Flexibility in the Design and Delivery of the Mining Engineering Technician Program at Northern College
Mining Engineering has been taught in Haileybury since 1912 – first at the Ontario Provincial Mining Institute and now through the Haileybury School of Mines at Northern College. Mining has always been an industry subject to boom and bust cycles and enrolments in these programs follow a similar pattern. This flux in enrolments and the need for flexible access to education for those working in mines led to research into distance education – and a decision to adopt this model of delivery. In 2007, the online Mining Engineering Technician program was launched.
The program is designed for optimum flexibility for students who are often already working in mines on very erratic and demanding schedules and who also have varying access to high-speed Internet.
Program Delivery: The learning management system (LMS), Blackboard, delivers the online content, which may include videos, voice-over PowerPoint slides, guided research work, quizzes, and self-assessment exercises. Students can proceed through many of the courses at their own pace, within the semester system. Other courses have more deadlines, which can be adjusted according to individual student needs. For students in areas without high-speed Internet, DVDs of the online materials are available.
For non-vocational courses in the program, such as maths and communications, students in Haileybury, Kirkland Lake, and Timmins have the choice of attending face-to-face classes at the local Northern College campuses. The vocational courses are taken online. This offers students a blended delivery model.
Student Support: As the full-time, two-year program is very demanding, Northern’s Distance Education Office works extensively with students to consider whether a full- or part-time program is better suited to their circumstances. A pathway is set up for each part-time student, outlining the courses to be taken over the six or eight semesters. As the goal of the Distance Education Office is to work with students throughout their programs to support learner success, e-mail communication is maintained with each student to encourage participation, offer coaching, make connections with college services, and respond to administrative questions. As well, there is a help desk for technical issues and professors respond to all questions of an academic nature. The use of Blackboard Collaborate provides for ongoing student/professor interaction.
Online Proctoring: Some courses are assessed on the basis of assignments and projects, but others include tests. To accommodate this, Northern established a system of online proctoring that functions on a 24/7/365 basis. For an online test session, the student and the proctor, both of whom have high definition webcams that record the test process, log in at the agreed time. For the duration of the test, the proctor monitors the student and can also lock down the student’s computer to control online searching.
The system has been adapted for courses, such as mathematics, when the exams require sketching and other processes that are difficult online. The tests are mailed out in secure, lockable bags which the student unlocks in front of the online proctor. The test is completed with the proctor watching the student through the webcam and, when completed, the test is locked into a return envelope.
Professors usually give students a two- or three-week window in which to complete the test and it is up to the student to book a convenient time with an online proctor.
Synchronous Model: Starting in September 2013, a synchronous delivery model will be offered so that graduates of the Mining Techniques Certificate program at Confederation College in Thunder Bay can take the second year of the Northern College program and earn a diploma. Synchronous, online core vocational courses, using Collaborate software, will be offered from Haileybury to the students in Thunder Bay who want a live class environment. Students in Haileybury can also take part in the synchronous session; and all students have the online option as well.
Outcomes and Benefits
The flexibility of the delivery meets both student and employer needs in providing credentials for those in or hoping to enter the work place, regardless of location and schedule.
The faculty has developed new skills in teaching capacities, pedagogy, technology, and use of the LMS. Faculty flexibility has been a huge learning curve – and is still required as new strategies and technologies are introduced.
Northern College has benefitted as it establishes best practices in distance education that can be adapted in other programs, creates innovative inter-institutional agreements, and most importantly, serves more students.
The response from employers has been positive to date and graduates are finding jobs in the industry. More detailed research on employer satisfaction levels is to be undertaken by Institutional Research at Northern.
Challenges and Enhancements
The requirements of the technology mean a robust support system has to be provided for students to help them with access to and use of the LMS.
The continually developing nature of the technology requires continuous monitoring to determine the timing and the nature of possible modifications, such as moving to tablets.
The post-secondary framework can limit flexibility in terms of issues such as the semester system, which restricts innovations such as open entry, shorter courses, self-pacing, and other options.
Using the content of the synchronous lectures launched in September, learning objects can be created to explain and demonstrate the difficult skills. The learning objects can be made available to all students.