Queen’s Journal: Talking hybrid learning models (26 March 2010)

By Holly Tousignant, Queen’s Journal, 26 March 2010:

Students, faculty and administration discuss a potential move to virtualized learning

A pilot project from the Principal’s Taskforce on Virtualization put two different models of virtualization into practice this past year.

The project used lecture-capture systems in two first-year courses, BIOL 102 and POLS 110. Videos of the lectures were used to supplement, not replace, lectures.

Educational developer Andy Leger of the Centre for Teaching and Learning is a committee member of the taskforce.

“Essentially we installed in BioSci 1101 an automated lectured capture system… When a prof turns it on, it would have a camera that follows them, as well as it would capture whatever went through the data projector and it would amalgamate those and it would put it on a streaming server,” Leger said, adding that students had access to the videos almost immediately after lectures.

Leger said students in POLS 110 and BIOL102 were polled throughout the process to gauge their approval. More than 80 per cent of students polled in both courses found it useful or extremely useful, he said, adding that none of the professors involved noticed a significant drop in attendance.

“The students actually said they listened more in class. … They’re worried less about taking notes, they’re worried less about missing something,” he said. Leger said while the first model of virtualization used the lecture-capture system to supplement lectures, the second model used videos alone for some students in BIOL102, which is split into sections A, B and C. Students in sections A and B were given lecture periods and video access, while students in section C only had video access.

He called this model “hybrid virtualization.”

He said students in section C were also polled throughout the process. According to the polled students, disadvantages of the hybrid model included not feeling part of the class, not being able to see what professors were pointing at, not being able to ask questions, not hearing dialogue between students and professors and the lack of a set schedule, which many students reported caused them to procrastinate. When asked whether they would take a course with a similar format, 51.1 per cent said yes, 17.8 per cent said no and 26.7 per cent said it would depend on the course, Leger said.

Many students reported advantages such as being able to watch lectures from home and having a more relaxed schedule, he said, adding that hybrid model courses are different from distance courses because students still have access to their professor’s office hours and potential study groups.

Leger said he thinks as long as students are given a choice between in-class lectures and online-only lectures, virtualization should be a viable route for the future.

“Not every course lends itself to this,” he said, adding that he thinks POLS110 is a course that requires students to be in class for lectures.

Leger said virtualization models are designed to improve students’ educational experience, not to save money.

“It’s not revenue-neutral, meaning support has to be given to … cost of tech, the cost for IT services support, cost for the actual streaming server,” he said.

Leger said he’ll publish the results of the student polls in the near future.

Not everyone is on board with virtualization. One suggestion in the Arts and Science faculty’s draft response to Principal Daniel Woolf’s is to virtualize the classroom for first- and second-year courses. This model includes an online course package with weekly readings, computer-based assignments and tests, one hour of lecture a week and graduate student-led tutorials. Lauren McNichols, BPHE and BA ’08 and MSc ’10, co-organized a town hall on Wednesday for students to discuss the draft response.

McNichols said she doesn’t think the University’s budget concerns are a good enough reason to completely overhaul the way education is delivered.

“It shouldn’t be presented as a temporary fix to a financial problem,” she said.

McNichols said she’s skeptical of administrative attempts at transparency, such as the opportunity for students to submit their opinions to Woolf via online submissions.

“I think that’s a symbolic gesture at best because none of what happens in this process is actually binding, so even if the students were involved, we’re not sure it would be anything other than token participation,” she said.

“Based on the feedback from the town hall … there’s just a lot of doubt that virtualization has any merit from a student perspective, from a faculty perspective, from a fiscal perspective.”

McNichols said she thinks virtualization would place the responsibility of learning and teaching on students rather professors, despite professors’ willingness and desire to teach.

“From the students’ perspective, they’re coming from high school, where they have small classes, it’s structured all day, they have interaction face-to-face with other students and with their teachers and even then it’s hard to learn,” she said. “[When they come to university] they’re living independently for the first time, cooking for themselves, they have all this responsibility and on top of that, you tell them, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re responsible for your learning and for networking outside of the classroom.’”

McNichols said she thinks the pressure of having to teach themselves may cause many first- and second-year students to drop out of Queen’s.

Rob Millington, BPHE and BA ’07 and MSc ’09, co-organized the town hall.

Millington said he thinks virtualization is a way to increase enrollment without increasing faculty or TAs.

“You could have classes of 600, 700, 800 people and just have one big lecture a week and everything else online or in TA groups so we’re not really sure how that would work, if more TAs would be hired again, because there’s not really a lot of dialogue going on,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think Queen’s has the resources or technology for virtualization.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science Alistair MacLean said he thinks the planning document’s proposal of virtualization has been misunderstood.

“I’m aware that at the moment it’s being regarded as something that would be intended to apply to all first- and second-year courses and that’s absolutely untrue,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s going to be a good model for Queen’s. I think there are some situations it may be effective in and there are some situations it will not.”

MacLean said he thinks virtualization would mostly be applicable to larger classes.

“Some of the people have pointed out it may well be that it works better at the upper-year level in some cases,” he said.

MacLean said decisions about implementing virtualization will lie in the hands of department heads.

“The instructors are the ones who make the final decisions,” he said, adding that factors such as the number of TAs would be up to the departments as well. “Decisions to apply classroom technology in teaching need to be made individually by teachers, on the basis of its fitness for specific contexts, materials, and intellectual and pedagogical purposes, rather than being imposed uniformly from above for cost-cutting or other administrative purposes. Moreover, virtualization of teaching has not been proven to increase efficiency—many reports indicate the contrary.”

MacLean said virtualization was proposed in response to both fiscal pressures and advancements in technology. “It’s actually been done at other schools for many years and there’s newer technology available now that hasn’t been available in the past,” he said. “I think it’s partly a response to the financial situation but I think it’s also worthy of consideration on its own merits.”

The virtualization model was based on the model suggested in the psychology department for its first-year course.

Psychology professor Dean Tripp has raised concerns about the model’s effectiveness.

Tripp said McMaster University professor Joe Kim, who uses a blended learning model combining face-to-face instruction with online learning resources, was unable to provide research that his blended model of education was more effective than traditional teaching.

“We don’t have a lot of convincing evidence that one system would be better over the other,” Tripp said, adding that he thinks it’s crucial that positive student-professor interactions remain.

“I see it as mandatory that we keep motivational, inspirational experts teaching our students in the first year of courses and I think most people in my department believe that is something we wouldn’t support removing.”

Tripp said his main concern with the proposals of virtualization is the rashness with which they may be implemented. Four years ago, virtualization wasn’t even on the table for psychology, he added.

“We haven’t been planning this as a department for years,” he said. “This whole idea of potential virtualization is a relatively new response to the fiscal pressures that the University is under.” Tripp said professors in the psychology department stand on both sides of the debate, adding that no final decisions have been reached yet.

“We still are looking,” he said. “This isn’t a done deal as far as we know.”

Jennifer Hosek, German department assistant professor, uses video conferences in her 200-level German classes to connect Queen’s students with German-speaking students in Germany.

Hosek said she thinks this is an example of using virtualization in an effective way.

“In the particular case of language learning, one can use that virtual discussion as a way to leverage the knowledge that both my students as native Anglophones and those students in Germany as native German-speakers have in order to enable acquisitions,” she said.

Hosek said she thinks it’s important that professors are able to continue to engage with their students.

“Using Socrates as our model, we can recognize that students are not empty vessels into which profs pour their essential knowledge,” she said. “Rather, pedagogy is about helping students to … critically engage the world around them, critically assess facts and learn facts in a way that makes sense for them.”

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