Confederation College in Thunder Bay serves students spread across a vast territory of over 550,000 square kilometres in Northwestern Ontario. In 2004, only two of Confederation College's nine campuses were offering Literacy and Basic Skills programs, leaving many people in communities and townships without access to essential training for continuing their education and career development.
An online Literacy and Basic Skills Tool Box was created and offered in a few communities as a pilot project to assess its effectiveness as a delivery and instructional approach. The pilot project demonstrated both that need was there and that online delivery could work with the College's learners. Over the past ten years, the Tool Box has been replaced by the use of Saba Centra and a Blackboard Learning Management System.
The Literacy and Basic Skills (LBS) and Academic and Career Entrance (ACE) Distance Learning programs are offered using Contact North | Contact Nord's Saba Centra, online classroom software that provides a virtual learning environment combining web conferencing and social networking using low bandwidth. Confederation College's Blackboard Learning Management System provides curriculum support materials.
The Academic Upgrading courses, as well as ACE Communications and Math, are offered as continuous intake, blended, synchronous courses for students who come to Contact North | Contact Nord online learning centres throughout Northwestern Ontario. Students with computers and adequate bandwidth can take the courses from home, but are encouraged to attend the Contact North | Contact Nord online learning centres so that they can easily access technical supports.
For the Math and Communications courses, online instructors act as learning facilitators as students work at their own pace in full-time daytime classes (from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday) or part-time evening classes (from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., two evenings a week). While the students are working independently at various levels, the instructors are present online to support each student with their individual questions and challenges.
The pedagogy, curriculum materials, and technology are designed to support students throughout their learning.
Work Independently: Each student has an individual learning plan, with suggested minimum progress in terms of number of assignments completed every month. The students work through a series of progressive online assignments, with online support materials and interaction with the professors. Students can work through practice assignments, which are marked automatically by Blackboard and/or by the professor, until they are ready to demonstrate mastery learning - with a requirement of 80% in LBS courses and 70% for ACE.
To support the learning, examples, step-by-step instructions, practice exercises, and mini-quizzes are provided, as well as the possibility of meeting the professor in the breakout room for individual support, discussions, and attention. An illustration of working online with a student in the Communications course is shown below. Using AppShare, the student assignment is displayed for both professor and student and, using highlighting and comments, the professor demonstrates and reinforces what she is saying.
For the Math program, paper booklets are used, with mini-tests available on the LMS. The software for doing maths online is complex and demanding so the paper option, supported by online practice, is found to be more effective. Below is an example of an online quiz - with scoring.
The professor also uses the whiteboard to work through complex equations live with a group or individual students.
Challenges and Enhancements
A key challenge is the initial lack of computer literacy skills, including e-mail and word processing, among the students. The instructors work with each student to build up these skills so that they enhance rather than impede learning.
Student motivation can be difficult when working online. The monthly planners help to encourage focus and progress is reviewed every month, with new goals set to try and keep the learning on-track. Instructors emphasize the final goal of post-secondary education, apprenticeship, employment, etc. to help students persist in their programs.
Because the majority of the students are working individually at their local Contact North | Contact Nord online learning centre, it can be difficult to create a collegial environment online. Monthly class meetings, photo share, and other activities are set up to create a sense of community and encourage continued attendance and sustain motivation.
Many students register for Academic Upgrading because they want to earn an ACE certificate, which requires successful completion of the Communications and Math courses and two additional electives, which include Computers, Self-Management and Self-Direction, Biology, Chemistry, or Physics.
The ACE Computer course is available online asynchronously and Self-Management and Self-Direction will be available starting in May 2013 as an asynchronous online course. ACE Biology, Chemistry, and Physics courses are currently offered on-campus but will soon be also offered to distance students through a virtual classroom linked to the face-to-face classroom, enabling students to complete their ACE Certificate entirely online.
For Further Information
Program Coordinator, Distance Education