COVID-19 Educator Advice: Opportunity to move to SAAS

Blog Post created by geri_miller-esristaff Employee on Mar 17, 2020

With COVID-19 causing colleges and universities to close doors for in-person courses, educators are seeking information on approaches to transition to a fully online classroom.


There are many challenges – providing access to technology in absence of the trusty physical classroom, providing licensing, adjusting our teaching style for the virtual classroom – all needing to be solved in a short timeframe!


Amidst of all the disruption, there is a tremendous opportunity ahead of us. While intimidating, this gives us an opportunity to re-invigorate our courses and to innovate.


Now is the time to identify and focus on your course's learning objectives and consider how ArcGIS Online (SaaS) instead of ArcGIS Pro or ArcMap (desktop GIS) will help you meet those objectives.  ArcGIS Online (and other apps) have minimal hardware requirements and run on Macs, tablets, and phones, making them more accessible than desktop GIS.  Web and mobile apps generally have a simpler user interface (fewer buttons and menus) that can be learned more quickly, keeping the focus on concepts and content.


Some more advanced objectives (most likely in advanced GIS course work) may still require desktop GIS; in these cases, consider a blend of SaaS and Desktop GIS.  ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Pro are designed to work together, so moving between the two is easy.  Starting with SaaS can buy additional time for you and/or your IT support staff to explore virtualization and remote access solutions for desktop GIS. That said, please consider moving your course activities to SaaS – ArcGIS Online and Apps – for which students only need an internet connection.  


A few items to think about:


  •      Desktop-only GIS is a thing of the past - for a while now, we have encouraged the use of SaaS technology such as ArcGIS Online and associated apps. Many educational institutions are highly leveraging apps like Story Maps, Survey123, Collector, among many others. These are now the starting point for geospatial technology in the classroom. And fortunately, there are many online learning resources to get us started quickly.


  •      The technology has grown immensely over the years - many capabilities are possible with ArcGIS Online and Apps. We can maintain our current learning objectives and map them to some of these newer online learning resources. Some examples:
  •      Symbology and Visualization –plenty of basic concepts can be covered with ArcGIS Online and apps such as Insights for ArcGIS.
  •      Spatial analysis –ArcGIS Online has fundamental capabilities for querying and summarizing data, calculating proximity, and overlaying layers.
  •      Field data collection workflows – there are many apps available to collect locations and attributes, such as Collector and Survey123.

Bottom line: Use some of these lessons and e-learning/web courses as a base, as opposed to re-writing your existing materials, then pose additional challenges for your students.


  •      Today’s students are fast learners - they have no problem with new technology and will welcome the opportunity to experiment. In addition, the SaaS technology and apps are easier to work with than desktop applications.


  •      This is a forgiving time – if something doesn’t work, that is OK. Students will be open/receptive in this time of disruptive change. We are not going to design a perfect online course in such a short timeframe, it is not realistic. We need to do what is practical and feasible.


Here are a few quotes from Higher Education colleagues that support the above.


  •      Clemson University: In our pilot to test moving a course to fully online, we limited instruction to ArcGIS Online. This is my advice if institutions haven’t virtualized yet, have little experience with it, and had to rush to move online, as students might not have the right computer/access/space) etc.


  •       NC State University: If our in-house virtual environment were to become overloaded for some reason and all else fails, we would look for ways to supplement our instruction with more ArcGIS Online examples where we can, particularly at the undergraduate level. 


  •      University of Minnesota: ArcGIS Online removes much of the stress associated with quickly moving my in-person courses to all online.