More needs to be done to support teaching online in Canada

4 min read

I am reading with interest the latest research report done by the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association into the state of online learning in Canada. This annual report is quickly becoming a must read for those interested in online teaching & learning in Canada as it is one of the few research reports that captures the national picture on what is happening in the Canadian post-secondary system (which, for international readers, is largely a provincial responsibility).

Dr. Tony Bates has provided some highlights & analysis, and a couple of the bullet points popped out at me around faculty development, capacity building, and the biggest barriers institutions still face when it comes to developing online courses and programs. Tony notes that;

79% of institutions reported inadequate training for faculty as one of the main barriers to online learning, up from earlier years; the issue of faculty support and training for teaching online is significant and needs to be addressed in the development of strategic plans for expanding and improving online offerings;

As someone who has worked in online learning for almost 20 years now, I find this number staggering, and a sobering wake up call that, whatever systematic measures that have been putting in place to support online teaching and learning, they don’t seem to be adequate to meet the burgeoning needs of the post-secondary system as online courses and programs scale up across the country.

I think about the capacity building work that has happened here in the British Columbia system that go back to the late 1990’s with (then) C2T2 and (later) the organization I work for now BCcampus, who began capacity building initiatives into online learning around 2003-04 with the Online Program Development Fund. The OPDF project included open licensing within it, but did not begin life as an “open education” project per se. Indeed, the entire concept of open education and OER’s were still relatively nascent concepts at the time. But there was a systematic need to build the capacity within the system to develop and deliver online courses and programs, and for a decade OPDF worked to build the skills needed within the system to deliver online courses and programs. Today, BCcampus still supports the development of online teaching & learning skills through the FLO (Facilitating Learning Online) program.

I’m not sure why we are in a situation where there is a massive skills gap among instructors to teach online. Maybe there is a feeling that we have “been there done that” with online learning, and that sense of urgency that was felt in those early days of online learning to skill up instructors through systematic investments like OPDF has waned. Or perhaps we are turning our collective attention to other pressing issues within the post-secondary system. Accessibility, inclusiveness, affordability, breaking down systematic barriers to learning in general, let alone online learning. The kinds of things that online learning was supposed to help ameliorate.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that, with 3/4 of all institutions in Canada offering online courses & programs, this modality of teaching isn’t going away and those who teach this way need to be well supported.

Tony also notes that, not only is training in online learning a barrier, but there is also a lack of any kind of formal requirement for instructors who teach online to be required to take any training or PD around teaching online.

also for the first time, institutions were asked about their policy for professional development and training of faculty. The results showed that although just more than half the institutions provide voluntary professional development or orientation for teaching online, faculty are rarely required to take part in training or professional development for teaching online.

Now, it is easy to isolate this as an online teaching issue only, but I think the same could be said for post-secondary teaching in ANY modality; face-to-face, online, blended, hybrid, whatever. Remove the word online from the end of that sentence and I think it is still a true statement. So, while the problem is acutely highlighted in the context of online learning, this is the same for online or face to face learning.

The key difference imo is that often instructors can muddle along quite adequately teaching in a face to face environment because they have had decades of experience learning in that specific environment. Many teach the way they have been taught. But that is often not the case with online learning. Indeed, I have seen instructors thrown into online courses with no more support than an introduction to the LMS training session and expected to thrive when they themselves have very little practical experience with being a learner in an online environment themselves. So, while I think there needs to be continued investment in training on teaching & learning for ALL post-secondary instructors, the need feels particularly acute for those who teach online.

 

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