More than 70% of the enrolment at the Centre for Continuing Education (CCE) at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada is in online courses, meeting the needs of working professionals who enrol in certificate and diploma programs for flexible learning options. The change in delivery mode from face-to-face to online has accelerated dramatically in the past few years.
As a consequence of and accompaniment to this shift to online learning, the Centre has changed its staffing model to include instructional design support, as well as increased its focus on applied learning and online teaching.
Instructional Design Support: In May 2016, Dr. Lorraine Carter, Director of the Centre for Continuing Education, and Daniel Piedra, Assistant Director, began to centralize the course development activity in CCE, for greater efficiency and consistent achievement of standards. Over the next 15 months, seven staff were hired to work with instructors on the design of courses: the new staff include three instructional designers, three learning technologists, and one multimedia specialist. With this expanded expertise in CCE, other staff members have greater capacity to focus on development of new programs, communications, and outreach.
Applied Learning: The Centre for Continuing Education seeks to differentiate its courses by emphasizing active, applied learning. As part of this objective, CCE has partnered with Riipen, a Vancouver-based company which links educational institutions with companies with real life projects that can be used as experiential learning experiences in courses.
In the Fall 2017 semester, the Centre for Continuing Education ran two pilots with Riipen, one in an online course and the other in a face-to-face course. Both courses are part of the Human Resources Management certificate program.
In a course that involves Riipen, the course instructor begins by determining project parameters for the applied learning component. Subsequently, Riipen presents the idea to corporations and organizations to find those with appropriate projects for the course. When there is a potential match, the instructor and company discuss and negotiate outcomes to ensure that student, academic, and company needs can be met.
The real life project is then incorporated into the course design. In week 5 or 6 of a 13- to 14-week course, students are divided into teams to work on the project. This work often begins with a virtual meeting with the company representative, so students can ask questions and better understand the project context and what the company aspires to achieve.
In both face-to-face and online courses, the teams tend to work online to complete the projects, using discussions boards, shared documents, and other apps to develop their ideas and complete project plans. Each team makes a virtual presentation to company representatives and receives feedback on its submissions. This feedback may be part of the final grade.
In the 2017 pilot phase, the applied learning project replaced final exams in the two Human Resources Management courses.
Online Teaching: McMaster University Centre for Continuing Education has recently embraced lean design for its online courses, moving away from very structured and detailed course sites. A core part of this design is a renewed emphasis on ‘live’ online teaching with instructors using one or two hours a week to present ideas, build on content, offer examples and review complex concepts. These sessions are recorded and available throughout the course. Dan Piedra explains: “The instructor is no longer hidden behind the online infrastructure but is a visible part of it.”
Benefits and Outcomes
Instructional Design Support: In CCE, considerable up-front support in course design and development is essential for its online instructors who are predominantly working professionals rather than full-time faculty. CCE’s increase in instructional design and technology expertise responds to this need. Further instructional design and coordination support have been made available to instructors who teach courses in which there is a Riipen-facilitated project. An instructor who was part of the Riipen pilot has been hired as a part-time experiential learning co-ordinator to work with other instructors on this aspect of course development.
Applied Learning: Student response to the real life projects completed during the Riipen pilot was positive and demonstrated appreciation of the blend of theory with practical applications. In general, they found the experience to be more valuable than other assignments and exams.
During the pilot, students in the Human Resources Management program created employee handbooks and engagement strategies for industry partners including the Radiation Safety Institute of Canada, Hamilton YMCA, and Dana Hospitality.
Dan Piedra describes the move to active learning with collaborative, real life projects as “humanizing digital learning through real human interaction and communication.”
The business partners benefitted from receiving multiple ideas and proposals from the various teams in each class.
Challenges and Enhancement
Applied Learning: Dan Piedra explains how the pilot study revealed that adding an experiential learning experience to a course is not as simple as replacing an exam or other assignment with a project. Course redesign is necessary as the projects require considerable student time and changes to other activities and assignments, “The course needs to be stripped to its essential elements so that student gains from experiential learning are not lost to frustration and overwork.”
Students need an introduction to collaborative tools, such as WebEx and Skype, so they can work effectively in groups without institutional involvement. While online students tend to be more aware of these tools than face-to-face learners, both groups of students require help. The instructor also needs to clarify the nature of appropriate online behaviour and interaction.
Students often experience challenges in figuring out how to get started with the project and how to get the team moving. Becoming familiar with various communication tools, therefore, is an important early step. The instructor also needs to be able to coach students through the process and provide checkpoints for keeping them on task as well as monitor progress.
Applied Learning: Collaboration with Riipen has expanded so that, by fall of 2018, a real life project will be part of most courses in the Human Resources Management certificate program. During 2018, projects will also be introduced in the Marketing and Business Administration programs; in 2019, programs in Web Design and Digital Marketing will also be considered for this active learning opportunity.
Online Teaching: CCE continues to explore innovative approaches to online course design and teaching such as its new lean approach. It also offers resources including online courses in adult education and teaching strategies to instructors and hosts instructor events such as mini-conferences, which target the development of teaching expertise.
For Further Information
Centre for Continuing Education