Queen’s Financial Update: Virtualization Task Force Final Report (August 2009)

As posted on the Queen’s Financial Update page, August 2009:

The Virtualization Task Force was charged with examining the potential for use of information technology and electronic media in reducing costs of instruction, alleviating space constraints associated with growing enrolment, and enhancing the quality of the teaching and learning environment at Queen’s. The term virtualization was chosen to be intentionally broad in scope, in order to capture all facets of the use of media and information technologies as they are used in the teaching and learning environment, both inside and outside the classroom.


We often envisage conversation as the paradigm case of interaction. In conversation, speakers and hearers interact (usually shifting roles) using shared knowledge and values to discuss some facet of the world around them or some concept they are both grappling with. All this occurs in the same space and time. Over the centuries, technology has added to the range of interactions. In an oral culture, all participants must be present in the same place for communication to occur. The invention of writing broke the bonds of space and time. More recently, information technology has enriched this spectrum further. One needs only stand on a street corner or sit in a coffee shop to realize that conversation based on simultaneous physical presence now sits in a spectrum of which involves both simultaneity in the absence of physical co-presence (cell phones, Second Life), physical co-presence but absence of interaction with those present (cell phones, internet cafés), or even ‘extended simultaneity’ based on sequences of messages (texting, email). The advent of social media such as Youtube or Facebook now allows a shared referent to be commented on by range of individuals who did not previously know each other, but who engage in on-the-fly conversations.

In light of these phenomena, we should ask ourselves how the notion of the University should be interpreted. In many respects, classroom teaching is the equivalent of an oral culture. To participate, one must be present. This has long since been enriched by the use of reading materials for off-line preparation or follow-up. More recently, many instructors have adopted a range of ‘top-down’ technologies which mimic early print culture (PowerPoint, WebCT, web pages). We are also beginning to see attempts to capture teaching on video and audio to break the constraints of simultaneity in the classroom. Most instructors now use email to replace at least some of the previous ‘conversational’ aspects of out-of-class interaction, thereby breaking the bonds of co-physical presence. Some attempts have been made to use videoconferencing to bring teachers and learners together in a virtual space, and some preliminary work has been done in the use of social media to encourage distant learners to interact around a shared virtual object of study.

In examining the potential for virtualization, it is necessary to consider the culture of Queen’s, which has always given primacy to the on-campus learning and living environment. This can be seen in our positive results in surveys such as the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which show that, probably because most students live near campus and many participate actively in campus life, including co-curricular activities, volunteer work, and social interaction, they perceive there to be at Queen’s a good level of Enriching Educational Experiences, to use NSSE terminology. On the other hand, Queen’s does less well than it might in terms of measures of Active and Collaborative Learning (asking questions in class, contributing to class discussions, making class presentations, working with other students inside or outside of class) and even less well in terms of measures of Student-Faculty Interaction (discussions with an instructor about grades, readings, career plans, research with faculty members, or oral or written feedback on academic performance).

(For details of the above, see http://www.queensu.ca/irp/accountability/surveys/NSSE08_Benchmark.pdf).

It is tempting to ascribe the areas where we do less well to the growth in class sizes. One might ask as well, however, whether our reliance on an ‘oral culture’ model of teaching and learning is now beginning to limit our ability to achieve higher levels of interactivity with our students, and among students. This is an empirical question. To date, relatively little robust work has been done to evaluate the consequences of new technologies for teaching and learning. This is beginning to change. For example, a meta-analysis of over 50 studies sponsored by the US Department of Education found that “… on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes-measured as the difference between treatment and control means, divided by the pooled standard deviation-was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face. Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se”.

The Task Force believes that it will be important for the University to explore these issues in depth. This may have some benefits by allowing us to use technology to “do more with less”. However, there was also unanimity in the Task Force that the touchstone in our behaviour must be the primacy of the teaching and learning environment. In every case, we must ask ourselves: does this innovation allow learning to happen better or in a way which might not otherwise be possible?

Task Force Discussions and Actions

Members of the Task Force met numerous times to discuss the state of affairs at Queen’s, to consider what might be done in the short term, and to frame issues which will require action in the medium and longer term.

Short Term

In the short term, it was recognized that there was a need to experiment with a variety of teaching models and that this experimentation would require the cooperation of experts in teaching and learning, technology, and specific disciplines. To facilitate this experimentation, an Operational Committee was created and charged with setting up a limited number of trials. After a series of discussions, the following trials were adopted for the 2009-10 academic year:

  • In BIOL 102, traditionally taught in three sections by the same instructor, video lecture capture technology was used to allow for two ‘live’ sections of the course and one ‘virtual’ section, viewable at the time of students’ choosing, with additional support from TAs and the instructor himself. The technology adopted allowed for audio and video capture of the lecturer and of the material presented; captured material was available online to students registered in the course.
  • The same technology was adopted for the first term of POLS 110. All lectures were captured and made available to students in the course for their subsequent viewing.
  • In FILM 240, a course devoted to Media and Culture, the instructor has already demonstrated an imaginative use of video capture, use of social media to enhance discussion in a large course, and in-class technology such as clickers. In 2009-10, this was extended to use in the context of a very large class (~700 students).

As part of the experiment, various facets of the student experience in these courses were measured and evaluated by experts from the Centre for Teaching and Learning to determine the effects, positive and negative, of the new technologies. Preliminary results suggest that the student experience has been positive, particularly for the mixed framework of real-time lecture and recorded version available for later viewing. Final results will be made available to the university community.

Medium Term and Longer Term

In the course of the Task Force readings and discussions, it became clear that the use of educational technology raises fundamental issues of intellectual property. To take one example among many, in the case where a lecture is not captured on video, there is no question of ownership since only the participants in the course have access, and only for a limited time. On the other hand, if a lecture is captured, the question arises of whether and under what conditions it could be re-used or made available in a broader context. There is already the beginning of a fundamental division in this area. Some institutions such as MIT have chosen to make their video-captured lectures available on the internet in the framework of the open coursework movement (see http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/web/about/about/index.htm). An alternative approach consists in treating course materials as a marketable commodity, where revenues are shared in some fashion among creators. It will be fundamentally important for Queen’s to arrive at an agreed-upon framework for dealing with these issues. The Task Force strongly recommends that the appropriate steps be taken to develop such a framework as soon as possible.

In the longer term, the increasing pervasiveness of media and communication technologies is leading to the development of a series of potential new learning environments including student-driven social networking environments and peer learning communities (Facebook, wikis, shared learning materials) and virtual worlds (Second Life). Many of these environments replace physical presence with virtual, and a number are student-driven rather than teacher-centred. As such, they will challenge existing conceptions of the top-down model of teaching and learning. At the same time, as the demographics of Canada shift in the next two decades, with an aging population, increasing competition for faculty members, and demographic shifts to larger urban centres, it will be important for Queen’s to consider the role that technology might play in enhancing our current models of teaching based on continuous physical presence of students and faculty on the Queen’s campus and regularly scheduled classes and assignments.

In all of these considerations, the committee reiterates the importance of tying all discussions of virtualization to our core values of teaching and learning and the centrality of interaction between teachers and learners, whether this be physical or virtual. Since this is a vast research area with many disparate projects and perspectives, it will be important as well for there to be better sharing and dissemination of what is learned across the campus and better coordination of incentives and initiatives. It is our hope that individual units on campus will work with central resources, including the Centre for Teaching and Learning, ITServices, the Library and other partners, in the development of pilot projects. It will be important that a system of incentives be put in place, for individuals, academic units, and faculties, to encourage innovation, including rewards for innovation and recognition of noteworthy achievements. It will also be important that central resources be put in place to ensure the proper evaluation of projects in order to accurately gauge their effect on teaching and learning as well as their initial and ongoing cost implications. Finally, it will be important that mechanisms be put in place to ensure broader dissemination of successful or innovative projects and sharing of expertise between units with proven success and others interested in emulating these initiatives.

Committee Members

• Chris Berga, Office of the Principal, (Secretary)
• Lynann Clapham, Faculty of Applied Science
• Andy Leger, Centre for Teaching and Learning
• Greg Lessard, Office of the Principal (Chair)
• Joy Mighty, Centre for Teaching and Learning
• John Pierce, Faculty of Applied Science
• Sean Reynolds, Chief Information Officer
• Alan Sedgewick, School of Business
• Lewis Tomalty, Faculty of Health Sciences
• David Walker, Dean, Faculty of Health Sciences

This entry was posted in Clippings, Queen's Administration Documents, Virtualization / Online learning. Bookmark the permalink.

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