Queen’s University’s report on online learning
Senate Academic Planning Task Force (2013) Draft Report March 2013 Kingston ON: Queens University
Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, was one of the first universities worldwide to offer distance education courses, in 1888. It has recently released an 84 page report on online learning, developed by its Senate Academic Planning Task Force.
The SAPTF was mandated to study virtualization and online learning within the Queen’s context after the university’s academic plan was adopted, and to put forward recommendations for Senate. “The task force began its work by considering the wealth of commentary and debate generated around online learning during the academic planning process,” said SAPTF Chair Christopher Moyes, who is also a professor in the Department of Biology. The SAPTF met with individuals and groups over the course of preparing its draft report, in addition to using surveys to gather information about current ‘virtualization’ and online learning practices at Queen’s. The report, which was released March 21, proposes 18 specific recommendations aimed at informing Queen’s policy and planning around virtualization and online learning in the broader context of the overall student experience.
Key recommendations and conclusions
There are 18 recommendations listed, but many are conclusions rather than recommendations. For example:
- 2. Senate recognizes that there are benefits and risks to using online technologies in teaching and learning, and the relative balance depends on how the technology is employed and supported.
- 9. Senate rejects the notion that courses adopting online technologies for delivery of content or facilitating particular styles of learning are likely to be demonstrably inferior to traditional alternatives.
The more actionable recommendations are:
- Queen’s should do a better job identifying and recognizing faculty and staff who are innovators in teaching and promote synergies between them.
- Queens should explore ways in which the various pedagogical and technical support units can reorganize to support online learning more effectively.
- The [Task Force] recommends that more financial, technical, and pedagogical support is needed at all levels to make the most of use of online teaching tools
- The SAPTF sees an appropriately staffed Curriculum Committee as the best gatekeeper for assuring that changes in the mode of teaching meet their teaching and learning criteria (i.e. there should be the same approval/review process for online courses as for classroom courses to ensure quality).
- Schools/Faculties should articulate standards in terms of design, delivery and support for online courses and work in partnership with their departments/areas to ensure that these are met
- two recommendations to facilitate better integration/working relationships between academic departments and the Continuing and Distance Studies unit with respect to the design and teaching of online courses
- The SAPTF recommends that Queen’s does not become involved in MOOCs until and unless there is greater support for online learning (within the university.)
- Queen’s should remain involved in discussions exploring the creation of the Ontario Online Institute.
The main report provides the rationale/background that led to each recommendation.
But perhaps the most important statement in the report is a conclusion:
We get the impression that a great deal of time is being spent on discussing the merits of online technologies when the reality is that online courses will become more prevalent whether we participate or not. The overarching message that the SAPTF would like to send is that it is time to accept the case for the merits of online teaching technologies, and devote our collective energy to ensuring that Queen’s renews a focus on course quality. Whether or not the OOI is created, and if so, whether or not Queen’s joins the consortium, well-constructed, well-supported,technology enabled courses will have an important role in our curriculum.
Reading this report was like peering over the wall of a monastery watching the monks diligently tending their vegetables with trowels and hoes, then along comes someone who suggests that they might want to use a tractor.
It seems that the majority of Canadian universities have either just completed, are currently engaged in, or are about to develop reports, plans and strategies for online learning. I myself will have visited 13 different Canadian universities (out of a total of 72) over six months to talk to faculty, senior administrators and even Boards of Governors about strategies for online learning, the resources required, and ways to ensure quality teaching and learning online. Queen’s University has not been one of the 13, and this is clearly a report on, rather than a plan for, online learning, covering both blended/hybrid and fully online learning. Nevertheless it provides a valuable insight into the current thinking about online learning and its status in one of Canada’s more prestigious if conservative universities.
Most readers of this blog would be unlikely to argue with most of the conclusions or recommendations in the report. They reflect positions now that will be found in most Canadian universities to varying degrees. Nevertheless it is important that the Task Force provided such obvious statements about online learning, since it appears that some faculty at Queens still have serious reservations, or perhaps more accurately, lack of knowledge or experience in online learning.
There was some discussion in the report about events outside the university, such as a push from the Ontario provincial government for more online learning, and, as a result, the intent of the Council of Ontario Universities to establish an Ontario Online Institute. This led the Task Force to conclude that Queen’s faculty and departments should stop arguing about online learning and just get on with it in a thoughtful and cautious manner.
In my view there is no need for Queen’s University to wait for the government or the Council of Ontario Universities. Queen’s already has a number of interesting blended and fully online courses and programs, such as its EMBA. But if 2013 marks the year of the most advanced development of online learning in universities, this report suggests that Queen’s is still operating to the standards of 1995. Students everywhere are wanting more online and more flexible learning opportunities. The government wants to increase the participation rate in post-secondary education. Ontario already has a province wide infrastructure of learning centres through Contact North that can be used to recruit students for Queen’s University’s online courses. Queen’s should stop poking the tractor and drive it.
This report is an essential first step in catching up. What Queen’s now needs is a plan that sets clear goals for online learning, identifies the resources needed, and makes the necessary organizational and structural changes. In particular, it also needs to start to think about how best to use its beautiful campus when students can do a large part of their learning more conveniently and more effectively online.