Online guru offers hints on where to start

By Paul Mayne
February 14, 2013

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Kim Holland would love to see more Western faculty members log on to teaching online courses, something he’s been doing since the late 1990s.

With approximately 150 online credit courses offered through Western, it’s a start, said the university’s coordinator and instructional designer for Distance Studies, but there’s a long way to go to catch up to other universities. For example, the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Extended Learning offers approximately 300 credit courses online.


“Western is definitely not a leader in the area of online teaching,” said Holland, who spoke at the Social Science Professional e-Learning seminar, Where do I start when teaching online?

He attributed some of this lag to the reluctance of faculty members and departments to jump into e-learning. A recent U.S.-based survey showed the top reasons why faculty shy away from taking their teaching online include time, support issues, effectiveness, funding and infrastructure.

When asked to compare the learning outcomes of an online course to the face-to-face, more than 60 per cent of faculty thought online courses were inferior. In fact, 38 per cent of those who teach online ranked it as inferior. That number was much larger for faculty who have never taught online, at 74 per cent.

But for Holland, who has taught online for years, this has not been his experience. The best thing to do, he said, is to start off small and get a feel for what it’s all about.

“You need to be comfortable with the course and the role you have to play,” Holland said. “You have to be willing to allow some flexibility. Students are responsible for their own learning. You are not necessarily responsible for all the learning in that online course and you have to be willing to allow that to happen.”

He said teaching online is foreign to some as it wasn’t how they learned coming up through the ranks. But being open and adaptable to change can lead to some exciting possibilities.

“In the online environment, I can have a greater sense of my students than face-to-face, because by creating an online dialogue and discussion questions I can have a greater sense of what the student is thinking,” Holland said. “Because they are thinking before they write, as opposed to having them in a class and it’s only the few extroverts who are going to answer. After the hour class, the conversation ends, but online it continues.”

Holland admitted some training will be necessary for faculty, especially centred around technology, “but not super techy.” He also suggested training around organizational skills and being flexible with student control.

“You have to have carefully thought out how the student is going to interpret what you have in your online course, even down to the selection of words and how it’s organized and laid out,” he said. “You have to be present in the course. The course doesn’t teach itself; you have to be part of it. The students need to have a sense that you are a real person inside this computer box. Content is really cheap. It’s how you package it and organize it in a way for students to learn from it that sets it apart.”

Holland sees a postsecondary future where more courses will be offered online, and the blending of courses (a mixture of face-to-face and the use of technology) is where he sees certain growth.

“There will be very few courses that will just be your standard face-to-face course without incorporating some form of technology,” he said. “Blended will be the dominant role at institutions like this. In other places, online will be the dominant way to get an education.

“I don’t think we can remain a closed residential university where all our courses are face-to-face. I think that would be a mistake. Given the demands (provincial and students), I think we need to carefully consider the technology and how we can incorporate it in an effective way. It’s a necessity from the institutional perspective.”

Holland said the issue at hand is not the technology – that’s just the vehicle – but how you use that vehicle intelligently spells success.

“You have to recognize what motivates individuals and everyone doesn’t really want to make an enormous change. At some level they are very happy with the status quo, he said. “To be innovative means you have to break that situation in some fashion.”


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