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Quantifying Learnings from a Pandemic

The results are in from the National Survey of Online and Digital Learning in an annual report informed by post-secondary faculty and staff and compiled by the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA). We connected with local educators as well as the executive director of the CDLRA to find out what the data means for online learning in Manitoba.

Post via Campus Manitoba

Since 2017 the CDLRA has polled the Canadian post-secondary landscape to gain insight and data regarding online and digital learning. The 2021 National Report: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic is now available, and it’s rich with insights into the various strategies implemented by Canadian institutions to overcome challenges related to the pandemic, forecasted trends around digital learning, as well as the impact of the pandemic on learning in Canada.

“The CDLRA started in 2017 to track trends in online and digital learning across Canada,” said Dr. Nicole Johnson, executive director of the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association. “The goal is to get data that looks at pan-Canadian trends, helping us see what is happening across the country concerning online and digital learning. Before the pandemic we saw a steady increase in online learning, and in this most recent report, we found an increased interest in the area of hybrid learning, where students take courses that are partially in-person and partially online. While there are many conversations that share the notion that ‘everyone hates being online only and would prefer to go back to in-person learning,’ the data doesn’t support that claim. We’re seeing that people don’t want to be forced to be fully online as they were in the pandemic, but now that they have tried and experienced learning online to some extent, there’s a trend toward more online and hybrid learning by choice. In particular, people want some elements of an in-person experience but also the flexibility to do some aspects of their courses online.”

“This report brings tremendous value to the post-secondary system of Manitoba,” said Kim Grenier Mintenko, executive director of Campus Manitoba. “The data and insights shared in this year’s findings help us recognize the great work that’s been done — before and during the pandemic — while providing data-driven insights we can use to inform our plans to support faculty, staff, and students across the province.”

What’s the difference between online learning and remote learning? How about distance learning?

With the increased focus on digital learning, the CDLRA has released a fantastic new resource to provide clear definitions of some of the common terms related to digital learning. Evolving Definitions in Digital Learning: A National Framework for Categorizing Commonly Used Terms is now available for download and review.

Jonathan Kennedy, flexible learning team lead at the University of Manitoba and team lead at the Manitoba Flexible Learning HUB, explained, “This survey is vital to Manitoba specifically because we can see what our peers across Canada are doing in the space we’re all working in. It’s challenging as an individual institution to collect that information from peers, so we rely on tools such as the CDLRA to tell us what else is happening and where we need to think about positioning ourselves relative to our peers and partners. It lets us understand what’s happening in the broader scope of teaching and learning in Canada so we can see we’re leading in certain areas and where we’re looking to catch up in others. Are we on the same track as partners we respect?”

Emergency Remote Teaching

When the pandemic first hit, many post-secondary institutions had the foresight to take a step back and survey the situation to find out what the educators needed as they converted their courses to online delivery. “At Brandon University, we surveyed our faculty twice in April 2020,” explained Curt Shoultz, director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. “We received extensive information from them, covering everything from concern for students’ ability to access things online to ‘how am I going to work Microsoft Teams?’ ‘Should I use Moodle?’ This info allowed us to offer weekly courses on how to do online learning. We opened up online courses so the instructors could play the role of students and see the available teaching features and how to use the learning management system. And from there, we focused on daily responses to faculty members who had particular issues.”

Pedagogy First

“Our aim, first and foremost, is to create great learning experiences for students,” shared Jonathan. “We construct well-aligned courses with faculty members, and then we select technologies that make it possible to deliver them in a flexible manner, not the other way around. There are many different technologies and approaches to achieving a positive learning experience. Across the board, we’re seeing faculty members interested in progressing education and flexible learning opportunities for students, and it’s not just top-down. It’s not being driven by institutions pushing an online agenda or a blended agenda; it’s grassroots requests from instructors looking for instructional design support or technology or media support.

Flexible Learning

Anecdotally, there seems to be a preference for learning to return to the classroom with traditional syllabi and course structures versus the Wild West of online learning, where the perception is that improved accessibility trumps concerns about academic integrity. But the data shows that what’s really in demand is hybrid learning: providing an effective balance of online learning and on-campus experiences.

“The report showed that faculty want more support for a hybrid delivery because there were some things we discovered in emergency remote learning we’d like to keep,” said Curt. “It’s so much easier to jump into a chat within a bunch of chat rooms than it is to find a whole bunch of rooms up and down the hall in the real world. We’re seeing a lot more small-group and better small-group conversations via chat rooms. We will do what we can to develop ways to support hybrid and encourage continued use of online resources wherever it can make a difference to make for better teaching everywhere.”

Your Opinion Matters

Privacy is a significant concern when performing a survey, and because the sample size is small and the risk of identifying a particular institution — or individual — is high, the CDLRA isn’t able to reveal data specifically about teaching and learning in Manitoba. With more respondents, the data is richer, and the focus can be more specific, providing a better perspective of the unique needs and accomplishments of the institutions throughout Manitoba. Fortunately, the window to participate in the 2022 National Survey of Online and Digital Learning has just opened (until October 28, 2022), and the researchers are inviting everyone in post-secondary education to engage. Administrators, educators, faculty, and staff all bring value in their responses. “We are encouraging teaching and learning leaders, deans and directors, and faculty members to complete the 10-minute survey,” said Nicole. “This quick survey will help us all better understand what’s going on in the province and in the country, so each province can plan what’s best for their students and faculty.”

Additional Thought(s)

“The leadership within Manitoba’s post-secondary institutions recognized the importance of sharing resources among our various campuses. We might be competing on some things, but it’s a waste of our limited provincial resources for us to compete on concepts such as how to teach better. Kudos to the University of Manitoba, where a lot of the resources are concentrated. They basically opened up the vault to all of us, and I think that made a difference in helping us make it through the pandemic more smoothly than if we were alone.” — Curt Shoultz, director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology, Brandon University

“The Prairie provinces and Manitoba in particular are aligned with their peers on the direction we see Canada moving regarding the educational landscape and growth in flexible course offerings. Whatever we can do in the province to support that is a move in the right direction, and we should celebrate the fact that we are already moving in that direction: the province had the foresight years ago to allocate resources on this route, and because of that, we were able to achieve some successes through the pandemic.” – Jonathan Kennedy, flexible learning team lead, University of Manitoba

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