Fluid Power learning object, Durham College

Judith Tobin of Contact North has been collecting examples of innovation in online learning from the 20 universities and 24 colleges in the Ontario post-secondary system. These are being posted continuously into Contact North’s Educator and Trainer portal. The aim is to share best practice and encourage further innovation and best practices across the system.

I have asked her to do a guest post focusing on five of the cases she has recently posted:

MacMaster University: A blended learning model for introductory psychology

Queens University: A blended learning model for active learning

Durham College + Sault College: A hybrid model for apprenticeship education

George Brown College: RISK – A student-centered pedagogical model for teaching and learning

University of Ontario Institute of Technology:  Developing Autonomous Learners – Degree programs in education and digital technologies

Here’s is Judith’s post:

The Contact North | Contact Nord series, Pockets of Innovation, features concise descriptions of online and hybrid projects in post-secondary institutions across Ontario that are aimed at the improvement of student learning, access, and flexibility. Stories of new software developments, faculty training initiatives, online resources, institutional planning for e-learning, and social media applications to learning demonstrate how educators are changing the academic experiences of students through the artful integration of new technology and new pedagogical thinking.  

 As I met with the educators at institutions across the province to research these descriptions, I was struck by how online learning is increasingly a vehicle for bringing new ideas, such as restructuring class time, collaborative learning, and changes in the student/teacher relationship, into student learning in and out of class.

 In a move often referred to as ‘flipping the paradigm’, faculty are beginning to view content delivery as an activity that can take place outside of the classroom. Students study the essentials, particularly theory, before coming to lectures, labs, practicum, and other sessions that apply and build on what they have learned.

 At McMaster University in Hamilton, a blended learning model was developed to better serve the thousands of first-year psychology students who would find themselves listening to lectures in classes with hundreds of other students. As described in iBLM – An IntroPsych Blended Learning Model, online web modules, live lectures, and small group tutorials for discussion and group activities are combined with a wide range of online communications and testing tools to offer more dynamic and engaging learning. Ongoing research into the design, content and effectiveness of each component of the course has meant continuous improvement.

Facing the same challenge of large and passive classroom learning environments for their first-year students, Queen’s University in Kingston has adapted the model from McMaster University for their first-year Psychology and Human Geography courses. As well, they have made this focus on active learning a wider initiative within the Faculty of Arts and Science as other popular courses move to blended learning, including first-year Calculus, Gender Studies, and Sociology, and a second-year Classics course. I was able to visit one of the small group tutorials that are part of the blended psychology course and saw a classroom full of first-year students analyzing, debating, negotiating, and presenting conclusions – a far cry from listening to a lecture. Engaging First-Year Students – A blended learning model for active learning provides more detail on the Queen’s initiative. 

Students in the PSYC100 learning lab. Photo by Justin Chin

A cooperative venture between Durham College in Oshawa and Sault College in Sault Ste. Marie has used online learning to open up new possibilities for apprentices in both locations as outlined in Linking Online and Experiential Learning – A hybrid model for apprenticeship education. With the theoretical content for the Industrial Mechanic (Millwright) apprenticeship program online, students register at Durham for these courses but are able to take the practical lab/shop component at either college. Using learning objects, images, and practical testing online, the students are better prepared for their lab/shop sessions as they have successfully manipulated virtual tools, while respecting safety and other procedures. They can use the lab time more effectively based on their online experience. Through the use of online testing, the faculty track the concepts that challenge students and work with the lab/shop instructors to focus on these areas of difficulty.  The interchange between the online and the lab components has produced a reciprocally beneficial model of learning. The retention rate in this program has been very high.

At George Brown College in Toronto, a graphics design professor has used online learning to integrate a distributed teaching and learning model into the classroom in which everyone is a teacher and a learner. Given the speed of software introduction and enhancement in graphic design, lectures and demonstrations of specific pieces of software did not give the student the skills they needed. In the new model, the software is loaded on lab computers and student teams explore and analyze specific programs and display their capacity in developing reports and documentation to share with their classmates. In a departure from the usual classroom practice, students generate the content of their learning – and consequently develop skills essential to their work in the industry. The description, RISK – A Student-centred pedagogical model for teaching and learning, explains the approach, its benefits, and challenges.

Student generated computer graphic design from George Brown College

Professors in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa share this vision of students who take responsibility for the content and direction of their learning. In two Masters degree programs, live weekly web conferences are supplemented by discussion groups, blogs, wikis, and podcasts. As described in Developing Autonomous Learners – Degree programs in education and digital technologies, problem-based learning forms the core of some courses, with teams of students working together to define a series of problems related to the themes of the class, determine the knowledge they need to address them, and present their findings and their process. The online class time is largely given to small and large group meetings, discussions, and a final determination of shared learning. The learning management system and social media are used for collaboration and communication between classes. Through synchronous and asynchronous interactions, the students develop skills as autonomous and collaborative learners who learn far more than the content of the course by using online tools.

These are only a few examples of using online technologies to make learning more engaging, flexible, collaborative, interactive, and effective. The descriptions include additional stories of collaborative learning, the use of social media, interdisciplinary learning, and the growing use of virtual environments. Innovation is taking place across Ontario and the educators are willing to share their stories, their models, and expertise with their colleagues.


First, if these sound interesting, I recommend you to read the full description of each.

Second, these are just five of the 28 cases already posted. More will be posted over the coming months as Judith discovers Ontario in all its richness. I’m hoping Judith will do more posts like this, grouping together cases with common themes.

Third, I applaud the various instructors who have been willing and eager to share. Too often great innovative practices go unheard, because we are accustomed to teach behind closed doors. By sharing and stimulating others, innovative practice will spread more quickly.

Fourth, if anyone else is willing to share their innovation, I will be more than willing to invite them to send in a post describing it, with the caveat that I reserve the right to decide whether or not it fits within this general theme. Priority will be given to those that have evaluated the innovation in some way.

Thank you, Judith, for this. I hope your post will also start a discussion on what is innovation in online learning, and what is being achieved by such innovation.

Further reading

For more on the Queens University blended learning model, see:

Tamburri, R. (2012) Queen’s experiments with mix of lectures and online learning University Affaires, May 2




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