Building a sustainable eLearning system for York University

Students looking at a computer

York psychology Professor Gary Turner, a neuroscientist in the Faculty of Health, knows a thing or two about the importance of using technology to help engage students in their learning.

As director of the 3000-level Neuroscience of Aging & Cognitive Health course, Turner uses a blend of in-class and online teaching strategies to deliver information about the neural basis of cognitive changes and aging to psychology students enrolled in the course. The blended format allows for the replacement of some of the in class traditional face-to-face time with online activities to achieve the learning objectives.

GaryTurnerGary Turner

Turner is among a growing cohort of York faculty who are trying technology-enhanced learning, which is comprised of web-enhanced, blended eLearning (which uses a combination of face-to-face and online delivery) and fully online courses, where 100 per cent of the instruction material is delivered online.

To learn more about what it would take to build an affordable and scalable eLearning system for the University, a large cross-functional team from the Faculties of Health and Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS), the Teaching Commons, eServices, and Learning & Technology Services was created and is now involved in an eLearning project supported by the Academic Innovation Fund (AIF). The eLearning project champions are Avi Cohen, professor of economics in LA&PS, and Susan Murtha, associate dean of teaching and learning in the Faculty of Health.

“The literature suggests that blended courses lead to more engaged students, and once they are engaged, it leads to better results,” says Murtha. “What I have learned throughout the project is that we can’t expect course directors to up and change their teaching style just a few months before their course starts. We have to give course directors opportunities to engage in professional development and provide the evidence to support change by showcasing best practices of the early adapters and show people that there is a benefit to them and their students for using technology in teaching and learning.”

The project, which is now in its second year, has collected data on the benefits of technology-enhanced learning and its positive role in student engagement. Susan MurthaBlended eLearning, which involves using a combination of face-to-face and online teaching approaches, was found to be the most successful in engaging students in their learning. The group is now looking at how to develop a sustainable eLearning system that can be expanded across the University. They are also building an infrastructure of pedagogical and technological supports.

AIF Project Champion Susan Murtha, associate dean of teaching and learning in the Faculty of Health

“Our goal by the end of April is to have in place the infrastructure to allow anyone in the University to come in and get the support they need to develop a fully online, web-enhanced or blended eLearning course,” says Cohen.

For Cohen, a long-time advocate of technology-enhanced learning, the project is doing important work to create a solid foundation that meets the needs of current and future students who have grown up with computers, smartphones and tablets. Wired differently, they are themselves “web-enhanced” before they enter the lecture hall. He is quick to point out that technology is just a tool in the teaching and learning dynamic, it is not the main driver. There are many advantages in eLearning. For faculty, learning the technology can help make graphs, statistics and complex topics more dynamic. They are able to capture their lectures and repurpose the material for future years with ease and efficiency. For students, it means that they can learn when it is convenient for them. Their learning melds with their busy lives and they can listen to lectures while commuting to school or after their part-time jobs.

As part of his journey to develop a technology-enhanced course, Turner learned how to use Camtasia, a recording and visual editing software, which he used to capture his voice and lecture material and convert it to podcasts.  He used Moodle to post podcasts of several lectures, as well as questions for discussion and extended learning materials. Students used Moodle to answer discussion questions online and collaborate on project work. “The technology really enabled me to harness the power of the class to develop shared resources,” he says. “I really enjoyed it and the anecdotal feedback that I have received so far has been very positive.”

“The students appreciated the opportunity to gain ownership of their learning,” says Turner. “The technology aspects [Moodle and Camtasia] worked wonderfully well and were easy to use. The Camtasia recordings gave students the opportunity to replay material as many times as they needed so that they could fully understand the concepts, augmenting their learning in a very positive way.”

As part of the course, Turner had students read a popular book about aging gracefully and the neuroscience of healthy aging as part of a course-based book club. He then divided them into three groups based on the pillars of successful cognitive aging presented in the book and in the research literature.. “Each week, students responded to a book club discussion question posted online,.” he said. “It provided a great opportunity for the students to hear the perspectives of other class members outside of the classroom.”

Students also worked within their pillar groups to identify specific interventions aimed at maintaining cognitive health in older adulthood. They prepared easy-to-read summaries of their interventions, which they then posted in a Wiki. By the end of the course, all of the material was compiled and shared to create a comprehensive, scientifically-based, eSource guide to aging and cognitive health.

“I used the resources provided by the Teaching Commons’ educational developers and I received a lot of support from Learning & Technology Services to develop the course,” says Turner. “The entire process was an adventure and I would absolutely use this approach again because it was a great experience.”

Cohen sees technology-enhanced learning as an invaluable tool in student engagement. “I used to teach a big economics course in one of the Curtis lecture halls. The summer before I started teaching [the course], I wrote on the chalk board and then went to the back of the lecture hall to look at what I had written. I realized that the way I normally wrote meant that students couldn’t see it. So my first use of ‘technology’ was a big piece of chalk, like sidewalk chalk because it was an inch in diameter,” said Cohen.

“I discovered that by using that chalk, the students could understand what I was writing and understand what I was trying to get across. That chalk served the same purpose as any technology serves, and that is to help students better understand the material.”

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor