Educator, Students Provide Frontline Perspectives

Based in Toronto, Canada, York University (www.yorku.ca) has an expanding enrollment of more than 40,000 students. An inevitable consequence to its growth is overcrowding—both in the lecture halls and the parking lots. The majority of the undergraduates are commuters, including mature students trying to balance career, family, and education. Many of York’s professors and administrators believed that providing a multimedia online learning venue would address the university’s growing pains and even improve the quality of students’ education. However, they wanted an online system that did not create additional work for the faculty.

Students Give Online Learning High Marks

In the fall of 2002, York University launched a pilot project using Sonic Foundry’s Mediasite Live to capture, stream, and archive the lectures for a popular, two-semester social sciences course that I teach. As a long-time advocate of education technology, I was excited to be the first professor at our university to use the system.

There were 200 traditional, classroom-based students and 50 students who accessed the weekly two-hour lectures online. Because Mediasite Live captures the speaker in both audio and video, and automatically indexes and synchronizes that information with virtually any visual instructional content from the class, each group received identical information. The eLearning students were still required to attend on-campus tutorials and take exams at the university.

I was surprised by how often the students said in their evaluations and personal comments to me that self-discipline was a key factor in being a successful distance learner. Praise for the convenience and flexibility of online learning was tempered with the proviso of having to make an extra effort to stay focused.

Another surprise was how much the online students needed to feel connected to the class. They truly appreciated that I acknowledged them during the lectures, even if I couldn’t actually see them. It started as a casual occurrence during the first term, but the positive response from the students encouraged me to make name recognition a standard practice thereafter.

From Fear Factors to Success Factors

The one big complaint about any technology-based teaching aid is the extra work created for educators. Professors fear they will need to re-create all of their instructional material, or perhaps change their whole style of teaching in order to provide a quality education experience for the burgeoning number of online students.

In the world of high technology and teaching, when a new application is introduced, there is always huge hype about its ease-of-use and about the variety and quality of learning tools it contains. Then reality clashes with fantasy, and there is the inevitable disappointment.

Mediasite Live is an exception to that rule. It worked smoothly from the beginning, performed exactly as promised and didn’t get in the way of what or how I teach. It was fun for my students and for me.With eagerness from the students about the technology, and since no additional work was required on my part, York bought four more Mediasite Live systems.

The majority of students agreed that the online version forced them to be self-motivated in taking charge of their education.

This enabled the university to expand online learning opportunities to other courses within the social sciences division and across campus, starting with the Fall 2003 semester. In addition, the university’s Career Services Department is maximizing resources by offering 12 Web-based workshops for students. This frees the career counselors to spend more time on “high-touch” services (situations where students receive one-on-one personalized attention, such as career advisement, administering of self-assessment tests, critiquing resumes, and interview role-playing).

Finally, a well-designed, content-rich Web site is vital to a successful distance education experience. We created the site (www.calumet. yorku.ca/sosc2311/) for our pilot eLearning hybrid course as a one-stop-shop that provides not only the streamed lectures, but all the support material as well. With the right tools in place, educators can be more effective and reach a greater number of eager students.

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