Team tasked with reimagining course delivery

Student working at home having a video conference with colleagues

A small, multidisciplinary team has been hard at work exploring new ways to enhance online courses and the experiences of instructors, students and administrative staff. They’ve developed an innovative course design concept known as the perpetual course model.

By Elaine Smith, special contributor

Mary Helen Armour, an associate professor for the Division of Natural Science, has always had an interest in trying new things, which led her to explore online teaching long before remote course delivery became a pandemic necessity. Her dissatisfaction with the way it was being done led her to Will Gage, York University’s associate vice-president of teaching and learning, and the opportunity to test an incipient perpetual course model.

“Regular classes have benefits, but online teaching always interested me because of accessibility issues,” Armour said. “I know a number of people who couldn’t afford to go away to school and didn’t live near enough to a university to commute. As technology gets better, you can create online courses that offer an equally effective learning experience, if not the same, as in-person classes.”

Five years ago, Gage’s own interest in course availability and accessibility prompted him to put together a team to rethink course delivery with an emphasis on creating a model that could adapt to and integrate emerging technology.

From left: Will Gage, associate vice-president teaching and learning; Michelle Sengara, PhD, a consulting educational expert; and Kelly Parke, a technology consultant
From left: Will Gage, associate vice-president teaching and learning; Michelle Sengara, PhD, a consulting educational expert; and Kelly Parke, a technology consultant

Michelle Sengara, a consulting educational expert, leads this small team for strategic course innovation, and together they have been focused on the problem of providing high-quality education online ever since. Gage asked the team to consider both the students’ and instructors’ experiences while also streamlining the administrative staff’s experiences within one design for what a course of the future might look like. This innovative course design is now called the perpetual course model.

They spent a year learning about the problem, conducting design sprints and developing the proof of concept to describe what the experience might look like. They followed that by getting buy-in for the approach and drumming up interest within the York community. For the past three years, they have been testing this perpetual course model, using the feedback and insights generated from mixed methods of research to refine – and design. This year, an expanded prototyping process was offered to a set of five instructors with the help of Category 2 funding – focusing on academic innovation projects – from the Academic Innovation Fund.

“Current models of education, across age levels and/or subject areas, tend to centre on knowledge acquisition, but the work being done now is to recentre the educational experience on skill acquisition in order to mobilize those knowledge assets in more innovative and meaningful ways,” Sengara said. “This work needs to be integrated at both the high-school level – in order to adequately prepare students for an active and participatory postsecondary environment – and at the level of professional development, supporting instructors in the design, development and delivery of high-quality, skills-based programs.

“What we are developing is not a prescription; it encompasses principles and values for teaching at York, but the team works with every instructor to personalize the learning experience for their students given their specific subject matter,” Sengara added.

The model aims to provide students with skills in knowledge acquisition, knowledge agility, autonomy and professionalism, and interaction and collaboration, while inspiring creativity. Each course’s curriculum determines the knowledge they’ll need to acquire, but the model offers alternatives in how that information is delivered and assessed to promote the student’s mastery of both the subject matter and the aforementioned skills.

Ideally, the perpetual course model would allow students to register and begin a course whenever it was convenient for them, with staff always available, said Sengara, “allowing them to work their way through self-paced learning modules, but with tangible support. It’s not something we can realize just yet because registration processes are traditionally tied to government funding and come with strict credit and time/space restrictions. However, our goal is that every course would have one perpetual section.”

Armour was the first faculty member to test this flexible model and it required her to rethink the full-year course Earth and Its Atmosphere, change the structure and rethink the order of the content. She made it modular and incorporated videos, breaking the four course themes into subtopics. This is her fourth year participating in the perpetual course model experiment and she has refined her approach and content each year, learning from her mistakes and student feedback.

“The first year, I made everything due at the end of the course, which is open to students from all years, and the procrastination was horrible,” she said. “I realized that they aren’t that disciplined, so I reinstated due dates within the themes, but made them submission windows as opposed to hard cut-off points.”

Since students can work at their own pace, “as an instructor, you have to be ready to answer questions about anything at any time, since students work ahead. You need to teach the course a time or two before you become comfortable with the process,” said Armour.

“For students who are organized, it’s a really good option. However, I had to make my own boundaries clear to them, in terms of when I’m available to answer questions and when I’m not. Artificial intelligence (AI) may be able to take over some of that work.”

That’s where Kelly Parke, a technology consultant and another member of the team, enters the picture.

“We are considering how technology can assist faculty to make their jobs better and allow for more one-on-one interaction,” Parke said. “When you don’t spend time with students, you lose connection. How can we build courses so artificial intelligence can help us understand the students a bit better and know early on when they’re having problems so we can intervene?”

He envisions that AI could allow the course to be responsive to each student’s learning style, allowing faculty to determine when a crisis is approaching and taking preventive action.

“University Information Technology wanted to build better integration with AI technologies, so we built the infrastructure internally,” he said. “We’re working with key research partners so we can prepare data for classification and analysis and allow AI to assist us in helping our students.”

“Ultimately, we should be able to customize each course to be like personal instruction, training AI using rubrics and samples to mark and grade like each individual faculty member would.”

York’s new director of IT innovation and academic technologies is on board with the experimentation being done by the perpetual course model team and partners such as IBM. They all believe the future looks bright.

“We have support in building a community of practice to help disseminate what we learn,” Sengara said. “This year, we have five courses being taught using the perpetual course model and we meet monthly. In innovation, you need to help people along and troubleshoot throughout the process.”

Armour believes that students “need to learn to deal with online courses; they are another skill for life and they may need to upgrade their credentials.”

The perpetual course model is working toward making high-quality learning opportunities available online in a way that is most beneficial to everyone involved, pandemic or not.