With classrooms extending to students' laptops, tablets and even their phones, postsecondary schools are looking for ways to use constantly changing technology to augment learning.
"Teaching and learning is changing," explains Patrick Lyons, the director of teaching and learning at Carleton University in Ottawa. "The types of experiences we want our learners to have need new approaches to teaching. Technology can act as a powerful lever for those things."
Carleton uses a relatively new learning management system called Moodle, where students log in – and they log in a lot; on a typical day, there are about 120,000 log-ins. From there, they can access course materials, share thoughts and questions, host voice-over-IP discussions, and watch past lectures.
This technology, says Mr. Lyons, isn't just for online courses: All students have access to it.
Moodle is an open-sourced program used by many postsecondary intuitions, which means it was developed by a third-party, and is then downloaded and hosted by whomever has the infrastructure to do so, free. Carleton has developed its own program on the Moodle program called Big Blue Button, which is a virtual online classroom.
The software allows instructors to hold live online classes, office hours or other meetings. Features include a private online "room" with audio, video, presentation and whiteboard capabilities, allowing students to be fully engaged in the online environment.
Mr. Lyons says Carleton has also implemented a mobile version of the program, and is allowing for instructors to be able to record a full lecture, including anything that shows up on the virtual whiteboard like instant messages or videos, and share it with learners located around the world.
Queen's University is also using Moodle with much success, says Jill Scott, the vice-provost of teaching and learning at the Kingston school.
But this kind of technology is not without challenges.
"When you work with an open-source product, you support it internally, but you have to manage it yourself. You're responsible for it, and any issues will come directly to you. It's a 24/7 issue for our technology people," Dr. Scott explains.
At Carleton, the former learning management system was on one computer server. Now it's on three computers all running concurrently with a separate database. Mr. Lyons says the university has also invested in making sure the back-end system is robust and able to support all the students.
Instructors are getting used to this new way of teaching, too.
"One of our most significant barriers is faculty members' time to learn new tools and apply these tools for teaching scenarios. You can be a great teacher, but if the tool is so difficult to use, how can you incorporate it into your practice?" Mr. Lyons says.
The new tools are meant to enhance the existing learning environments – as well as create new ones on digital or mobile devices – but one of the key takeaways for instructors is the ability to leverage big data in their classes.
Dr. Scott says that the next few years are going to be big for educational analytics. Nonprofit organization Educause, which tracks and advocates for the use of technology in higher education, conducted a study of nearly 75,000 postsecondary students in the United States. Nine out of 10 say they would be "at least moderately interested in learning analytics capabilities," such as alerts if their progress in a course is declining.
"It's no different than what Facebook does. It's aggregating every time a student logs on and clicks or doesn't. It's in the student's best interest to have us learn about what it is they're doing to have us collectively serve them better," she says.
According to Dr. Scott, big data will help shape the way courses look, as well.
"These are sophisticated course redesigns that are involving an instructional designer, an educational technologist and a Web designer. We give all these resources to the faculty member who then becomes the content expert," explains Dr. Scott. "What we're trying to do is use evidence-based practices to improve that learning experience."
Royal Roads University (RRU) was the first Canadian public university to offer an online learning format, and even 20 years after its inception, it's still going through technological updates semester-to-semester, says Vivian Forssman, the director of the Centre for Teaching and Educational Technologies at Victoria-based Royal Roads.
"Technology is absolutely core – not just important – to the learning and teaching experience at RRU, because of the unique way in which programs are taught," she says. "We all need to better evaluate what works well in optimizing this medium – technology-enabled learning should be designed for activities and reflection, not just content delivery."
For years teaching has been known as instructor-driven. Now, it's student-driven, according to Dr. Scott.
"Students want the Starbucks version of learning," she says. They want the customized version with their name on the cup, and that's very difficult to do. Increasingly, people want choices."
"Technology on its own is not a reliable engagement strategy," says Ms. Forssman. "But well-designed courses which use technology to empower people to work together at a distance, creating new knowledge, new initiatives and societal change as part of their learning experience is where student engagement happens."
Other ways that technology helps students tailor their experience is in showcasing their portfolio to potential employers. Carleton, for instance, uses ePortfolio, which just launched this year powered by another open-source program called Mahara.
"It's a tool, but it's also a philosophical approach to teaching and learning," explains Mr. Lyons. "The other tools are teacher-driven. The ePortfolio tool is student driven. It's a space students can make their own and showcase their learning."
For online-only institutions such as the University of Fredericton, which uses Cisco's WebEx system, the technological updates have been helpful for the bottom line, as well.
"This delivery method saves money," explains director of operations Peter Mersereau. "If you consider how many classes we run over the course of a year, and think about what that would cost to host a brick and mortar university, the costs are not even comparable. This allows us to pass on great value to our students."
The technology available to learners is constantly changing.
"There's something new every day that can change what we do overnight if we choose to adopt it."