Future forward: E-learning coming to a classroom near you

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

By now, you’ve likely read the email. But what can, and what should, you do now that you’ve read it?

A note from Vice-Provost (Academic Programs) John Doerksen landed in faculty in-boxes earlier this week, spreading the word about the state of e-learning and new technology-enhanced teaching initiatives taking place at Western.

The note is tied to the recent launch of the new eLearning at Western website, hosted by the Teaching Support Centre (TSC) and meant to be an informative and supportive hub for faculty and staff interested in technology-enhanced learning.

“We’re in a great place with e-learning now at Western. The overarching goal, at least in my mind, or, what we’ve heard from the task force, is that (e-learning) is driven by academic priorities,” Doerksen said.

Nearly two years have passed since an e-learning task force was asked to produce a report to the provost, outlining priorities and goals in technology-enhanced learning on campus. Since then, Doerksen noted, progress has been made and every year, more and more students are showing a demand for fully online courses. This year, there are 13,000 online enrolments alone.

But online courses are not what define e-learning, Doerksen continued.

“At Western, we are interested in the whole spectrum. What’s the principle driving e-learning at Western? It really is academic engagement. It’s an academic priority we are working to address,” he said.

“E-learning won’t be the right thing for every course or discipline, but we are talking about the full spectrum, where on one end, you have the fully online course, and on the other end, you could have a course with minimal engagement with e-learning, and just using Sakai.”

In the middle, there are plenty of options available to faculty, lecturers and teaching assistants who wish to enrich students’ learning experience, Doerksen added. Varied classroom technologies and tools are available with support at the ready from the TSC. Online resources are out there, and even publishers of class books and materials are getting on board and providing online tools to accompany traditional texts. Blended learning is a formal structure now, too, Doerksen explained, with components of classes available online in addition to occasional face-to-face interaction.

All of these options are currently being explored by professors and instructors in just about every program and faculty. For those wishing to incorporate more technology and web-based tools in their teaching, or for those who want to design a course online, help is always available through the TSC and the Instructional Technology Research Centre on campus.

Some faculty members might be hesitant to move towards technology-enhanced learning initiatives but, Doerksen said, an open mind is all that’s needed.

“I would say if we take the opportunity to look for the possibilities, we might surprise ourselves. I encourage faculty colleagues to go to the new Western Active Learning Space. When you walk into that space, you realize there’s lots of technology, students can work together in pods, linked by technology. It’s really designed for student active learning, and when you walk in and play around with the technology, try to imagine how you could convey core disciplinary knowledge and see how can that technology can help,” he said.

“We also have to keep in mind students’ own expectations. Students are coming to us as digital natives. They’re vary familiar with technology and this is a way for us, in the context of our teaching mission, to actually be able to use the tools they’re familiar with to reach our students,” Doerksen said.

“I think we have a lot of great champions (of e-learning) across campus. One of the things that’s been great is seeing these colleagues get together and form a community of practice.”

Among a number of examples on campus, Doerksen mentioned Commercial Aviation Management professor Susanne Kearns and her use of ‘snap courses,’ short, content-focused presentations that can be delivered even by way of mobile applications.

Tom Haffie, a lecturer in Biology, also got a nod for being among the first to use clickers in a Western classroom as a way to engage students and drive active learning.

“Kem Rogers in Schulich is looking at how students learn in a face-to-face environment versus an online learning environment. He’s doing the same course and doing some research on what’s the impact on learning from these different learning modalities,” Doerksen added.

“I think we’re going to see evidence-based practice and best practice for continued learning and growth at Western.”

The provost’s office is investing in a teaching fellows program with a focus on e-learning. It is also exploring options to develop clusters of courses online, enabling students to do an entire module online. Teaching terms of reference and a teaching award to recognize contribution in technology-enabled learning is also coming down the pipeline, Doerksen added.

“There’s no question that lectures well delivered are a critical part of pedagogy, but if we look at other ways of engaging our students, we can find ways to engage them as partners in learning through technology.”

The new website includes an introductory video and features professors from all faculties sharing their experiences teaching with technology, as well as an eLearning toolkit with links to teaching strategies and software resources.

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Professors, instructors and teaching assistants across all faculties are using technology to help them teach and engage students. Here are just two examples of how technology is enhancing both the traditional classroom experience and the online learning experience at Western.

George Gadanidis, Faculty of Education

For George Gadanidis, e-learning is an integral part of his approach to teaching – which you could say is good, because he’s teaching future teachers.

“Even if I teach face-to-face classes, we have online components where students can go to follow up on discussion and access resources. In the Bachelor of Education program, if they are in a practicum, they can share ideas online, even if they aren’t together,” Gadanidis said.


Funding over the years has allowed him to make documentaries of research he has done in classrooms, which are available online for his students to learn from.

With colleagues and other students, Gadanidis also designs interactive content for students, allowing them to play with mathematical concepts and ideas online. He uses wikis, as part of his lesson plans, asking students to write and to contribute to documents collectively

“We are also getting into students being able to write code. The United Kingdom is introducing coding for all grades in the curriculum, so we are exploring that there,” he continued.

A dozen years ago, we might have been wondering if online courses and technology-enhanced learning is the way to go, Gadanidis said, but it’s valuable in all programs and classrooms.

“Most of my teaching online is asynchronous partly because some of the students I have aren’t in same time zone. But we also use synchronous groups as well, and I would create different times when I would invite students to join to have a face-to-face discussion online,” he explained.

“I don’t start with technology; I start with what I want to accomplish – what is it and how do I structure this learning so it would be meaningful, and then I look for technological tools that would help me do that.”


Tom Haffie, Faculty of Science (Biology)

Tom Haffie was among those who pioneered the use of clickers in the classroom roughly a decade ago.

Technology has come a long way since then, but his classroom has kept up, using clickers and so much more to enhance the student learning environment, to make lessons engaging, and himself available to a class that might have an enrollment of 700 students.


“I started with overheads, writing out my overheads the night before and revealing them as we go. But I got frustrated with that really quickly and I started carrying a Mac SE on my back to the classroom. There was a projection plate that went on the overhead so I made little animations to make things move in class,” Haffie said of his first foray into technology-enhanced learning.

“I’m mostly using a tool to do something I would have done anyway. Before clickers, I used cards – people would fold up cards of different colours and hold them. My interest in technology comes from just a frustration of not being able to communicate with students and keep them engaged.”

In his class, Haffie runs two computers, various software, he records the class, uses clickers, a tablet and launches out of PowerPoint to use the web as well. It can be hard to keep up, but it’s a valuable and accessible learning experience for his students.

Recording his class allows his students to access materials after the lecture and helps with efficiency, he said. It’s about accessibility, too, and students being able to help themselves. He also holds office hours online through OWL and, at any time, 120 people might be online for a discussion.

“And 120 people would never come to my office,” Haffie said.

With clickers, which he still uses, he is able to have a conversation with a large class, garnering audience response in real-time.

“With clickers, I could discover what they already knew as a group. I could adapt and change, and not show the next slide because (they) already know that,” Haffie said.

“Technology shrinks the room – students at the back of my classroom are reading questions on their iPhone and clicking in their answers – they’re engaged in ways people who sit in back rows typically aren’t,” he went on.

“(Students) live in a technological world, and I don’t think they want to feel like they’re going back in time when they come into a classroom. There are certainly times we close the laptops and put phones away, and interact differently, but in general, technology is part of the world and it seems like it’s an obvious tool for the classroom.”