Peter Taylor, Some comments on “on-line learning” (17 April 2012)

At some point in last week’s meeting of the A&S Faculty Board, Jordon Morelli declared: for heaven’s sake let’s put this issue to rest and move on with the many issues of substance that confront us (or words to that effect).  Whether or not I agree with his views on the issue he was referring to, his general principle is on target.  There are many issues that we as teachers and researchers, and indeed as a Board, need to get moving on, so let’s not waste time.

One of the issues we need to put behind us is “the business case for on-line learning.”  The focus should rather be on the “academic case,” and then, once we are properly informed on that score, we can, if it seems important, look closely at the financial picture.  [Though it still strikes me as strange––where do we discuss “the business case for lecturing”––we don’t.  Though we most certain talk about the academic case.]

On-line learning at Queen’s has two faces, distance learning and blended learning.  I won’t discuss the former, though Rob Beamish has made some good recent comments in the Journal.  But for many disciplines the academic case for blended learning is now as strong as any teaching and learning approach that Queen’s might support.  There are many factors contributing to this.  One of these is that our students are generally very good (and often resourceful and creative) at getting information and ideas from on-line media.

But I want to concentrate here on a hugely important factor which relates directly to our Academic Plan.  Most of my students need to focus a great deal of their academic energy on “fundamental learning skills,” particularly (for my courses) critical thinking and writing.  To make progress here, they need more one-on-one time with me or with their TA’s.  Thus I need to find a way to spend the three scheduled hours I have with them each week much more effectively and mounting many of the technical components of the course (examples, ideas and discussions) on the web will allow me to do that.  Indeed, I have been frustrated over the past couple of years that I have not had the time to record the needed sequence of videos.  [By the way, I am not talking here about “lecture capture.”  These videos are not lectures but 3-4 minute snapshots of critical examples and ideas that the student can easily refer to for information, clarification or inspiration.]

I understand that some disciplines (perhaps even some pedagogical approaches) are sufficiently different from mine that on-line supplements may have little to offer.  Fair enough.  But I do know that the views I express here are widely shared by colleagues in the natural and social sciences.

One more thing––I mentioned TA’s.  The tutors I use for these class interactions are graduate and undergraduate students, sometimes students from the very same class.  This is a significant teaching and learning experience for these students.  This summer I will also be involving them in the production of the videos.

Peter Taylor

April 17, 2012


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One Response to Peter Taylor, Some comments on “on-line learning” (17 April 2012)

  1. Roberta Lamb says:

    “One of the issues we need to put behind us is “the business case for on-line learning.” The focus should rather be on the “academic case,” and then, once we are properly informed on that score, we can, if it seems important, look closely at the financial picture. ”


    You miss the point of the interest in “the business case”. The reason it became important has been made clear in Mark Jones’ posts regarding the Academic Plan and its process– the “business case” for on-line learning was established as a money-making venture BEFORE the Academic Planning Task Force considered the possibilities. The cart was clearly before the horse, to use an antiquarian metaphor. In other words, profit (in a public not-for-profit institution!) was more important than the academic case. Then, when further queried about this “business case” (the Admin’s term) we were told it was secret.Then it was that it belonged to the Provost. The only reason we have been told that it will be released is because Mark Jones filed a FIPPA request.

    “Distance” learning at Queen’s is a misnomer–85% of students taking CDS courses are on-campus students.

    I agree with you that technology can be useful and interesting, but it is not a time-saver for faculty or students. I spend a lot more time teaching now that I use web-based technology than I did before. I don’t mind doing that. I do mind the implications I hear that “blended” learning will allow professors to teach more students in less time, easily, and allow universities to then admit more students and not hire more faculty. We do not have the technological hardware at Queen’s sufficient to allow the type of technological support for “blended” learning that we hear about. We do not have the support professors require on a day-to-day and hour-by-hour basis. Rather than support we have competitions for funds. We may have workshops, but those workshops do not provide much more than a professor can figure out by herself. We are not a leader in this field, no matter how much some may say we are. Other universities do a much better job and we should admit it. We might even be able to learn from the way that other universities utilize technology.

    I am curious. Do you have the support you need to make videos? Or do you fund it out of your own pocket? If you do have support, where did you get it? Is it available for any professor at Queen’s?

    I work with a colleague and doctoral student at Universidad de Costa Rica. He is a poorly paid professor in a developing country, but the university will set up video conferencing and not charge him. He was shocked that I had to pay $50 per hour to set up the Queen’s end of these conferences, “How could this be at such a quality university?” The vice-president academic of his university came to the video conference and took photos to document the UCR-QU video conference for their records. What would it take for the VP-Academic to show up in my course and demonstrate interest in the learning of the moment?

    We may be a 1st world university, but we lack some fundamental people resources that are apparent in a 3rd world country.


    Roberta Lamb

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