New role to strengthen technology, teaching

Adela Talbot // Western News

Gavan Watson, Western’s new associate director (e-learning), believes the university’s e-learning efforts are not simply about technology, but about good teaching and how different technologies can inform classroom practice.

Technology has always played a prominent role in Gavan Watson’s world.

He remembers his first laptop in 1996, and being immediately drawn to what he could accomplish with the tool. As a PhD student at York University, he created an online learning management tool for the classes he taught. And recently, as an educational developer at the University of Guelph, he utilized technology to support curriculum development and graduate students in their journey to become university educators.

In August, Watson joined Western as the university’s first associate director (e-learning).

The position, he feels, marries perfectly his interests and experiences.

“I’ve always seen how educational technologies can make my job easier. I’ve always seen them as an opportunity to improve practice, and that’s one of the interesting things – technologies, in and of themselves, help good teaching,” he said.

A 2013 report to the provost, a result from an e-learning taskforce on campus, identified a number of action items to improve technology-enhanced learning at Western.

At the highest order, Watson’s position is to work within the Teaching Support Centre to address action items in the report, among them increasing the number of courses offered online as well as the kind of support available to faculty using technology in and out of the traditional classroom.

“Often, technology is seen as a ‘bell and a whistle’ that isn’t necessarily used critically, that is used without a lot of thought, when in fact, perhaps, chalk on a chalkboard is as effective for that class as it’s ever going to be,” Watson said.

“But it’s not about the technology itself, per se. Technology changes; it’s always going to be changing. This is about good teaching and how different technologies can inform good classroom practice – whether that classroom is fully face-to-face, blended or fully online.”

Watson’s job includes working with faculty members and instructors on the individual level, assessing their desires and needs in the classroom and seeing if there are technological tools that could assist them in achieving their teaching goals.

He also works with departments and faculties to help them realize their goals in program and course development, using online technologies and tools in the classroom.

E-learning at Western, he said, is simply defined as technology-enhanced learning. It can involve using the web to enable asynchronous learning in an online course, or using tools already in the classroom, like a smart board, to enhance the learning experience. The underlying key is there needs to be a benefit to both the student and the instructor, Watson explained.

Strategies for ongoing development of e-learning on campus have to be responsive to students. That varies depending on the course, department or faculty.

While what’s right for one, may not be for another, Watson stressed he is available to help bridge the gaps.

“Western is largely a residential institution. Students come here for the ‘Western Experience.’ But that doesn’t mean students aren’t looking for a more flexible schedule,” Watson continued, adding professional programs also come into the mix when considering online course development.

With the recent opening of Western’s Active Learning Space (WALS), a technology-based classroom in the basement of the University Community Centre, Western is at the cutting edge of technology-enhanced learning, Watson said.

“Those kinds of spaces promote engagement and student success and have the possibility of being used all over campus. Not every single class needs to be infused with that much technology. But it’s always a question of what faculty want to achieve in the classroom and how they can use technology to do that,” he said.

“A challenge will always be online learning, because it’s a new domain of learning.”