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University of Guelph leads higher learning project

University of Guelph

By  Rob O’Flanagan

A post-secondary student may get a passing grade in an exam or course, but that doesn’t mean they learned the most crucial skills and knowledge needed to succeed at the next course level or in the world beyond the campus grounds.

A long-term, $6-million research project lead by the University of Guelph and using interactive and integrated technology developed by Kitchener-based Desire2Learn aims to revolutionize post-secondary education by better ensuring students learn and retain the essential stuff.

Officials say success of the research project will require a major cultural shift in how universities and colleges educate their students. The project, which could take up to 15 years to complete, will track, measure and report learning outcomes, all in an effort to improve those outcomes.

John Baker, CEO of Desire2Learn, and U of G associate VP academic Serge Desmarais said the research initiative could fundamentally change the way post-secondary education is delivered. U of G will lead a consortium including University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University, McMaster University and Mohawk College.

Baker said Desire2Learn’s integrated learning platform uses the various elements of digital technology — mobile devices, desktop computers, the internet, various digital learning tools, and data analytics — to create learning environments where students have better outcomes, better experiences and a better sense of engagement.

It’s a bit like learning by correspondence, only blending the latest digital technology with more traditional classroom-based learning.

“At the core of it, it’s really taking what was traditionally happening in the classroom and allowing us to use the internet to turn that into online courses, or what we call blended learning, where they might be using traditional classrooms but a lot of the resources are being supported by digital sites,” Baker said.

He added that about 13 million learners around the world, affiliated with 1,100 clients in the education, business and government sectors, are using the company’s integrated learning platform.

“I think we are in a period of transition in universities,” said Desmarais. “Until not too long ago, the traditional approach to education was independent courses run by independent faculty members, where very few people thought about the collective enterprise. Discussions about how all these courses link together like a big curriculum mapping experience for students, was really not part of our regular discussions.”

That is beginning to change in a big way, and a debate is ongoing about the nature of learning outcomes, he indicated.

“Learning outcomes is a way to determine beyond content whether a student actually learns a certain set of skills that are actually transferable to the workplace, no matter what kind of work they do — things like critical thinking, research, and numeracy,” Desmarais added.

“Now the big question is, now that we have these learning outcomes how do we measure these things? This is where we’re at,” he said.

That is the impetus behind the learning outcomes research, which is funded through the Productivity and Innovation Fund of the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

U of G was the first Canadian university to implement across-the-board learning outcomes for all degree programs and specializations. They include critical/creative thinking, literacy, global understanding, strong communication skills, and professional/ethical behaviour.

“Unlike the old days where you would pass or fail a course,” Baker said, “we’re providing the universities the ability to define their learning objectives and outcomes they’re wanting students to achieve, and then to be able to map that through content and assessment so that you can actually demonstrate that the student has achieved their particular learning objective.”

He added that in a traditional education setting a student may pass a grade, but may have failed to acquire certain crucial skills needed for the next grade. It is the same at the university or college level.

Being able to identify those lapses in learning allows students to revisit the material, perhaps in a more creative or personal way, until it is actually learned. Such learning has a long term benefit to the student.

“What’s great about that is that downstream you can make improvements to the course, but also the student can understand what they’re not getting,” Baker said. “They have a roadmap in front of them for what they are supposed to be learning, and they can take it upon themselves to be able to find other activities or other experiences that will continue to develop those learning outcomes, giving them more responsibility for their own learning experience as well.”

Desmarais said the approach used to measure outcomes will not be rigid across all departments. Instead, it will allow for flexibility, taking into account that not all university disciplines think the same about outcomes or how to define them.

“We will give disciplines the capacity to measure these things in a way that seems appropriate for that discipline,” he said.

“This is such a cultural shift,” Desmarais added. “This is going to be a revolution.”

U of G, he added, engaged in a one-year pilot project with Desire2Learn prior to launching the new research project.

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