Challenges and Opportunities of Science E-Learning Development

As top-tier postsecondary institutions across Canada (and the world) look to create online environments that enhance learning, increase student engagement and make effective use of technological tools, we need to take stock of where we are as a faculty – and where we can be.

Blended teaching comprises a mixture of course learning environments where traditional classroom instruction is enhanced with online learning activities. In Science, we offer the full spectrum of blended instruction that ranges from the simple posting of online resources to having an online discussion board with the use of lectures and voice recordings, to the designing of online activities that incorporate diverse tools and techniques.  We also offer distance education courses which are fully online.

Overall, however, Western seems to be losing opportunities in this area which other universities are filling for us. How do we address that gap? Let’s look at the challenges and opportunities e-learning will present us in the years ahead:

Challenges:

1)      Technological Skill Set:

Specific technological skills are required to support the development of blended or online courses. Western’s change to Sakai may facilitate a more blended delivery format as faculty members begin to utilize the expanded suite of tools available in Sakai. There are also resources available through the Teaching Support Centre. One valuable tool is Blackboard Collaborate, an existing platform allowing for multiple online activities simultaneously.   The time commitment required for initial development of e-learning materials is not inconsequential.  However, opportunities may exist to help instructors develop such blended courses through assistance from Western’s Instructional Technology Resource Centre, from  graduate and upper-year undergraduate students, and for teams of such developers to establish mechanisms whereby they may share ideas as well as support and encourage each other’s utilization of new tools and methods.

2)      Course Design:

To incorporate elements of the best features of blended course delivery requires a re-structuring and re-designing of courses with the effort dependent on the level and sophistication of the desired blend. First off, assessment of need is an important step in the process. One point to note is that with online courses, there may be less reliance on memorization for evaluation – examinations are frequently open-book. However, whether this is a challenge or a benefit remains to be determined. Further, security issues with regard to such elements as the authentication of users, intellectual property rights and online privacy, both for students and for institutions, need careful consideration.

3)      E-Learning Environments:

 Instructors enjoy student-faculty interaction; indeed, for some this is the best part of their teaching experience. It remains unclear how faculty members would build learning communities through distance education e-learning modes of course delivery; perhaps this is less of an issue for blended courses where face-to-face interaction plays a vital role. Likewise, some students welcome face-to-face interaction, as such a personalized environment can be extremely valuable in terms of stimulating and motivating them. There are technological tools that offer exceptional experiences in this regard, but these can be extremely costly; as well, system reliability and speed would be critical. Additionally, the use of collaborative technologies for group-work by students remains a challenge to employ as effectively as face-to-face interaction.

4)      Disciplinary Challenges:

Some disciplines would face more challenges than others. A main element of the initial phase of some courses in such disciplines as mathematics is the reduction of anxiety for students. Accomplishing this task effectively in an online environment requires careful attention. Also, laboratory courses face further challenges. Some distance education courses host labs at remote centres in a concentrated format; this approach needs care in planning and perhaps even additional physical resources.

5)      Infrastructure:

The quality of infrastructure should be exceptional; difficulties with connection speed and IT failures need to be at a minimum. Otherwise, system unreliability could be a detrimental factor affecting student motivation and social interaction. An important question is the cost-benefit if we choose not to make this investment at Western.

Opportunities:

1)      Adaptation to Students’ Culture of Community:

Students have developed a culture of interacting through technological tools; a shift to the delivery of blended lectures would reflect this mobile lifestyle and be in tune with student preferences. Thus, blended courses have the advantage of appealing to students who are in favour of technology, speaking their language, and offering them flexibility to conduct their learning when it best suits their needs.

2)      Modern Course Delivery & Effective Use of Classroom Time:

Blended courses present an opportunity, if appropriate, to create individualized learning course structures whereby each component of the course begins with a quiz which provides direction to the student on the unfamiliar parts of the component being studied as well as on the parts for which the student has some background knowledge. Online quizzes for each section may also help assess how well parts are learned.

Enhanced learning could be accomplished through the use of animations that, for instance, display changes to results when data are varied, or to chemical structures when different components are combined, or to rates of growth under different catalysts. Simulations, as another example, provide many more scenarios than can be considered in the usual lecture format, and allow all students to input parameters for the simulation settings.  Of course, some of these elements are already incorporated in lectures at present. Other mechanisms include, for instance, videos, voice recordings and news clips.

Different ways of explaining concepts could be provided online for students who have difficulty with mastering course content (as evidenced perhaps through section quizzes). Even for students who understand concepts initially, this technological innovation can be productive in terms of cementing ideas and opening up new ways of thinking about familiar concepts. This novel course feature may be equivalent to the office-hour experience for students whereby students who do not understand a concept in class can return to the professor afterward for one-to-one instruction and the professor can then attempt to explain the ideas covered in a variety of different ways.

There are many other ways whereby e-learning delivery becomes effective student-tailored learning. Interactive tutorials and exercises are feasible, as well as the use of electronic hyper-textbooks and the provision of solutions to frequently asked questions, all with interactive navigation enabling students to see additional explanations and examples along the way. With the development of a server-based testing system, large databases of questions could be established.

Blended courses additionally offer the opportunity to have higher expectations of what students need to undertake to prepare for classroom experiences and allow for a more effective use of classroom time. Taking one example, students may be required to read course material during their own study time while classroom time may be used for case studies instead.

3)      Adherence to Student Needs:

Western seems to be losing opportunities which other institutions are filling for us. For students,the flexibility provided by e-learning delivery represents a substantial advantage. For example, having a suite of summer online courses available can help students who need to revisit a course during the summer.  Offering these in addition to traditional classroom-based format courses would allow students greater flexibility in terms of their summer schedules and geographic mobility.

E-Learning formats may also be a preferred style of delivery for more mature students who could revisit lectures several times to better understand concepts rather than memorizing them. The delivery of diverse material beyond what could be achieved in a traditional didactic lecture format provides for enhanced learning.

Blended courses may be particularly useful for professional graduate programs where students tend to be working full-time, and thus have a need for non-traditional learning hours. Classroom time spent together (for instance, this could be evenings or weekends on campus) could be restructured to maximize time for learning. Students could access lectures posted online at their convenience while the classroom time could be devoted to group-work, presentations, discussions, and so forth.

Online courses could also become cross-departmental, offering learning in a variety of areas. As well, they could serve to bridge universities in the development of niche programs where expertise at any one university in Ontario is thin. Thus, there is potential for the increased availability of our programs within global academic venues.

4)      Online Course Materials:

Some faculty already produce very high-quality taped lectures and post slides and voice overlays online. Such materials could be used to develop short videos for an online course. Textbook publishers also now produce a vast amount of material developed specifically for online learning. For example, data plots with trends show what happens to the trends if one or two strange data points are removed and how influential one or two points can be in estimating trends. It is also important to recognize that many library resources are available online. Indeed, some journals are only published online.

5)      Resource Implications in the Development of Collaborative Spaces:

Opportunities would be provided to develop Web spaces to support collaborative teaching and learning rather than traditional lecture delivery.

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Welcome to the Dean’s Blog!

As Western’s Dean of Science, I look forward to sharing ideas and opinions with you about recent research and teaching initiatives and I very much welcome your feedback.

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