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Course delivery modes in the spotlight: Defining our approaches to teaching and learning

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As higher education campus communities all around the world continue to plan for the next phase of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, many questions remain about what a post-COVID learning environment will look like. Campus leaders, faculty, staff, students, and public health officials are all staring into the murky metaphorical crystal ball seeking clarity over what will be possible in the Fall 2021 term and beyond. 

Many in our community just want to be back on campus, returning to exactly the way things were before the disruption, and to do so as quickly as possible. For some, working and learning online full-time has posed significant challenges. 

At the same time though, for some groups, especially those with disabilities, the pandemic has led to many positive outcomes as barriers to inclusion and accessible education have been removed. Essentially, as Nancy Doyle puts it, we have all been disabled by the pandemic, working in an environment that the majority find is not ideal for their needs and desires, and so there has been an acceleration of enabling tools and a levelling of the playing field that has never before existed. 

UWindsor has offered flexible, online and hybrid programming for decades, and incremental investments in infrastructure to support these teaching approaches over the last few years saw our community relatively well-prepared when the pandemic hit. However, despite this history of multiple teaching and learning approaches, we do not have formal definitions of the various modes of course delivery that exist.

Why do we need to define teaching and learning modes now?

Defining teaching and learning modes is a necessary element of the planning for a return to campus, as we need a clear and shared understanding of the expectations for teaching and learning activities that require differing levels of face-to-face exposure. This is critical in order to safely plan for any on-campus activity. 

We know that the fall 2021 term is unlikely to see a return to business as usual for universities, and the same pedagogical creativity and commitment shown over the last year during emergency remote teaching (Bozkurt et al., 2020) will be necessary as we move towards limited safe activity on campus. For technology-enabled teaching and learning, this activity falls on a spectrum from fully online to fully in-person, and all combinations in between. 

A small Academic Policy Committee (APC) sub-committee has been working on developing clear definitions of teaching and learning approaches for the UWindsor context, based on the approaches we have historically used, and anticipated flexibility needed in future teaching and learning.  This work was informed by a scan of definitions from other universities in Ontario and beyond, and the literature (e.g. Bates, 2019Johnson, 2019Beatty, 2019Burns et al., 2013). The draft definitions are under review by the full APC, and will be presented to senate for further feedback and refinement before formal adoption. The current definitions provide a working model for the broad types of engagement that can be expected, rather than attempting to capture all the highly nuanced teaching approaches that can exist, allowing for pedagogical flexibility.

Draft definitions 

The literature suggests that consensus around definitions of course delivery modes in Canada (and elsewhere), while beginning to coalesce, is still a challenge when comparing across institutions (Johnson, 2019). Some definitions are deeply influenced by pre-internet teaching and knowledge-sharing practices, some focus on very low-levels of technology use, while many institutions also still recognise ‘traditional’ distance education as an approach that has almost no interaction between students and their peers or instructors. 

In reality, even if the teaching mode is entirely analogue, learning in the 21stcentury is heavily digitally mediated. Our understanding of the interface between teaching practice and learning is evolving and so our definitions are necessarily dynamic and evolving as well, attempting to capture the spectrum of activity that we recognise as teaching and learning, while not restricting pedagogy or the emergence of new approaches. 

Abbreviated versions of the current draft definitions include:

  1. Face-to-Face (F2F)/On-Campus Teaching: learners and instructors meet in real time in the same physical location to facilitate instruction and learning. Assessment can be held at a physical location, or facilitated online.  
  2. Fully Online: course curriculum is intentionally designed for, and facilitated, using digital/web-based technologies. Online courses may make use of asynchronous or synchronous (real-time) strategies for curriculum delivery as indicated below. Online learners must not be required to come to a physical location for assessment.
    1. An Asynchronous online course utilises digital/web-based technologies to facilitate the curriculum and does not require real-time communication. Asynchronous courses have no required face-to-face, synchronous online, or on-campus activities, including assessment.
    2. A Synchronous online course utilises digital technologies to facilitate real-time interaction between instructor(s) at one site and learners at other distributed sites. These courses typically have regularly scheduled real-time meetings, and may involve using text, video, and voice communication in a real-time setting.
  3. Hybrid: curriculum is designed intentionally and thoughtfully to integrate face-to-face and online learning experiences. F2F teaching time in the hybrid method is reduced, but not eliminated, with the balance of learning being facilitated asynchronously or synchronously through digital/web-based technologies, or offline learning opportunities. Typically, 50%-80% of the total course learning hours are completed in online and asynchronous formats in hybrid courses.
    Examples of hybrid teaching that may be possible in Fall 2021 depending on public health guidelines at the time include:
    1. Lecture online – tutorials in person
    2. Lecture online – labs in person
    3. Lecture online – peer mentoring groups in person
    4. Initial classes in person, followed by online classes, and/or additional in-person class(es)
    5. Initial introductory classes online, followed by in-person classes
  4. Hy-flex: the curriculum is designed intentionally and thoughtfully to provide choice to learners in their mode of engagement with the learning. Typically, learners may have the choice to attend classes in F2F or online modalities, which may change throughout the course. Remote learners may join real-time classes via digital/web-based technologies, and synchronous and asynchronous curricular elements are carefully designed to intentionally integrate remote and F2F learners, such that the learning environment and opportunities are equivalent. Real-time classes are usually recorded for review by all learners. Hy-flex learners must not be required to come to a physical location for assessment.

Will this restrict the way I teach?

Defining teaching modes is not about trying to reduce flexibility of teaching approaches or impose restrictions on pedagogical creativity. Rather, it is a way to ensure that there is a shared understanding between the key stakeholders in the teaching and learning endeavour throughout the whole teaching and learning cycle. 

One of the complaints that we hear a lot from faculty is that they have no mechanism for requesting the type of room or technology resources that best supports their pedagogical needs. From students, we hear complaints of expecting a course to be taught in a particular mode, only to find that it is something different after they register. Not having clarity before registration also leads to students having to ‘course shop’ and register in as many courses as possible simply so they can find out basic information about the course to make an informed decision about whether to take it or not. 

Other reasons to define course delivery modes

There are a number of other reasons why well-defined course delivery modes are desirable. First, the institution is required to regularly submit statistics about enrollments in courses with various teaching modes (e.g. face-to-face, online and hybrid) to the Ministry of Colleges and Universities. Second, we also provide course lists to other provincial bodies including OnCATeCampus Ontario, and Contact North, and those reports include course delivery modes. Without capturing this information at the source, reporting requires considerable time and manual effort to collate data that is prone to inaccuracies. 

Additionally, special grant funding is often available to support online and hybrid programming, so it is critical that we are able to definitively describe intended delivery mode of courses and programs involved in funding applications to ensure eligibility. 

Short-term return-to-work needs vs long-term planning in the new post-COVID normal 

In the short term, defining how we intend to teach has obvious benefits in providing critical information to the planning teams so they can determine our capacity to offer on-campus activities. A spectrum of approaches will be necessary, and we all need to be on the same page about what that spectrum includes. 

In the longer term, it is a necessary part of a broader, strategic conversation about the desired pedagogical mix of activities for our courses and programs. Over the last year, most of us have been forced to consider and attempt teaching and learning in unfamiliar forms that may have triggered personal doubts about our teaching, forcing us to confront sometimes uncomfortable questions about our role as educators and that of universities in general. In light of this disruption and experimentation, we have an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine, and re-envision our pedagogies and the whole teaching and learning endeavour. 

As a community, we have shown that not only is online teaching and learning viable, but that it can also foster pedagogical creativity and innovation, expand access, and provide inclusive, compassionate, and caring educational spaces. Critically, for some learners who have been underserved by our traditional educational models, there are clear advantages to online and flexible learning that we should seriously consider making a permanent part of our pedagogical mix. 

In other parts of the world, COVID has accelerated significant change in pedagogical approaches that were already underway. In Australia for example, even though campuses are returning to full activity, only 1/3 of institutions are planning to have lectures as part of their teaching approach in 2021. Only 23% of universities intend to return to full lecturing in the future, and 14% do not plan to ever return to traditional lectures (with a further 16% saying they are probably not returning to lectures). Teaching and learning in these institutions will focus on smaller group activities, tutorials, active and authentic learning, with some having already started demolishing lecture theatres as far back as 2012. Similar trends are being predicted elsewhere.

For their part, the Ontario Government has signalled their preference with the development of the Virtual Learning Strategy and committing significant resources to making this strategy a reality. We have many decisions to make going forward about whether we, as a community, want to continue the work that has begun in developing a more robust, diverse suite of teaching and learning opportunities, given that there is demand and potentially new markets for education that remain unexplored. 

Whatever direction we take, it should be an intentional outcome of thoughtful, inclusive and strategic planning, rather than a reaction to short-term conditions. We have gathered significant momentum in pedagogical adaptation, innovation and evolution towards a more compassionate, caring, inclusive, and digitally literate campus; I for one hope we can maintain and expand on this work, and not lose the gains we have made.

References and further resources:

Bali, M. 2015. Pedagogy of Care — Gone Massive. Hybrid Pedagogy, Online: https://hybridpedagogy.org/pedagogy-of-care-gone-massive/

Bates, T. 2019. Teaching in a Digital Age. 2nd Ed. BC Campus. Online: https://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/

Beatty, B.J. 2019. Hybrid-Flexible Course Design: Implementing Student-Directed Hybrid Classes. 1st Ed. EdTech Books. Online: https://edtechbooks.org/hyflex

Bozkurt, A., Jung, I., Xiao, J., et al. (2020). A global outlook to the interruption of education due to COVID-19 pandemic: Navigating in a time of uncertainty and crisis. Asian Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 1-126. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3878572

Bozkurt, A. et al., 2020. A global outlook to the interruption of education due to COVID-19 Pandemic: Navigating in a time of uncertainty and crisis. Asian Journal of Distance Education. 15(1).

Burns, K., Duncan, M., Sweeney, D.C., North, J.W. and Ellegood, W.A. 2013. A Longitudinal Comparison of Course Delivery Modes of an Introductory Information Systems Course and Their Impact on a Subsequent Information Systems Course. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 9(4): 453-467.

Johnson, N. 2019. Tracking Online Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges: National Survey of Online and Digital Learning 2019 National Report. Canadian Digital Learning Research Association. Online: http://www.cdlra-acrfl.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/2019_national_en.pdf

National Centre for Academic Transformation (NCAT), 2014. How to redesign a college course using NCAT’s methodology. Online: https://www.thencat.org/Guides/AllDisciplines/College%20Course.pdf

Nick Baker is the Director of the Office of Open Learning at the University of Windsor. He has been teaching and researching about online, open, and technology-enabled teaching and learning for two decades. He is a strong advocate for accessible education for all learners, and the power of Open Educational Practices to help achieve that. He is the Chair of the Ontario Universities’ Council on eLearning, a director on the board of eCampus Ontario, and an award winning educator and leader in Canada and Australia, most recently receiving an Award for Excellence from the Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities for his work in helping universities transition to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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