The MTV generation gets plugged in

How e-learning is changing the face of higher education.

MBA students in Nick Bontis' Monday night strategic knowledge management course at McMaster University's DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton know their professor can put on quite the show. A typical three-hour class may involve following along with downloaded version of the evening's PowerPoint presentation and watching a video clip of a CEO discussing the real-life resolution of a case study. MBA students — some of whom also work full-time and can't always make it to class — can access online a real-time video feed of the lecture (thanks to a $120,000 donation from PricewaterhouseCoopers, used this year to create two new digital classrooms equipped with cameras for video conferencing) and ask questions via MSN Messenger.

And that's only the half of it. Outside of the classroom, students can access all course materials, video clips and class recordings online. Discussion threads, on topics from the upcoming exam to job interview tips, keep students connected throughout the week. And all students must participate in ongoing, online simulations that count toward their midterm exam score.

“We're dealing with the MTV generation,” says the associate professor and director of the school's undergrad program. “If a university doesn't support technology in the classroom it is going to alienate the expectations of today's students.”

But he also insists technology will never entirely replace face-to-face learning. “The classroom gives you conversation, which you just can't get in front of the computer,” he says. Instead, technology allows students to concentrate on higher-order learning applications. “Rather than desperately trying to write down whatever the hell I'm saying, my students can now make notes on how they're going to apply what I'm talking about.”

Adam Finkelstein, manager of teaching technology services at McGill University's Institutional Multimedia Services in Montreal, concurs. “We're using e-learning to enhance the face-to-face classroom experience,” he says, pointing to the school's learning management system, which allows for such advances as podcasting lectures. “We're trying to knock the walls out of the classroom.”

This blended approach to e-learning is being adopted — in varying degrees — by the majority of Canadian universities with the use of the following tools.

*Education management systems WebCT (developed in 1997 at the University of British Columbia and bought in February 2006 by educational software giant Blackboard) and IBM Lotus Learning Management System are two of the most popular of these systems, which act as a course's online hub.

Through these systems, instructors post course notes, videos and PowerPoint presentations online. Discussion threads give students a space to further expound on classroom topics, ask questions or vent. “A recent thread I read detailed how my students felt my mid-term was unfair,” says one professor at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto. She's happy to have the feedback. “How else can you create a conversation with a class of 500?” she says. “Ten years ago I would have never known what they thought.”

*Video conferencing Dean Paul Bates of DeGroote says the school is currently raising funds to create an additional six digital classrooms (aside from the two PwC-sponsored rooms, a third room was created thanks to a donation from the dean himself). “We want to take e-learning as far as we can, to allow an instructor to move around and use multiple media simultaneously and to allow virtual access via the Web,” he says. The rooms feature 'smart podiums' that allow professors to control everything from lighting to Web cams.

Each room has a price tag of $60,000, the titles to which are sold to sponsors. “The price point is reasonable and it allows companies to get their name out to prospective employees,” says Bates. That was a major motivation behind PwC's contribution. “It was win-win for both parties,” says Jim Forbes, a Hamilton-based PwC partner and McMaster alum. “The university sends us some of their best graduates, so in turn, we give back to them.”

At McGill, which has several videoconferencing rooms, Finkelstein's department is considering going beyond the need even for physical space by using laptops equipped with desktop videoconferencing software.

Queen's School of Business in Kingston, Ont., uses real-time video conferencing — broadcast on two large screens — to unite boardroom learning teams across the country. Team rooms are equipped with document cameras and computer links, which allow teams to lead discussions and make presentations. Students can also signal their Kingston-based professor at any time to ask a question or make a comment. “We call it electronically raising your hand,” says Amber Wallace, the school's manager of external relations.

*Audience response systems School is still out on the value of these systems — such as those from TurningPoint and eInstruction — which allow instructors to anonymously poll students on issues du jour (or even whether the instructor is talking too fast). Students use a wireless 'clicker' — similar to a television's remote control — to register their vote; results appear instantly on the professor's PowerPoint presentation.

Audience response systems, touted as a means of improving student engagement and assessing learning, are being used by Schulich and Western's Richard Ivey School of Business. DeGroote plans to start in 2007 and McGill is currently experimenting with newer versions of the technology. “We're testing to see whether the hype is true,” says Cindy Ives, associate director of McGill's Institutional Multimedia Services.

*Wikis In use by programs at York, McGill, the University of Calgary, and, in the States, by heavyweights like the Harvard School of Business, a wiki (derived from the Hawaiian word for “quick”) is a Web site which allows multiple users to add, edit and remove content. “With a wiki you are reading a collaboratively written piece of information, unlike a discussion thread which is a series of replies,” says Stewart Mader, senior instructional technologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and author of the wiki-based book, Using Wiki in Education. “The use of wiki requires a shift in the way we think about information. It's really moved toward collaboration.”