Distance Learning Graduate Degrees in Geography: Program Options

Dec 04, 2019

Essential Information

Online distance learning graduate degree programs in geography might be difficult to find. However, two master's degree programs related to geography, such as geographic information systems and geographic education, are available online.

Online master's-level degree programs in geographic information systems (GIS) are relatively hard to find, but available from a small number of schools. These programs may be designed for professionals in the field and require some in-field coursework, as well as access to specific GIS software. Master's degree programs in geographic education are available at several colleges and universities through fully online and hybrid formats. A final thesis might be required depending on the program. Some programs may require on-campus orientation or a final seminar as well.

Master of Science Degree in Geographic Information Systems

An online master's degree program in geographic information systems (GIS) prepares students to measure, record, manage and store geographic data using computer programs and databases. Appropriate preparation for careers in business and academia, the program covers subjects such as cartographic (map) design, GIS modeling and database design, geostatistics and project management.

Basic Information and Computer Requirements

An online GIS master's degree program usually requires in-field coursework plus some electives. These programs are sometimes designed for the working professional and might be completed on a part-time basis in about two years. Although some programs allow students to take more than one course per grading period, other programs may only allow students to take one course at a time.

Students usually need regular access to GIS software such as ArcGIS and ArcEditor. Depending on the class, other geography-specific software may be required. Standard office software for spreadsheets, word-processing and presentations are a common requirement. Plug-ins to run the school's course management software, play movies and read PDF documents are also usually needed.

Typical Course List in Geographic Information Systems

A course usually consists of readings, asynchronous discussions with professors and classmates, quizzes and assignments such as projects, exercises or papers. Communication may be through email, instant messaging or the school's online course management software. Some programs request that students post their projects for instructor and peer review.

Fundamentals of Geographic Information Systems

Students are introduced to GIS by learning about its basic principles, trends, background, development and future technology. Using GIS software, students study geographic properties, vector and raster data models and spatial data.

Cartographic Design

This course covers the design and technology used to create geographic output with GIS software. Subjects include different methods for visualizing and symbolizing spatial data as map elements. Hands-on exercises with the software helps students learn cartographic design requirements.

Developing GIS Databases

Using GIS software, students learn the process of collecting and storing geographic information in a geodatabase, working through user assessment, conception, database design, creation, data integration and maintenance. The basic structure of a geodatabase is covered, including feature classes, object classes, background, domains, relationship classes and topology.

Master of Advanced Study Degree in Geographic Education

Online master's degree programs in geographic education are designed for teachers who want to increase their knowledge and skill set in teaching geography. This program is also suitable for educational professionals who will design or administer geography education programs.

Basic Information and Computer Requirements

An online master's degree program in geographic education is usually composed of approximately 30 credits and might be completed in 12-18 months, depending on how many courses the student takes at one time. Some online degree programs for geographic education are completely online, while others may require students to be on-campus for a 1- or 2-day orientation, final thesis seminar or other required activity.

Students use course management software to watch lessons and presentations, check email and have online conversations. To accomplish this, students should have an up-to-date computer with Internet access and a recent version of a school-approved Web browser. Some plug-in software may be necessary to watch videos, listen to audio or open PDF files.

Typical Course List in Geographic Education

Students in an online master's degree program in geographic education often take classes across multiple disciplines, such as meteorology, astronomy and the geosciences. Core geography or geographic education classes usually take up about half of the required coursework, with the remaining coursework devoted to electives.

Teaching the Earth Sciences

This course covers advanced theories, trends and methods of teaching geography. Students also learn about the philosophy, sociology and history of geographic education as well as best practices and resources.

Geographic Information Systems for Teachers

This introductory class teaches students about geographic information technology, including cartography, map projections, global positioning and coordinate systems, as well as land, social and aerial surveys. Students learn now to perform basic GIS tasks, such as determining the appropriate geographic data suitable for the situation.

Plate Tectonics

Students learn about driving mechanisms, sea floor spreading, magma origins, earthquakes and continental drift. The tectonic history of our planet and the major events that shaped it are covered. Through virtual field trips and case studies, students study the transfer of energy and matter in Earth's landforms, soils, biogeography, climate and hydrology.

Geography for Teachers

These types of courses provide teachers with the information needed to teach geography. Subjects vary by class, and may include political geography, urban geography and world geography. Coursework may also cover the basics of cartography and teaching students how to create, read and analyze maps.

Final Project

Students learn how to research using both quantitative and qualitative methods, as well as finding and analyzing published material. Some schools assign students to work with a particular faculty member in generating and developing thesis ideas. After receiving approval for their thesis subject, students work independently on a subject of geography or geographic education to create either a final paper or a presentation.

Career Information

Geographic information systems are used to manage public utilities, natural resources and public works, as well as compile market research and assess environmental impact. Industries that hire GIS professionals include architecture, engineering, scientific higher education schooling and government organizations.

May 2018 salaries for geographers ranged from $50,720 for the lowest-earning 10% to $109,900 for the highest-earning 10%, according to the BLS. The BLS predicts that geographer job opportunities will increase by 3%, from 2018-2028, and says that geographers with GIS knowledge and skills can find job opportunities outside of the geography field (

High school teachers earned a median annual salary of $60,320. The BLS indicates that employment opportunities are expected to grow about 4% for these professionals from 2018-2028, which is as fast as the average growth. Job prospects are especially good for teachers with a math or science background, and those who teach special education and English as a second language.

Continuing Education Information

After obtaining a master's degree in geographic education, graduates can pursue a Doctor of Philosophy in Science Education degree. However, it may be difficult to locate online programs for this level of education.

For students interested in pursuing an online graduate degree in geography, there are two separate routes they can take depending on their career goals. A master's degree in GIS is for students interested in advanced careers as geographers, while a master's degree in geographic education can help geography teachers improve their instructional skills.

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