Trent University implements a new approach to online learning
Over the past two years, Trent University in Peterborough re-designed its approach to online learning. The shift from a small centralized service was signalled in Radical Recovery: An Academic Plan for Trent University (2012-2015)which set a goal of expanding “online course delivery in order to enhance student and faculty flexibility and facilitate timely completion of our students’ programs of study.” The Academic Plan outlined a dedicated budget to focus on online development of first-year and high-demand courses to eliminate wait lists and reduce the number of students requesting permission to enrol in courses from other institutions to complete degrees.
After a task force study, it was decided to develop in-house expertise and a distance education and online learning department was established to work collaboratively with faculty to expand the number of quality online opportunities offered to students.
As the range of online courses grows, particular attention is being paid developing courses that support flexibility and program completion; for example, courses in psychology, economics, and chemistry are in high demand and/or required for multiple degree programs. As students are required to achieve a grade of 60% in the first-year course leading to their major, offering these courses online, especially in the summer, provides an opportunity for students to improve their performance in their proposed major and helps with student retention.
Course design includes a number of consistent features, although there are many variations depending on subject matter and faculty choices. Each course offers an introduction, covering information on course goals, assignments, assessments, materials, and other essential information. The modules include the learning objectives, assignments, readings, tasks, and expectations in a clear and consistent format in each course. As well, there is a folder of frequently asked questions on use of the technology, the specific software and tools, and how to get technical support. Online courses are offered using Blackboard as the learning management system.
Many of the instructors use webcasting – with or without video – and they are encouraged to keep the clips short rather than replicate a one-hour lecture.
Student support is critical for online learners. In response, a module entitled “I Am an Online Student” is made available to all online students, providing information on what their experiences might be. Many of them have never been to campus and are not familiar with the language and requirements of post-secondary education and of Trent. The module provides information on learning online, time management, online etiquette, and effective testing, in addition to accessing technical support, financial assistance, library resources, counselling and other university services.
Discussion boards are key components of many courses, with the quality and frequency of student involvement assessed for grades. The instructor outlines the challenge and the students offer considered responses and new ideas, supported by citations from the literature. They are expected to provide critical analyses in response to the postings of other students, and not to simply replicate input from sources. In this way, the discussion boards serve multiple purposes as students learn content as well as how to paraphrase and construct concise arguments. The exchanges also facilitate community building, as students come to know each other online. In some courses, students also post in a journal that is seen only by the instructor.
Participation in online discussions is seen as more rigorous and measurable than in-class discussions, as the results are more accessible for marking. Elaine Scharfe, the Dean of Arts and Science - Social Sciences, describes online discussions as “more effective and efficient than seminars, and interestingly, online discussions are more interactive than the traditional seminars.” As Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Co-ordinator of Distance Education, says: “You can’t fake it online.”
Assessment can be based on discussion board postings, journals, papers, quizzes, a final exam which can be online or face-to-face, and/or a final paper. It is recognized that an online quiz often implies an open-book quiz, whether or not that is the intention. To limit this, when necessary, the quizzes are time limited and tend to require more than quick, easily searchable answers.
Communicating with faculty and management about online learning and the differences from face-to-face teaching is essential. The new Distance Education Department reaches out to the various departments to talk about online learning and how it resembles and is different from what they currently offer. They describe the support they offer in terms of instructional design, software, and technology and the tools they make available, such as a course template and a list of frequently-asked questions.
At the same time, Elaine Scharfe is working with senior management to ensure that faculty and staff have access to the support they need. Online course development and teaching are done by regular full- or part-time faculty, often those instructors who are also teaching the same course in the face-to-face classroom.
Outcome and Benefits
The initial goals of expanding online learning focused on improved opportunities for current students. Research indicates that students are embracing online learning, especially in the summer semester. Summer online enrolments increased 300% between the Summer 2011 and Summer 2013 semesters, signalling a dramatic improvement in student access. As each online course was offered by a single instructor, with support as necessary, rather than by multiple instructors in multiple classrooms, costs were also reduced.
Fewer students are requesting permission to take courses at other institutions as more courses are available online at Trent; this is a particular benefit for students at the Oshawa campus. The list of courses for which students have asked permission to take elsewhere is an important tool for planning which courses should be offered online to ensure that Trent students can complete their programs at their home institution.
As well as retaining Trent students, the university is attracting students from other institutions to its online courses.
Challenges and Enhancements
The challenges are related to the learning curve that moving to online implies. For the institution, it involves understanding that this is a new approach to teaching and learning, not simply a variation on previous practice. Provision has to be made for considerable support for faculty while they develop, offer, assess, and revise their online courses.
Faculty also have to absorb a new pedagogy and new ways of teaching using evolving technology and software. For example, some faculty would like to offer synchronous online courses as a closer replication of what is offered in the face-to-face classroom. They are encouraged to consider asynchronous strategies providing 24/7 access rather than a two-hour, real-time lecture as more convenient for students and less reliant on technology functioning at a specific time.
Students need to develop many new learning and technological skills in an online environment that can be isolating. They need to get engaged in the learning and keep up with readings and assignments, which may require more independent skills and responsibility. Procrastination and the lack of a community can lead to a student dropping the course.
A survey is being sent to students asking why they have or haven’t taken online courses, what courses they would like to see offered through distance education, and how they would like to see the courses offered, e.g. as 6-, 9-, or 12-week courses in the summer. The results of the survey will be used to get a better idea of student expectations and requirements.
Faculty input is also sought. Some faculty who have taught 6-week online courses find the time too restrictive as students do not have time for reflection and critical thought. This is especially true if students are taking more than one course while working during the summer.
Consideration is also being given to the question of how online courses might be made more accessible to a broader community. An example is an online version of one of Trent’s Indigenous Studies language courses, Introduction to Nihnaabemowin, which may be of interest to a wide group of motivated and engaged learners. The challenge is making the online credit courses at the institution more accessible, rather than developing a Massive Open Online Course model.
The number of courses will continue to grow, particularly to extend offerings to provide flexibility for full-time students in Fall and Winter semesters. The Faculty of Nursing would like more electives to be offered online for students on placements. The joint Journalism program with Loyalist College would also benefit from online offerings.
For Further Information
Dr. Elaine Scharfe
Dean of Arts and Science – Social Sciences
Co-ordinator of Distance Education