When Francois Desjardins, a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in Oshawa, suggested using synchronous online technology to offer graduate-level degree programs 6 years ago, many professors in the Faculty were hesitant. Their initial resistance was based on concerns over losing the face-to-face connection with students. Robin Kay, Director of Graduate Studies in the Faculty, was one of the doubting professors; he and his colleagues are now enthusiastic about the benefits for both students and professors. UOIT offers a synchronous Master’s of Education Program in Digital Technologies.
Each of the courses in the Master’s program has weekly online synchronous classes that are 2 to 3 hours long, with 10 to 20 students in each class. Central to the pedagogical model are 3 types of presence: social, teacher, and cognitive.
Social Presence: Each course has a different mix of students as they choose their own courses, rather than move through the program as a stable cohort. Throughout a course, opening exercises may be used to encourage communication, build trust, and develop a sense of community. Students also build social presence through frequent small group exercises. Throughout the course, the students work collaboratively, supporting each other and sharing insights and challenges.
Teacher Presence: Dr. Kay describes the challenge of teacher presence in the courses as being able to provide enough information, guidance, and structure to allow the students to build their knowledge and skills, while, at the same time, not being the dominant presence in class.
An essential element of teacher presence is the course website, which provides all the materials, including objectives, lesson plans, activities and assignments, learning supports and resources in a consistent, easily accessible format. Dr. Kay loads all the material into the computer prior to class time to ensure ease of access and use.
The interactive environment means that students can discuss and debate, make presentations, meet in small groups, use social media to share discussion outcomes, view websites and videos together, respond to polls, and use virtual whiteboards. Short videos offer introductions to the technologies they are learning about and learning with, and then additional supports take them through learning to use the technologies on their own. Short podcasts are used to offer just-in-time explanations on assignments; feedback and response to questions are provided quickly, often through video, to reinforce that the student is not alone.
Cognitive Presence: Extended lectures are not effective in this environment, as students have expressed their preference for active engagement. The pedagogical design does not have the professor at the centre of the course. Instead, the professor provides detailed lesson descriptions and learning goals, along with materials to support the discussions and activities; the students work in small breakout groups that change for each class. For example, one of the classes in a course on research methods illustrates the functions of full class, breakout group, and individual activities:
- Full class discussion on the role of sample descriptions in research.
- Breakout groups discuss sample descriptions, including rating ones from journal articles, followed by full class discussion of the ratings.
- After reviewing relevant materials, individuals work on creating a sample description for their research, which is then shared and discussed in their breakout group.
- After reviewing guidelines and viewing a video, students draft methodologies for their research, which are then discussed in the breakout group.
- The full class reviews information on variables and then does a poll to assess their significance.
The students in the breakout groups can see and hear each other, share documents, view materials as a group, and generally interact as they would in a face-to-face classroom. The free screen sharing and online meeting software, Join.me, is used in the breakout groups so students can share screens and control. In the full class, the students can also have control of the screen and do demonstrations, share screens, lead a class and participate fully.
Pre-class preparation may involve watching videos from the online video site, TED-Ed, for which Dr. Kay sets up multiple choice and open-ended questions; he responds to student answers. Their input, which is often in text not just checking boxes, provides him with formative guidance for key points to include in his introduction to the class or stress during the activities. During the breakout sessions, he can observe or participate in discussions, depending on the student requests.
Home activities for the course are fully explained with clear instructions on where to find resources and where to store and submit assignments.
The classes are recorded for later reference so students can review content.
Outcomes and Benefits
The program has grown from 18 to 160 students in 5 years. In the first year of the program, the students had an on-campus session as part of the program in order to build community. However, it was determined that strong community could be built without these face-to-face sessions. In subsequent years, the community building has taken place in the synchronous sessions online.
The online nature of the program brings in a widely diverse student body. Registrants come from across Canada, as well as from countries such as Bangladesh and China. About one-third of the students work in K-12 education, another one-third in colleges, and the rest are involved in training, nursing, administration and a variety of other professions. Many have not been students for a long time; 85% are part-time. Such an eclectic mix of experiences and perspectives provides a fertile environment for learning, as ideas are challenged and alternatives are introduced.
Student responses have been positive, with comments such as: “how engaged, motivated, and enthused I am in my courses”, “exceeded my expectation”, and “focus on how we can revolutionize the learning process”.
The convenience of online learning is greatly appreciated by the students, with Dr. Kay describing the program as “not quite as personal as face-to-face, but very close.” Program retention has been very high. The flexibility in the program facilitates this, as students have the flexibility of taking course when it best fits their schedule.
Dr. Kay believes that the tools for online interaction, shared writing, and communicating are more flexible and may be more effective than the on-campus approaches, especially with this highly motivated and experienced student group. For example, Skype is used so that online students can meet with their thesis advisors for short, specific purposes, in addition to more extensive sessions. Many of these strategies could be adapted for on-campus applications.
Challenges and Enhancements
Internet connections in some rural areas often limit the use of video communication. Strategies and technological solutions are developed early in the course to compensate for this through a comprehensive orientation session and a responsive support team.
The use of the screen capture software, Snagit, as a tool to record the breakout group discussions is being explored, enabling students to better refer to and reflect on what they said and heard.
The program has grown quickly and can accommodate still more students as many of the professors are enthused about teaching in a synchronous online environment. Potential for growth can include college professors, school board officials, and those involved in professional development for business, industry, hospitals, and other employers. More international students could also be part of the program, bringing in valuable perspectives to broaden the discussions and debates.
A large-scale review of the program will take place in 2014 to look at the pedagogy and delivery.
A PhD program in education, to be offered online and synchronously, is being developed and assessed.
For Further Information
Director of Graduate Studies
Faculty of Education
University of Ontario Institute of Technology