Geography Department experiences growth

An increased number of graduate students. Less class cancellations. Changes in professors’ workloads. More diversity of students. 

These are all changes Marshall’s University’s Geography Department has seen over the last few years, and which professor and department chair James Leonard attributes to the department taking education beyond the classroom and going fully online with its bachelor’s, in the early 2010s, and its master’s, in 2018. 

The amount of graduate students in the Geography Department doubled between fall semester of 2017 and spring semester of 2019, according to data from Leonard and Marshall’s Office of Institutional Research and Planning’s. In fall 2017, eight students were enrolled in the MA/MS Geography degree program, according to Office of Institutional Research and Planning’s data. At the start of this semester, 16 students are enrolled in the program, Leonard said. This is the highest number of graduate students the department has seen since 2010, according to the data. 

“It’s kind of interesting,” Leonard said. “Right as the year was ending, 2018, I had a flood of emails saying ‘[I] want to get in your program’ [and] ’Can I apply and get accepted and start by January?’ And I mean flood for us, we’re a small department, a flood for us is like 10 applications, but there were maybe six, eight, 10 applications, I don’t know exactly, that got approved right at the end of last year, the beginning of this year so people could start in the program.”

The number of undergraduate students has also increased, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research and Planning and Leonard. This number, along with the total number of students majoring in Geography, is the highest since 2015, the Office of Institutional Research and Planning and Leonard’s data indicates. Additionally, of the department’s 57 geography majors, in spring 2019, 18 of the 41 undergraduate students are online, and 11 of the 16 graduate are online, Leonard said. 

The amount of online students has changed the workload of the professors within the department and how they teach, Leonard said. Part of this change in workload comes from the fact that the Geography Department has tried to avoid canceling classes, both online and in-person, in the past few years, by combining classes of online and in-person students, he said. 

“It does make more work for us, because it’s not quite as simple as walking into a classroom and giving a lecture,” Leonard said. “You walk in the classroom, and you’ve got to record it, you’ve got to have double the papers to grade, you have to put all your assignments in electronic format. A lot of classes, you may just give a verbal assignment, but it has to be written out and provided to every student then.”

Kevin Law, a professor who has worked in the Geography Department for 13 years, said he has changed the way he teaches because of online students as well.

“It [adapting to having online majors] just requires a little bit more planning and creativity whenever you do your lectures,” Law said. “I know I’ve created kind of a virtual lecture, so where I recorded myself and then uploaded those lectures that way students can watch those and kind of feel like they’re actually in the classroom.”

Both Leonard and Law said the Geography Department going online with its degrees has led to more diversity of students within the department and a larger number of students enrolled at the university. Leonard said he has been contacted by people both from outside of the tristate area and from outside of the country who were interested in the online majors and who the university may not have been able to reach without online programs. Marshall’s Geography Department has even been able to create “two plus two agreements” with other colleges where students can start a pathway to a BA by starting at a community college and finish at Marshall online, Leonard said. He said Marshall currently has four of these agreements: one with a college in California, two with colleges in Tennessee and one with a community college in West Virginia.

The online degrees also provide a convenient option for students who are working while in college, Law said.

“From what I hear from students, they definitely like just the way that they [online classes] are set up, and it’s just the convenience factor, that a lot of students actually work at the same time they’re going to school,” Law said. “So, whenever they’re able to enroll online, they’re able to kind of keep their work schedule. So, there’s definitely a convenience factor there. And I think, in today’s kind of economy, you have a lot of students in that situation, so I think that’s just a plus that we offer [them].”

Jesten Richardson can be contacted at [email protected]