Philosophy of E-Learning

Students today have different challenges than we faced as undergraduates.  The biggest one is distraction.  Between computers and cell phones, students are always engaged with technology.  As teachers, the trick is to use it to our advantage.  The internet is an amazing resource.  We can generate web-based assignments, which get students doing their homework while surfing.  From current events footage to videos and blogs we can also use the internet to liven up our lectures.  I have participated in pilot projects for upgrades of course management systems as well as attended workshops on instructional technologies in attempts to keep a step ahead of students and develop the most effective uses of technology for my classes.   I have experimented with different uses of the internet with blogs, wikis, Vista, Elgg, Blackboard, Elluminate, WordPress, Drupal, and Keep toolkit.  The e-porfolio project sprang from the idea that students liked to develop online identities and that it would help them with their studies and careers.

Course websites can generate dynamic learning communities; students have the opportunity to interact with each other, the instructors, and the course material. In my courses they are used to supplement, not replace, what is being learned in the classroom, lab, and field.  A website with images, video, lecture notes, quizzes, self-tests, assignments, sign-up sheets, chat room, and class announcements and calendars provides an anchor for course communication and content access.  Self-grading quizzes can increase the frequency of student assessment without adding to instructor grading time.  Discussions promote interaction, but they are also valuable practice in communication.  Reminding students to write clearly when answering or asking questions is re-enforced during exchanges.  Website space for student projects provides students the opportunity to “publish”. Websites provide a flexible platform of course delivery; it is easy to add material on the fly and link to relevant online information.  The site must be organized and easy to maneuver for both the student and instructor.  When used effectively, websites can greatly enrich a course and turn the students from Facebook to bryophytes….well at least for a little while.

As a teacher I enjoy face-to-face interaction with students and use the internet as a supplement to my courses.  Distance Education, however, is a global reality.  The use of social media has exploded in the last few years.  Students have embraced it for social interactions, but also academics.  For example, in Biol 210 and 321 students have generated course-specific Facebook pages and wikis to share information and images with their classmates.  Developing and teaching a full online course (for Thomson Rivers Open University) has given me a an appreciation for this form of instruction. Interactivity is accomplished through synchronous communication interfaces, dynamic discussion boards, and other technologies.  Course enrolments are limited by how many students an instructor can handle.  A new type of instruction has emerged in which the instructor is taken out of the system, producing a forum that is infinitely scalable.  These massive open online courses (MOOCs), such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX, provide large-scale online courses developed by leading universities.  There are obvious limitations to this form of instruction, but for widespread information dissemination from reputable sources this is an excellent way for serving a wide range of learners.  I do not see them replacing an undergraduate experience in biology, as skill building, experiential learning activities, face-to-face collaborations, and field explorations and research cannot be simulated.