On the Cusp of a Learning Curve

(Source: Catherine Owsik)

 

By Marcin Rusak

Learning is integral to the advancement of humanity and the method by which we parse and acquire information is evolving rapidly.  The blended learning model – a format which combines digital or virtual resources with tangible interaction – is changing how we traverse the complex environment of the natural world.

Although the virtual lecture is relatively new at Queen’s University, initiated with high enrollment in introductory courses in 2011, it has been in practice across North America for much longer. Courses such as first-year psychology, geography and sociology are currently offered in this format. One can imagine why the model is attractive to post-secondary institutions as a useful tool to enhance student participation and accommodate different learning styles. It also facilitates distraction and cost saving for university administration. The challenge of blended learning is adapting the model to fit the pedagogical goals of
the institution.

According to statistics Canada, post-secondary enrolment has increased by over 10% since 1991, with the majority of new students aged 17 ­— 19.  Such a sharp increase in enrolment strains the potential of faculty, staff, and university resources while class sizes continue to grow.  Blended learning offers respite from the problems created by population expansion, but also threatens to serve as a quick cost saving solution.

The use of blended learning can be used to equip students with a comprehensive skill set for interacting in a technological environment.  The most comprehensive method of teaching is immersion, but the blended model implemented at Queen’s still has an in-person component. At the risk of serving as more of a crutch than a tool, blended learning should complement and not detract from original and creative thought and reasoning.

The potential of the technology needs to be mediated carefully in order to be used as an effective teaching tool in an environment where sensory stimulation is widely and easily available.

Only the truly captivating content has a chance of being consumed and digested by the student.  Giving the student control over the temporal flow of the lecture could work one of two ways.  If they can pause, fast-forward, and rewind, they might use the control to skim through or to revisit sections they didn’t understand.  The challenge comes in providing resources which must be not only engaging, but concise in a manner which holds students’ attention.

For example, a fourth-year Queen’s engineering student took Human Geography, GPHY 101, as a blended course. “It felt too casual.  Just lying in bed watching lectures on Human Geography felt more like watching a television show than learning,” he said.

Admitting that he was accountable for not being motivated to watching keenly he said, “I was just as lazy as with other classes, but it was easier.” According to the student, the interactive potential of blended learning was not being used to the fullest. “The lecture format could have had more effort put into it, different shots or something.  It didn’t use much of the potential of video.”

Professor Sidneyeve Matrix in the Department of Film and Media at Queen’s offers FILM 240, Media and Popular Culture, entirely online. She says she hears positive things from students.

“Many students tell me that they love the convenience,” she said.  The course includes live lectures called “webinars” as opposed to pre-recorded videos of the professor talking. The course also includes twitter feeds and online reminders for students, it’s a prime example of complete technological immersion.

“Until all of the kinks are worked out there are going to be growing pains,” Matrix said when commenting on how the blended model differs from full online immersion.

Searching the online catalogue at a library is extremely useful, but while browsing the shelves you are more likely to encounter something unexpectedly interesting or helpful. For post-secondary institutions such as Queen’s that want to offer the best possible education for their students technology is impossible to ignore; learning technologies must be considered carefully and used as a supplement and not a replacement.

 

Editor’s note: The student interviewed for his opinion on blended courses requested to remain anonymous. Many students had similar requests when asked about this topic.

 

 

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