeks as an accelerated summer course and I have already started to adjust based on what I learned the first time around.

I could write an enormous amount on this, but will try to be brief for now and hopefully will expand on some of these topics in future posts. Here are just a few things that come to mind:

Give yourself plenty of time: Preparing an online course is extremely time-consuming (think in terms of hundreds of hours).  I had to plan everything much farther in advance than a regular, face-to-face course.  I was going through several learning curves at once, and it was just not possible to do things at the last minute (or if you do, it will be pretty stressful). You can visit sites like www.calc.edu/programs/ to get an idea of technology courses.

Start with course design, not technology:  I took a two-day Course Design/Redesign Institute at my university that was really helpful in getting a fresh perspective on what I was trying to do and why.  There was a big emphasis on starting with defining learning outcomes and then working backwards from there.  They used L. Dee Fink’s book Creating Significant Learning Experiences as a framework (references below).  I read it cover to cover and found it quite helpful. Coming up with useful learning outcomes, and ones that are in alignment with what you actually teach and assess, is not easy (as Diana Sinton touches on in her post Assessment of GIS Learning).

Another book I found to be really useful is E-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Clark and Mayer.  This gave me a good foundation for general e-learning principles – what has been shown to work, and what doesn’t.  I’m currently reading E-Learning by Design by Horton, which is also useful.  These three books represent separate but equally important dimensions: Fink for course design, regardless of whether it’s online or not; Clark and Mayer for understanding how people learn online; Horton for options on current e-learning tools and best practices.

Have a technology strategy: If you teach GIS, you’re probably pretty good with technology.  One thing that will come up though, is how much you want to do yourself, and how much you want to try and rely on others.  I got great advice about course design and technology options from our amazing University of Toronto instructional technology staff, but when it came to actual implementation, I wanted to do everything myself.  Some colleagues of mine prefer to let someone else worry about the technology.  For example, they have someone else set up their recording sessions for their lecture podcasts, and the instructor just comes in and works through their slides.  They’re not interested in learning about the technology, and that’s fine, but I like understanding how each part works and what my options are.  This requires working through many time-consuming learning curves, so it’s important to be strategic about this.  I have written before about how teaching online requires a diverse skill set, and it’s worth thinking about your own strengths and weaknesses, and what you have time to develop in terms of new skills and knowledge areas.


Clark, Ruth Colvin, and Richard E. Mayer. 2011. e-Learning and the Science of Instruction; Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning. 3rd ed. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Fink, L. Dee. 2003. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint.

Fink, L. Dee. 2007. “The Power of Course Design to Increase Student Engagement and Learning.pdf.” Peer Review (Winter): 13–17.

Simultaneously published at donboyes.com

Students learn how to design, manage, and complete a research project that emphasizes the use of a geographic information system (GIS).  Students work in groups of four to six.  Groups agree with the instructor on a suitable problem and then solve it by acquiring, organizing, and analyzing data using a GIS.  Projects must include a substantive analytical component where GIS is central to the methods used.

This is a capstone course for students who have already taken 3-5 courses in GIS, remote sensing, and cartography.  There were 19 students in the course.

This course builds on GGR272 (Geographic Information and Mapping I) and continues the examination of the major theoretical and analytical components of a geographic information system and spatial analysis.  Some topics from GGR272 are discussed in more depth and new topics are introduced.  The lectures discuss underlying theory and its implementation in GIS software.  The assignments give students the opportunity to learn for themselves how to put that theory into practice, gaining more hands-on experience with the software.

This is a face-to-face course, but I also allowed students to watch, listen, and ask questions via live webinar.  Students could access the webinar using a desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone, and see whatever was shown on screen in class, and hear me speaking.  Students asked questions and conversed with each other through a chat window.  These webinars were recorded so that students could access them later.  There were 92 students enrolled in the course.

This course is an introduction to digital mapping and spatial analysis using a geographic information system (GIS).  Students learn how to create their own maps and how to use a GIS to analyze geographic problems using methods that can be applied to a wide variety of subject areas within geography and in other disciplines.  In the lectures, we discuss mapping and analysis concepts and how they can be applied using GIS software.  In the assignments, students then learn how to use the software.

This is an introductory GIS course for students intending to take a GIS minor, as well as for students who need a methods course for their major. There were 169 students in the course.