Last fall, University of Alberta school of business accounting professor Michael Maier experimented with his traditional lecture delivery, giving students the opportunity to watch short videos on technical topics outside of class time.
The videos, produced by the publisher of the course textbook, enabled Dr. Maier's executive MBA students to review key concepts, such as debits and credits, when convenient to their schedules.
His use of videos is one example of how business professors at U of A – and elsewhere – are experimenting with technology to imagine variations on the traditional lecture format.
In Dr. Maier's class, the introduction of videos produced some noteworthy results.
On mid-term exams last fall, the class average in his accounting course was 82 per cent – about 10 percentage points higher than average scores in the lecture-based classes he has taught over the past eight years.
"Just about everyone in the class was at a very good [level of] competence," says Dr. Maier, who is also associate dean of master programs. "They were able to show they had understood the basic fundamentals." Students who watched the videos least were more likely to struggle in the course than those who viewed them.
Putting some basic course material on video, adds Dr. Maier, "freed up class time to do a bit more focusing on cases and interacting with the students. … We got into more discussions on the managerial implications."
The Edmonton-based business school is not alone in exploring so-called "blended learning" models that combine in-class lectures and online activities such as recorded lectures, quizzes and other materials.
A 2017 survey of colleges and universities in Canada reported an 11-per-cent rise in online course delivery between 2011 and 2016. As well, just under half of responding institutions introduced online study to replace face-to-face teaching in about 10 per cent of the courses, "with instructors using hybrid [blended] learning to make classes more engaging and interactive," the report authors conclude.
Figuring out the best mix of face-to-face and online activities is "one of the biggest challenges that we are going to have in postsecondary education," predicts distance education consultant Tony Bates, one of the authors of the Tracking Online and Distance Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges report.
"It [the answer] will vary from subject to subject and it is a big challenge for professors who have had no previous online experience to know how to make that decision," he says.
In a separate pedagogical experiment, U of A business law professor Jeff Bone modified his three-times-a-week lectures last fall by producing short videos on key course concepts for students to review on their own time. His students also answered an online quiz, with the answers serving as a natural kick-off to classroom discussions with the professor.
Mr. Bone, a lawyer, says his goal "is to get the students talking more and me talking less." Keen to experiment further, he expects to apply this spring to a university provost's office fund that provides release time, instructional support and other assistance for professors to rethink traditional delivery models of teaching and learning.
Some students say they like the new combination of lecture and online assignments.
"This is a bonus on what is traditionally presented in the classroom," says fourth-year U of A engineering student Isaiah Martin, who took Mr. Bone's business law class last semester. "This was definitely one of my favourite classes I have taken at university," he adds. "I felt I was more in the zone and more focused on learning."
In some cases, the online format simulates today's workplace that requires employees to collaborate on projects across time zones and multiple locations.
"We have to focus on getting students ready to cope with change, not just become more efficient in what they used to do," says Tom Brown, academic director of the online graduate diploma in business administration at Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business in Metro Vancouver.
In 2013, the professor of business ethics introduced an online course for Beedie students in the part-time MBA program.
Dr. Brown assigned students to teams, maximizing their diversity, "to give them a problem they have to work through together and come to some consensus." Instead of big ethical problems, the teams were confronted with seemingly mundane choices, such as cutting corners on a project, that ultimately reflect on corporate culture.
Course marks were tied to the responses of each team to an ethical question. But team members also evaluated each other's contribution to the overall project, with those doing little receiving low marks from their peers.
"The notion is that you are responsible to your team and you don't automatically get the same score as everyone else," says Dr. Brown.
The combination of in and outside the classroom learning is already familiar to schools that teach real business cases. At the University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business School in London, Ont., for example, MBA students work online or face-to-face ahead of time to analyze a case and must be ready to contribute to the subsequent in-class discussion.
"As a general rule, the less talking I do and the more talking the students do, the better the class is," says purchasing and supply management professor Fraser Johnson. He typically does not record his lectures but will when guest speakers show up in person or talk to students via Skype.
For one of his most popular in-class assignments, students make short presentations – a play, a song or some other vehicle than a PowerPoint presentation – to demonstrate their grasp of the theoretical concepts taught in class.
One byproduct of technology-aided teaching and learning is that students take increased responsibility for their learning instead of passively taking notes in class.
Students "have been able to come to class, listen to a lecture and not have done the reading," says Norma Nocente, associate director of education technology at U of A's Centre for Teaching and Learning, which provides technological and pedagogical support to professors looking to vary course content and delivery. "That is not going to work in this new format."
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