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E-valuating e-learning

University experts gauge the future of technology-integrated teaching
September 19, 2013
By Shaimaa El-Ghazaly

“Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn.” Winston Churchill wrote of his educational experience in 1930. Yet more than eight decades later, the former British prime minister’s words remain as relevant as ever.

Today’s students — immersed as they are in the information age — pose new challenges for educators. The key to keeping them absorbed may lie in assimilating new classroom technologies and digital platforms with more traditional methods.

As Concordia President Alan Shepard said in his installation speech in October 2012, “Universities that hope to thrive in the 21st century will want to engage with new technology for teaching and learning in the same serious way we have long embraced technology for research and creative expression.”

Anne Wade and Joanne Locke Anne Wade (left) is manager and information specialist at Concordia’s Centre for the study of learning and performance, and Joanne Locke is interim dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science. Enrolment for their online course doubled after they removed its limit.

That sentiment was embodied by a major conference hosted by Concordia last spring called e.SCAPE: Knowledge, Teaching, Technology.

Through various workshops, lectures and demonstrations, e.SCAPE explored new approaches to instruction and trends in higher education, and covered everything from developing an online course to using blended learning techniques to incorporating video games to keep students engrossed. The conference was in line with Concordia’s 2012-2016 Academic Plan, which prioritizes the creation of innovative and dynamic offerings in the undergraduate curriculum.

“Technology is making us rethink pedagogy,” says Ollivier Dyens, BFA 86, Concordia’s former vice-provost of Teaching and Learning, who headed the conference’s programming committee. “There’s no doubt that it adds a dynamic element to the learning process.”

Still, Saul Carliner, an associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Education and e-learning fellow for the Centre for Teaching and Learning Services, insists discussions around e-learning should focus on keeping pedagogy first in mind and technology second.

“We’re trying to give people a sense of what they can do with technology and teaching, while at the same time use that as a means of having a broader conversation about injecting innovation and creativity into our general pedagogy, whether it’s technology based or more traditional,” says Carliner, who also participated at e.SCAPE.

While Carliner and Dyens prefer the term “technology-integrated teaching,” e-learning is still widely used to refer to educational technology such as email, audio, video, PowerPoint, application software and an array of information and communication tools. E-learning models include self-paced, fully online courses; those in which the students and the instructor are online at the same time; and flipped classrooms, where the lecture is recorded and posted online and the class time is dedicated to discussion and solving problems.

Face-to-face advantages

The concept of distance education is decades old — those of a certain age will remember correspondence courses, done by mail. No doubt, the internet has improved the speed, ease and, especially, quality of distance courses, and today most Canadian post-secondary institutions offer online options; Athabasca University and Télé-Université du Québec only offer online programs.

Some universities — although not yet Concordia — have introduced Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), mainly free and not-for-credit courses intended for a large number of participants. In 2014, McGill University plans to offer MOOCs, joining institutions such as Boston’s Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While e-learning may be trending upward, how effective is it compared to traditional classroom-based learning? A 2010 analysis by the United States’ Department of Education found that K to 12 students “performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-toface instruction,” and that “instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction.”

Technology is making us rethink pedagogy. It adds a dynamic element to the learning process.

A 2003 study by Mickey Shachar and Yoram Neumann of Touro (now Trident) University International in Cypress, Calif., found that final grades of students enrolled in distance programs were higher than those enrolled in traditional face-to-face programs.

The Concordia academics interviewed for this story agree that traditional classroom teaching and learning will still play an important role in higher education; there’s something irreplaceable about interpersonal interaction, especially for the 18-to-22-year-old undergraduate student. A full university education includes social development earned through making friends, getting to know professors, networking and participating in extracurricular activities, all essential for a student’s growth.

“Technology complements teaching. We do teach classes entirely online, but it’s a small part of what we do,” Carliner explains. “It’s not predicted that e-learning will become the majority of what we do. It’s not even close to that.” He adds that Concordia is “a physical institution, we’re not the virtual Concordia space. What we are is in these buildings.”

Taking it online

In fall 2011, Anne Wade, manager and information specialist at Concordia’s Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance, and Joanne Locke, interim dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science and an associate professor in the Department of Education, set about creating an online version of their Introduction to Library and Research Practices course that would allow them to accept students from across and beyond the university. “We wanted a greater outreach, a larger scope, because our sections were at capacity, and we believe this is an important undergraduate course,” Wade explains.

Patrick Devey Patrick Devey is chief learning officer of Concordia’s e-learning provider Knowledgeone. He says that while most professors enjoy moving their courses online, he points out that instructors need to exercise patience during the course-design process since most are entering an unfamiliar field.

KnowledgeOne is the university’s exclusive online course provider under the eConcordia brand. Patrick Devey, BSc 98, GrDip 00, MA 02, PhD 09, KnowledgeOne’s chief learning officer, has helped design and develop online course material for many professors, including Locke and Wade. “We work with the university hand in hand to provide expertise and resources it might not have in-house,” says Devey. He adds that almost every professor he’s dealt with has enjoyed the transition to an online experience.

While shifting from in-class to online courses, professors have to learn to potentially deal with larger class sizes and less control over how students interact with course materials.

Aside from scheduled assessments, students in online classes decide when they want to access course content and what pace they want to go through material. “Many professors realize that in addition to changing their teaching style, there is an added managerial role that comes with online teaching: managing the teaching assistants, making sure that the marking is fair for everyone, and making sure that all the students who are having difficulty are being responded to,” Devey says.

It’s a small part of what we do. We’re not the virtual Concordia space. What we are is in these buildings.

Locke offers support for her online students with a web conferencing platform for e-learning that allows students to ask questions in a live, online setting and receive immediate feedback from the instructor. She admits that at first she was nervous using the new technology yet now appreciates that it allows an immediate connection with students.

Wade adds professors must be aware that setting up an effective online course requires a major time investment up front: “You’re not simply digitizing the course materials but are adapting them so that you can have interactive content, making it interesting by moving from one medium to another.”

To ensure the quality of online courses, Concordia decided to hold final exams for its online courses in an invigilated environment, which could be a challenge given the size of some classes. Wade and Locke explain that they also designed their course to make it a comprehensive process; its final exam builds directly upon work done throughout the semester.

It’s perhaps no surprise that online learning is becoming more popular — it offers students the chance to tap into top-quality education from anywhere, at any time. For the fall 2013 semester, eConcordia expects to reach 35,000 enrolments — up from 12,375 six years ago. Devey predicts further growth. “Students are increasingly interested in this mode of learning. They like the flexibility,” he says. “And it’s becoming more and more accepted by the academic community as a viable alternate to classroom-based instruction.”

As for Wade and Locke’s course, they reached the maximum number of 100 students the first semester it was offered. That limit was removed in winter 2012 and resulted in 197 enrolments; in winter 2013, some 212 students registered and 201 completed it, which Locke says is a significantly high retention rate. For future semesters, both professors agree they will place more emphasis on interaction with students using various tools, such as a discussion board and web conferencing sessions.

Positive impact

As Concordia moves forward, it aims to stay on top of e-learning trends. During his opening remarks at the e.SCAPE conference, Concordia President Alan Shepard underscored that as long as it is done with caution, the impact of integrating new technologies is sure to be positive: “Concordia has been a leader in revitalizing the relationship between technology and higher education. We are taking the best of the university experience and focusing it with new tools that broaden how people think, teach and learn.”

Champions of e-learning at Concordia say that maintaining the university’s role as a primary investigator in technology-integrated teaching is going to be a dynamic process, one that both students and professors have much to gain from. “What I love is the challenge of how to go about it effectively because it’s a completely different teaching experience,” Wade says about developing her online course. “It’s enriching as a faculty member, as a teacher, to find ways to always be engaged.”

— Shaimaa El-Ghazaly is a student in Concordia’s Department of Journalism.

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