Technology-Enabled Learning: Opportunities and Future Trends

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Technology-Enabled Learning: Opportunities and Future Trends
An interview with John Doerksen, Vice-Provost (Academic Programs and Students) & Registrar
By Kim Holland, Instructional Designer, Teaching Support Centre

The Ontario Government has stated in their most recent annual report, achieving the goal of 70% of those in the workforce in Ontario holding a post-secondary credential is a critical strategic objective supporting social and economic development (Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, 2012). The provincial government has suggested that technology-enabled learning will play an ever increasing and central role in meeting this goal. To discuss what is currently developing on campus, I interviewed John Doerksen, Vice-Provost (Academic Programs and Students) & Registrar.

What is the role that technology plays in enhancing learning at Western?
I think this is a crucial time to have this discussion.  The COU (Council of Ontario Universities) has recently pulled together people from all of the universities to discuss what we should be doing collaboratively in the university sector in Ontario to support technology-enabled learning. The COU has a particular focus on online learning with an interest in a collaborative entity (still in the early stages of development) that universities could use to help each other move forward in the area of E-learning.

Online, blended, and web enhanced are all part of what may be described as E-learning. There is a very important context within the province for E-learning development. Here at Western, I'm surprised at how much we are already doing it. For example, we have about 10,000 online course registrants from the 260 online courses offered last year. This is not to mention that many of our colleagues provide web enhanced learning opportunities for students in their face-to-face teaching.

There is a great deal of student interest in online courses with more student demand than space available in many online courses. This is just an indication of the opportunity to serve our students more effectively here at Western. I think students will increasingly come to expect greater use of technology enhancements to improve their learning. Our students come to us having experienced technologyenabled learning from high school. We must remain focused on students' learning--not what technology is used.  But thinking about E-learning allows us to reflect on the learning process. Driving the E-learning process allows us to think about pedagogy.

What do you think are some of the most important teaching technologies at Western?
The learning management system (OWL) is core for us and currently we are moving from WebCT to the new OWL (powered by Sakai). Online courses, and many web enhanced face-to-face courses are offered in OWL, so this means our faculty colleagues will need support to incorporate this technology into their teaching.

What are the realities of technology enabled learning today at Western?
Western has not fully sorted out institutionally what our strategic direction should be in the online area. Of the many online courses we currently offer, we haven't necessarily collected them together into a cluster of courses for students to be able to complete a degree.  Part of our continuing challenge will be to make it possible for students to do just that--complete a degree online.  We obviously want to have our faculty colleagues interested in technologyenabled teaching and will continue to support programs and training for them to be successful. So there are issues around course development and delivery that still need to be sorted out. I think we need to sort out some policy issues surrounding online distance studies courses. There are some policies, written before the 1980's, which are quite restrictive in today's environment--so they need to be revisited. I'm hopeful we can begin a review of these policies this year, to see what make sense for us in the 21st century.

These are some of the main things that I see--but notice that these challenges do not involve technology in and of itself. We will need to continue to work to provide the appropriate kinds of support to all of our colleagues who teach online. We need to think a bit more strategically about how we want to move E-learning forward.

Where do you think the responsibility for online course development should lie--centrally or with the faculties and departments?
I think there is a role for both, and other universities have adopted various models.  I really prefer the hub and spoke model.

Are there new technologies that could have an impact here at Western?
There certainly are. One recent development is MOOC (massive open online courses), which are likely to have some impact in higher education generally. It is hard to say what this impact will be, as we are at such an early stage. The idea of having a fully automatic delivery of content is interesting. I think on the assessment side there is more work to be done, because tied into that are credentialing issues. In MOOC, the emphasis seems to be teacher focused rather than learner focused. The focus is on content--content acquisition from those who know, and content transfer to those who don't. It seems to me the best pedagogical practice is one that emphasizes student engagement.  We have this in smaller online classes and in the face-to-face context. This practice, which makes students a part of a community of scholars, is where the teaching and learning nexus resides. As an aside, some people are worried MOOC could spell the end of university as we know it, but I'm not so sure that the risk is as great to the brick and mortar university as it might seem at first glance.

If MOOC are just providing content, this is not a university experience. A university education is more than just content acquisition. You can google content. In the face of MOOC, I have to ask you what it means to be an educated person. What is the experience of a university education all about?You are right Kim, there is a richness that happens with being part of the university community with its purposeful programming and curricular activities.

How can Distance Studies contribute to meeting the demand for post secondary education in Ontario--and in the World?
It has been noted that 40,000 students from Ontario are taking courses at Athabasca University. This represents an opportunity for Ontario universities if we are clearer about the post secondary online opportunities that exist in Ontario.

In terms of international students, it will be interesting to see what online opportunities develop. I'm reminded that support will be needed to ensure the success of international learners. At the Open Universities Australia, they had to provide additional student supports for their online international students.  Without that support, the attrition rate rises dramatically.
It seems to me that creating a quality online course has multiple factors: the students must be satisfied, the faculty must be satisfied, there has to be learning effectiveness, access must be expanded, and the process must be scalable.

I like what you just said--yes, the online experience does have to be a good experience for faculty. I think a fallacy exists about the teaching and learning experience for the student in an online course: some think it is a second rate experience, which it is not. It doesn't have to be that way. With careful instructional design and clarity around best instructional practices, online instruction can be every bit as effective as face-to-face instruction. The crucial thing is to have the right kind of support for our faculty so we can have quality online programs at Western.

What are some of the other myths surrounding online teaching?
In addition to the myth about the online experience being second-rate, another myth is that it is more cost effective to do online learning. I'm not so sure that it is the case. I think it takes a great deal of effort and energy to develop and deliver online courses. I think there is a level of student engagement that can be quite intensive with online teaching. I don't think that cost containment should be a big driver for expanding online programs.  Another myth pertains to the level of students' online interest. Some think that increased flexibility and access will do away with demand for face-to-face instruction. I don't believe that's the case--I think the reports of the impending death of face-to face instruction are a little exaggerated.

What are some of the challenges we face when implementing change in instructional form, be it online or blended instruction?
I think this comes back to the need to create a strategic direction for us at Western--to define our way forward. We need to find our way around effective course development and delivery while thinking a lot about pedagogy--although this is not a new challenge ... it's an ongoing one. A lot of great support is provided through the Teaching Support Centre with its wide range of programs for graduate students and faculty members. For example, I know that you have developed the online Instructional Skills Workshop to give instructors the chance to learn about online teaching. In the end, the core mission of teaching and learning hasn't changed that much--we want to be able to cultivate the strengths and opportunities in teaching with technologies, and to do this, we have to discuss those core questions in new ways.  This is an opportunity for reflecting upon our teaching.

What are some of the opportunities for incorporating technology-enabled learning for the Western community?
Support is offered by the ITRC (Instructional Technology Resource Centre) and the TSC (Teaching Support Centre) to assist faculty in adding technology elements to their courses.  Also resources are available in the faculties to provide infrastructure assistance and discipline specific help as well. This fall we will have more conversations across campus about E-learning, and I'm hopeful we will put together a symposium on E-learning through the Faculty of Education and the Teaching Support Centre. This will be an opportunity for everyone who has an interest to come together to share best practices. One of the great advantages of being part of a university community is sharing and learning from each other.  I'm hopeful this is one of the events that will help Western crystallize its strategic direction for E-learning on campus.

Reference
Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. (2012, September 6) Annual report 2011-2012, Retrieved from http://www.tcu.gov.on.ca/eng/about/annualreport/#1