Developing self-directed learners through iLearn at Niagara College
First-year students are often expected to have skills and abilities for learning and self-management that they have not yet had the opportunity to develop. To encourage the development of these capacities, as well as abilities with the learning management system (LMS) and Web 2.0 tools, Beverley Davies and André Roy, Faculty Consultants in the Centre for Academic Excellence at Niagara College in Niagara-on-the-Lake, developed a course they named iLearn.
To ensure that students became familiar with online tools, the course was designed with three distinct delivery modes – the first five weeks are in-class, the next five are hybrid with two hours in-class and one hour online, and the last four weeks are completely online. The LMS (Blackboard) supports each stage of the teaching and learning and the class is paperless with all materials, readings, assignments, and grades available online.
The course outcomes cover points of learning about self, practical skills, and a concrete product:
- Investigate self-directed learning;
- Promote personal effectiveness;
- Utilize educational tools;
- Explore career options;
- Create an e-portfolio.
Five principles aimed at making the students more effective and self-aware learners guided the design of the teaching and learning in iLearn. These are reflected in the course objectives, topics, in-class and online content, and the assignments.
- Self-Direction: Students develop skills to take responsibility for and monitor their own learning, respecting their priorities, obligations, and time. This involves the capacities for motivating, managing, and monitoring their own learning.
- Self-Knowledge: Students come to understand themselves as learners, their strengths, weaknesses, and style so that they can chose the learning strategies that are most effective for them. Students look at their values and how these are reflected in their priorities, particularly how education fits in their lives. Although education may not be the top priority among family and work obligations, they consider how to fit it into their plans and activities. Goal setting is also part of this as they consider their long-term goals and how short- and medium-term goals and actions lead toward their achievement.
- Self-Authorship: Students are learning that the most important influence in making a decision is internal, rather than the external influences that may have dominated in secondary school. Making decisions, and being confident in them, are critical elements of self-authorship that the students acquire.
- Deep or Meta Learning: The importance of refection as a way of creating new insights from learning experiences is stressed so that students can address the ‘why’ questions and avoid superficial responses. The learning moves from memorizing to internalizing.
- Digital Competencies: Critical to all this is the development of digital competencies in the tools found in the LMS, tools for online collaboration such as blogs, audio- and podcasting, discussion boards, journals, Web 2.0 tools, e-portfolios, and social bookmarking. These are tools beyond what the so-called Digital Generation use regularly and are introduced as useful learning tools.
The three delivery methods stress different activities and course outcomes:
- Face-to-Face: The course begins with the face-to-face sessions which cover content, such as self-directed learning, academic integrity, critical thinking, self-management, and project planning for using an e-portfolio. The online activities that are part of this component include online discussions, case studies, and use of some online tools to learn about personal learning styles. In this section of the course, the students build a sense of community, making the move to online collaboration easier.
- Hybrid: The hybrid portion introduces the students to a range of online tools for research, learning, organization, collaboration, and evaluation. The pedagogical approach means that the students encounter a range of tools and can pick the ones that work for them through reflecting on their learning styles, priorities, skills, and weaknesses.
- Online: The online modules stress career paths, goal setting, and the development of the e-portfolio introduced earlier. Students select an e-portfolio shell and collect information for it throughout the course, based on whether they want to use it for job applications, applying to another institution or program, and/or to reflect their learning throughout their program. The e-portfolios can contain personal mission statements, samples of their work, both inside and outside the institution, goals, achievements, and key learning in this course or their whole program. Rather than being told how to create an e-portfolio, students are referred to instructional videos. Students work together to enhance their e-portfolios with videos, visuals, and other components, finding inspiration in each other’s work and online examples.
Each module clearly indicates the topics and their link to the course objectives, the in-class and the online components, and the evaluation elements in that week.
The evaluation includes online journal entries, discussion board participation, individual and team assignments both online and in-class, and the creation of the e-portfolio and an electronic career file.
Outcomes and Benefits
Following the first pilot of the course, the student comments were strongly supportive of the course. They commented on developing skills of curiosity and inquiry, self-discipline, scholarly habits, times management, self-motivation, and self-knowledge.
The assessment was done on a blog, and it became a discussion of the strengths of the course. Describing the quality of the feedback, André Roy said: “I saw the fruit of my labour as the discussion was honest, well-said, and respectful – they got the message.” The expectations for discussion boards had been made clear which encouraged student participation, as they became more vocal throughout the course.
The importance of feedback made considerable demands on the professor to provide what Beverley Davies described as “constructive, timely, and regular feedback”, using written communication, voice, e-mail, or the LMS feature for oral feedback. Using a shared rubric, substantial commentary can be transmitted in three minutes, and the professors often received feedback on their feedback.
Student participation can be monitored in the LMS so professors can contact students who are falling behind and encourage them to keep up with the course work.
Rubrics are essential as supports to assignments as the students learn to assess their own assignments in line with the goal of self-directed learning.
The LMS design must be consistent and clearly organized so that students can learn to use it effectively throughout their college career.
The course itself has broader benefits as it can be used as a model in the Centre for Academic Excellence for professors who are considering how they might design their teaching and learning plans and online learning elements.
André Roy provides a summation of the benefits of the course in saying “This course is why I want to be a teacher – because of what happens in that class”.
Challenges and Enhancements
The initial division of the course into three distinct sections of in-class, hybrid, and online resulted in a month of empty classroom space. As well, students wanted to come back together at the end of the course. To address this, the course will be re-structured so that is has a consistent hybrid structure each week.
One point that had to be stressed to the students was that the hybrid section of the course was not merely assignments – it also included distinct learning materials and activities. The assignment section has to be separated from the hybrid components to underline this point.
The course demands considerable commitment on the part of the professor for marking and provision of feedback.
The support from the College has minimized other challenges along the way.
The course began as an elective for first-semester students in one-year programs only. It is now part of both certificate and diploma programs and open to students throughout the college as a general education elective. Some program areas are looking at the possibility of making the course compulsory and others are looking for ways to fit it into their programs.
In September 2014, the re-designed hybrid course will be taught by several instructors for first-semester students. The design is flexible to accommodate the approaches of different teachers and teaching styles.
Both Beverley Davies and André Roy are very open to talk to their colleagues about the course, and have already made numerous presentations.
For Further Information
School of Nursing
School of Nursing