Most of the students in the Master of Education at Brandon University, Manitoba, Canada are working teachers or school administrators. The Faculty of Education has a general strategy to make the program widely available across the province, and especially in the remotely populated region of Northern Manitoba.
Mike Nantais is an associate professor teaching in the Master’s of Education at Brandon University. One of his courses is 03:765 Introduction to Educational Technology: Theory & Practice, an elective in the Master of Education. Cathryn Smith is an assistant professor teaching in the same program. One of her courses is 01:757 Supervisory Policy and Practice, a required course for students in the Leadership and Educational Administration stream of the Master’s Program.
The challenge for both instructors is to develop a delivery model that enables deep and meaningful discussion of educational issues, and also facilitates demonstration of students’ learning, while also fully including students in more remote areas.
Although both instructors have their own unique approach to teaching their subject, their main method is to use a web-based conferencing system () and synchronous, virtual breakout sessions within the videoconference, which allows students to discuss and work together across distance. Each instructor uses videoconferencing in conjunction with other resources.
Introduction to Educational Technology: Theory & Practice
Mike Nantais teaches 03:765 once a year. Currently, there are 18 students and the course is fully online. There is one synchronous meeting for all 18 students every two weeks and asynchronous work takes place in the intervening week. Students are given readings on topics to prepare for the synchronous sessions, through the university’s learning management system (LMS). Students self-organize themselves into groups of two or three, and can work together using online tools of their choice.
The synchronous sessions are usually about three hours in length, split roughly equally between instructor presentation and synchronous discussions. For the synchronous discussions, Zoom offers ‘breakout’ sessions, whereby students can work together synchronously in small groups, even though they may each be in a different location, and then as a group return to the main session. Mike Nantais usually poses a question for students to discuss in the breakout sessions and then they report back using a variety of tools, including students to record short videos and to reply to each other’s videos, and Google +., a tool that enables
Figure 1: A screenshot of the Google + community used to share resources, assignment links, etc. as an addition to the use of Zoom for synchronous sessions.
Students are required to write blogs on topics, which are peer reviewed by the other students. Students choose their own topics for blogs and are responsible for maintaining them and sharing them during the course. The student blogs are public, and students can also continue the blogs after the program or course is finished.
Figure 2: A screenshot of one student’s blog post where they share their ‘ignite’ presentation.
Lastly, at the end of the course, students do five-minute live presentations limited to a maximum of 20 slides on a chosen topic.
Supervisory Policy and Practice
Cathy Smith’s course is offered in two sections during one to two terms a year, with an average of 14 classroom-based students in the fall semester, and 14 in-class students plus another 14 fully online in the winter semester. Students are expected to understand and compare different approaches to teacher evaluation and supervision.
There is one three-hour synchronous session each week from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. Each session is varied and includes a selection of the following components:
- Instructor-facilitated presentation and discussion;
- Breakout group discussion of current readings and assignments;
- Opportunities to observe and provide feedback on videotaped lessons;
- Development of learning-focused conversation facilitation skills in partners or triads; and
- Time for student reflective writing and dialogue.
For each breakout session, the instructor prepares a specific protocol and task for the students, who work in groups of two to four. While in breakout rooms, students can share their screens to collaborate on written documents. During large group sessions, students and the instructor use the chat box to share comments with individuals or the whole group. Google Docs is sometimes used for file and document sharing and group collaboration. There are also assigned readings for each class to be done outside the synchronous sessions. An LMS is also used for course resources and activities and student groups can post their work for all the class to see.
Benefits and Outcomes
Many of the students, especially those from Northern Manitoba, could not take a master’s course unless it was delivered at a distance. Both instructors also report enrolment of online international students in their courses.
The instructors reported that for these graduate programs, the ability to break out into small synchronous discussion groups is a game-changer, as discussion in videoconferencing is difficult with larger numbers. All students actively contribute, discussion is deep, and instructors reported students learning at a high level. They also reported a high level of social engagement between the students on these courses.
The sessions were quite informal, with students often on screen with babies or pets, although students can deactivate the screen while leaving the audio running.
Cathy Smith tried teaching asynchronously online and did not like it and dropped online discussion forums from the course as a result of the success of the synchronous breakout groups.
Figure 3:A screenshot of a student’s presentation as part of her leading the class in examining one of the course readings in a synchronous session.
The availability of the sessions as recordings was reported to be particularly valuable for the students.
Challenges and Enhancements
Both instructors reported they learned a lot as a result of moving to synchronous online teaching. One instructor was more experienced in using computers in teaching but the other had a much larger learning curve using videoconferencing.
The technology was initially also a challenge for many of the students, especially in the more remote areas. They have no technical support and often poor bandwidth. However, students quickly learned to use the technology.
There is also very little technical support for the instructors, as their sessions are outside the regular IT office hours at the University. Technical breakdowns are particularly frustrating. However, Cathy Smith reported while initially it was exhausting teaching this way, she is now comfortable using the technology.
The main challenge is larger classes, as it is difficult to scale up using this technology.
Videoconferencing is becoming more reliable and easier to use. The breakout facility offers the opportunity for high-level synchronous discussions between students, irrespective of location. Videoconferencing has great potential for subject areas and program levels where in-depth synchronous student discussion is essential.
Faculty of Education
Faculty of Education