College Quarterly
Summer 1996 - Volume 3 Number 4
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Developmental Issues for Telecourse Delivery: An Instructional Perspective

by Ted Dunlop & Barry Forer

Kenneth C. Green has recently argued that "it is still premature to talk about a technology-driven transformation of educational institutions which, in the main, are still in the early stages of applying various kinds of technology in their instructional functions" (Green, 1966). He suggests that it is hyperbole to discuss a technological revolution in education that implies a sudden and dramatic departure from past practice.

Technology is beginning to ease its way into the mainstream but as Green reminds us, "technology has not yet radically transformed classrooms, the instructional activities of most faculty, or the learning experience of most students." Having said this, Green rightly points out that changes in curriculum design and delivery will be a continuing and incremental process that is fostered by "the interaction between individual initiative (the way individual faculty design the syllabus and structure their classes) and institutional infrastructure (the hardware, software, and support services available to students and faculty)."

The conundrum facing us as college educators is how to move forward at a reasonable pace while recognizing, at the same time, that changes are called for in the very culture of teaching and learning. Michael Fullen has observed that "cultural change requires strong, persistent efforts because much of current practice is imbedded in structures and routines and internalized in individuals, including teachers."

Phrased in very simple terms, the message to take to heart here is the need to walk before we run, experiment with incubation-type projects that start small, look at ways of putting into place the infrastructure needed to support and sustain the use of technology, rigorously evaluate what we do, develop external linkages for exchanging information and exploring opportunities for collaboration and build internal alliances that help our colleagues to become comfortable with different uses for technology in the classroom.

In a nutshell, this is the kind of process that has been followed by two educational partners in British Columbia who joined together three years ago to launch a unique and innovative project using videoconferencing technology for course delivery.

Following a series of discussion, the University College of the Fraser Valley (UCFV) and the University of Victoria submitted in June, 1994, a joint proposal for the Skills Now initiative of the British Columbia Ministry of Skills, Training and Labour. The proposal, Building for the Future, outlined a project that would allow both institutions to pilot and evaluate the delivery of two Child and Youth Care courses using full-motion interactive television. Following approval of the project in July, 1994, the fibre optic technology required to sustain the project was installed at UCFV in time for the Winter Semester, 1995.

The first of two courses was offered during this semester with the second pilot course following in the Fall Semester, 1995. It is important to note from the UCFV perspective that this particular pilot project served as a catalyst for other departments to pilot courses of their own with partners in other B.C. universities. A Kinesiology course on Biomechanics and a Computer Information Systems course on Data Communications were delivered with students from Simon Fraser University, with UCFV acting as the remote site in both cases. UCFV and the University of British Columbia were also linked for an Agriculture course on Fruit Production taught from UCFV.

The inter-institutional nature of all these courses provided challenges beyond course instruction. There were many logistical details to be worked out, including time-tabling, registration, and the setup and arrangement of technical equipment. Also, the differing educational backgrounds of the students across the institutions, as well as course content differences, had to be taken into account.

A two-pronged evaluation of the original pilot project is currently underway, with a summative evaluation being conducted under the auspices of a research team at the University of Victoria, while a complementing evaluation of the UCFV experience across departments has recently been completed. This complementing evaluation was deemed necessary because of the fact that courses other than those planned in the original pilot project have been offered at the University College of the Fraser Valley. The purposes of this site-specific evaluation are as follows:

  1. to assess the students' experiences of taking an ITV course;
  2. to assess the UCFV instructors' and facilitators' experience of delivering ITV courses;
  3. to examine technical considerations in ITV course delivery at UCFV;
  4. to address ways in which having ITV capability creates increased access and potential financial benefits for UCFV;
  5. to make recommendations relating to the educational, technical and institutional issues that arise from the results.

What follows below focuses on the findings from the evaluation of telecourses offered across departments at the University College of the Fraser Valley. The rationale for the original pilot project was to demonstrate an innovative approach to increasing student access to postsecondary education, while at the same time sharing the use of existing resources. UCFV was an ideal partner to share in the pilot project. The Fraser Valley is one of the fastest growing regions of the province and the country, with an increasing number of adult learners requiring access to part-time educational opportunities. If successful, this pilot project was envisioned "to represent a first step in the development of a more extensive provincial educational technology infrastructure" (Building for the Future, p. 11).

From the outset of the originating project, it was recognized that a rigorous evaluation would constitute a key feature of the experience and so the evaluation which has ensued over a five-month period from December, 1995 to April, 1996 is based on a broad database. Information was gathered using evaluation surveys, semi-structured interviews, group discussions, direct observation, institutional documents and published reports and articles. As part of their course evaluations, 136 students from all three participating campuses completed the ITV Evaluation Questionnaire (one class, the Data Communications course at Simon Fraser University, was inadvertently missed, and so the students in that course did not have an opportunity to complete the survey).

This particular survey instrument was developed by Christine Sorenson in 1994 as part of her doctoral dissertation at Iowa State University. The 26 items measure five dimensions of student attitudes about their experiences in an ITV classroom: instruction; membership/affiliation; technical aspects; course management; and course satisfaction. The ITV Evaluation Questionnaire also includes demographic items on gender, age, years of postsecondary education and home university.

Additional important information was gathered from standard faculty evaluations and interviews with participating students, faculty, administrators, technical support personnel, colleagues at the University of Victoria, and members of the UCFV Distributed Learning Advisory Committee, which is a body recently formulated to coordinate all electronic delivery of courses across the institution. The final grades of students in the ITV classes were used as well to compare student achievement between the host and remote sites.

From all the data amassed, the key finding that emerged was that students relate satisfaction with ITV courses to aspects of instruction and membership, rather than to technical aspects. By focusing on how instructional practices interact with the technology, and by creating a sense of class identity at both sites, instructors will increase student satisfaction with ITV courses.

There is a tendency to focus on the effects of the technology on ITV students. But while technological considerations are an inescapably critical aspect of the interactive television classroom, the results of multiple regression analysis showed that students' satisfaction with ITV learning was much more directly associated with instruction and membership. This result held true for all subgroups of students: host site and remote site; UCFV and other institutions; females and males; younger and older; as well as across the variety of courses offered through ITV. This is the key finding of the study.

By learning how both the instructional and membership needs of the students are affected by the ITV environment, instructors will learn how best to deliver these courses. It is anticipated that after ITV becomes more commonplace, and instructional design questions have been answered, issues of technology will become less important.

The experiences of students and instructors in the five courses in this study have provided essential information applicable to the goal of effective course delivery. In addition to a number of institution-specific recommendations, this study has allowed us to articulate fourteen key "lessons" that have been gained from the experience:

  1. In ITV teaching, instructor preparation is a critically important aspect of ITV-specific instructional strategies. Ideally, instructors should have formal training on these strategies. Before teaching an ITV course class for the first time, it would be advantageous for instructors to have taught the course first in the traditional format.
  2. Instructors and facilitators are enthusiastic about the experience of teaching through ITV, and about its potential to enhance the educational experience of learners.
  3. Students at remote sites especially appreciate the availability of courses, instructors and specialists not normally available. This is a source of satisfaction for remote site students, even if little student interaction is employed.
  4. Academic achievement is similar for host and remote site students.
  5. Courses with a significant practical component can be taught through ITV if remote site students have timely access both to the relevant materials, and to any hands-on instruction that may be necessary.
  6. Audio clarity is critical to courses being well received, especially for classes that emphasize student interaction. This needs to continue to be a priority in terms of technical equipment and support.
  7. Meaningful student interaction in the ITV classroom is affected by class size. Courses with significant levels of student participation should have predetermined enrolment and sufficient numbers of microphones.
  8. Rather than instructors, it is students who need to be the primary operators of the microphones. Learning will be enhanced if instructors are not required to divide their attention between teaching and technical demands. Push-to-talk microphones would relieve instructors of these technical duties.
  9. ITV course offerings should be clearly advertised in the college/university calendar and in the information packages of individual departments. This allows students to have a more informed choice about taking an ITV course. A "Survival Guide" for students should be developed in both print and video formats, to help students optimize their learning in the ITV environment.
  10. Instructors teaching courses with a great deal of student interaction must be careful to attend to their host site students' membership needs. This may be particularly important at smaller institutions where students may already know an instructor at the start of the course.
  11. For remote-site students, feelings of within-class involvement increase with the consistent presence and involvement of a facilitator.
  12. Increased interaction increases feelings of inter-class involvement, for students at both sites.
  13. Proper lay-out of equipment and consideration of effective classroom design are essential for creating an enriched learning environment.
  14. ITV classrooms have a great potential for uses (and cost savings) in areas other than direct classroom instruction. Use by other consumers may enable the institution to strengthen relationships with external partners while, at the same time, generating new sources of revenue for financially-pressed institutions.

Through our experience with telecourse delivery, it has become apparent that there are components to the process that are quite different from traditional teaching and learning. While it might be easier to address the administrative function of teaching in a teleclassroom rather than the act of teaching, a strong case can be made for maintaining a focus on teacher and learner needs. A recently released white paper entitled Learning-Centered Education in Ontario Colleges quite emphatically states that "in the colleges today, the participants must recognize the financial challenge and the urgency accompanying it, but the essence of the debate must be about education - about teaching and learning."

From the beginning, the ventures in telecourse delivery at the University College of the Fraser Valley have been primarily faculty driven with substantial administrative and technical support. While cognizant of the significant political and financial pressures that overshadow efforts to craft strategies for promoting a role for electronic course delivery systems, we have been able to maintain to date, at least, a very clear perspective that concentrates our energies on instructional issues. It is our contention that such a strategy paves the way for putting in place the kinds of systems necessary for supporting application of a range of different technologies in a coherent and sustainable fashion.

If the principal finding in our evaluation is that aspects of instruction and membership will drive learner satisfaction, then it follows that professional development programs will need to be developed that address the following components: telecourse organization; presentation skills; selection and design of visual materials for television teaching; design of interactive study guides; questioning strategies for effective interaction; packaging of courses for self-directed study; and development of consumer assessment instruments for measuring teleclass teaching effectiveness.

The old "cookie-cutter" approach to learning where all students learn at the same rate and in the same context is yielding to more individualized patterns. As heartening as it is to hear that instruction remains at the core of any good teaching enterprise, the pressures this shift places on faculty are no doubt onerous and somewhat disconcerting. It is not easy to see our historical assumptions about teaching and learning being so sorely tested. While there is no question that we are wading forth into uncharted waters, the reality is that there is no turning back. Although there are no simple prescriptions for all of us to follow, it is hoped that the experience of projects like the one at the University College of the Fraser Valley have some heuristic value by at least pointing the way to the future. It will, however, take much more research and experience experimenting with technology before we can paint a clear picture of that future on what remains a fairly blank canvas.

References

Green, Kenneth C. (1996)."Technology as a Metaphor for Change," Leadership Abstracts. 9: 7.

Fullen, Michael (1991). The New Meaning of Educational Change. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Cyrs, T.E., and F.A. Smith (1990). Teleclass Teaching: A Resource Guide. 2nd edition. Las Cruces NM: New Mexico State University.

Ontario Council of Presidents (1995). Learning-Centered Education in Ontario's Colleges. Toronto: Association of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology in Ontario.


Ted Dunlop is a faculty member at the University College of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia. For the past three years, he has served a project leader on the UCFV side for a "Virtual Classroom" project developed in partnership with the University of Victoria. Barry Forer is a sessional faculty member at the UCFV and research consultant responsible for the evaluation of the UCFV telecourses which formed the basis for this article.

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• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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1996 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology