In an earlier Pockets of Innovation feature on Northern College, the focus was on the online flexibility offered to students in the Mining Engineering Technician Program at Northern College, with campuses in Timmins, Haileybury, Moosonee, and Kirkland Lake. The faculty at Northern, as well as the staff in the Learning Excellence and Innovation Department (LEID), continue to explore and offer new approaches and support for online learning to serve the students in its vast catchment area and beyond.
Synchronous and Asynchronous Choices: The Law Clerk Program provides an example of the multiple strategies adopted for online learning and student success. With both fall and winter intakes, the program responds to the life pressures of mature students, allowing them the option of starting either in September or January. With fall being a busy time for families, sometimes a January start date provides the flexibility needed for returning or mature learners.
The two-year diploma Law Clerk Program is offered synchronously through web conferencing using the Saba Meeting e-classroom platform provided by Contact North | Contact Nord. The classes have a regular schedule, and students log into the live classroom from home, library or office or Northern College campus of choice.
Through a web camera, all students can see the professor on screen, and can share images of themselves. Saba’s app sharing tool allows for presentation of PowerPoint slides, images and documents, and includes a virtual whiteboard. The virtual classroom also provides for chats, polling with instant results, and verbal and written communication among students and with the professor. As a strategic choice to extend flexibility and access, the programs are recorded for student use and review.
All courses in the Law Clerk program are supported asynchronously, through Northern’s learning management system, BlackBoard Learn. All course materials are uploaded online; students can join discussion boards, share documents, take part in breakout groups, and connect with the professor and other students in a variety of ways.
Through the fully integrated Grade Centre, faculty now have access to online marking, so they can provide results not only more quickly, but also with more detail, as they can open, comment, and upload results in one simplified step. The system upgrade was completed over the summer, 2014.
The Impact of Training: To accompany this technological change, the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW) was offered, supported by funding from the Ontario Productivity and Innovation Fund. This three-day workshop, offered in small group settings, encourages faculty to consider both their philosophy and methodologies for teaching and learning, with a focus on the presentation of mini-lessons for feedback. By the end of March 2015, every full-time faculty member at Northern College will have completed the Instructional Skills Workshop.
One of the most common outcomes of the ISW is the adoption of the flipped classroom model of having the students familiarize themselves with the theory before class so that face-to-face time is spent in active learning. After having competed the ISW, Voula Zafiris, Coordinator and Professor in the Law Clerk Program, set up a model for the flipped classroom for use in the program. The online class time is used for what Sara Munroe, the Director of Technology and Learning Innovation, describes as “practice, drilling down into applications, overall more dynamic teaching and learning”.
Anywhere, Anytime Assessment: Virtual proctoring is available to any student unable to get an examination proctor locally who meets the requirements of Northern College. Many of these students are in the Mining Engineering Technician program, studying on work sites, or have mobility and time restraints. Northern contracts with a third party service, B.Virtual, offering proctors who are training in technology use, as well as behavioural recognition skills concerning online testing. The proctors can be scheduled to virtually supervise a student taking an exam at any time that works for the student – a 24/7/365 service.
Individualized Student Support: The Law Clerk Program is offered through Distance Education at Northern; each student is assigned a distance learning officer (DLO) who responds to all queries and concerns, including credit transfer, choosing between full- or part-time enrolment, and developing an academic pathway. The student and DLO outline the strategies and steps for program completion, ensuring the timing of prerequisites and availability of required courses. During the program, the DLO provides encouragement, support and access to additional student success resources such as tutoring.
Online, All-the-Time Tutoring: Students also have access to extensive online tutoring services. When students need help in vocational subject, a program specific tutor is found. For general courses, such as mathematics and communications, a tutoring service is made available on a 24/7/365 basis. At no cost to students, they can access the Northern-sponsored site on Tutor.com, chose their subject, and interact with a live tutor. Sharing a whiteboard and a chat facility, the student and tutor work through the student’s problem; the session is archived so the student can access it later. Northern receives monthly reports on which students access the service, the content areas of questions, and how long the sessions are.
Outcomes and Benefits
Sara Munroe sees that: “In Ontario, we are just starting to come into our own in recognizing and accessing the value of distance learning in many formats. Institutions, governments, and individuals are recognizing its importance for building communities, careers, and the economy. Distance learning and online learning are not second-rate, not inferior in producing qualified and satisfied students. These programs offer massive personal impacts that continually reassure us of their essential service to northern communities.”
Faculty have reported that the Instructional Skills Workshop helped them become more creative with curriculum delivery and student engagement, and they are seeing improvements in their personal practice and in student response and performance.
Challenges and Enhancements
In describing the challenges for online learning at Northern College, Sara Munroe takes a holistic approach – looking at the processes, resources and supports, managing them in a timely fashion, and always working to fill the gaps. Many of the students, especially those at a distance, are returning learners and/or career changers with a wide range of skills. But even being a digital native does not ensure that online learners have the skills to succeed, such as self-management, discipline, organization, as well as the abilities to track multiple courses, deadlines, and advocate for themselves. Identifying these gaps early and a steadily improving capacity to respond are essential to prevent dropouts. The reality of a new student cohort every year means a constantly shifting environment, expectations, and needs.
One particular area of potential development for Northern College is building online curriculum that is responsive to Aboriginal community needs. Working with stakeholders, relevant and culturally appropriate subjects, such as leadership management skills and waste and water management, need to be determined. Funding for custom programming, online design and delivery, content experts, and partnerships are all essential for success. As Sara Munroe says: “We know the technologies work; now, we need the programming.”
For Further Information
Director, Technology and Learning Innovation