Reimagining Our Approach To Learning As We Emerge From COVID-19
A Message from President Tim Loreman
For 100 years, Concordia University of Edmonton (CUE) has been a gathering place for students from around the world who are committed to excellence, global citizenship, and making a difference. We offer an educational experience that goes further—from lectures and labs to campus events and activities, we prioritize the needs of our students and are dedicated to their personal and academic success.
Prior to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, our approach to learning was solely focused on in-person interactions; however, we recognize that a shift has occurred and we have an opportunity to reimagine what learning looks like at CUE and enhance our resources accordingly. And we aren’t the only ones engaging in these exploratory conversations—the landscape of post-secondary education has undoubtedly been disrupted by COVID-19, and institutions across the country and around the world are working to determine how to best support students and offer exceptional learning experiences.
Our commitment is to our students. From the onset of the pandemic, we have been focused on keeping our community safe and healthy, while adapting our academic programs and services to meet the needs of our students. That has not, and will not, change. We will continue to make responsible decisions reflecting our values and prioritizing the health, wellbeing, and changing needs of our community.
What is blended delivery and why are we talking about it?
Blended delivery is a carefully planned, thoughtful approach to instruction that takes advantage of the best features and aspects of online and face-to-face teaching, course design and delivery, and learning. It is neither fully online or in-person—rather, it is a mixed delivery method that includes the flexibility of offering both online and in-person experiences according to the demands of the course and needs of the students.
The objective is to offer engaging, interactive courses that can adapt to changing situations and needs with ease. There is no one-size-fits-all method to blended delivery. Courses would be shaped according to the needs of both the students and instructors. There are numerous possibilities—from recorded lectures and in-person working sessions to small group projects, interactive tutorials, and drop-in virtual office hours, blended delivery integrates technology and digital media with face-to-face interaction and traditional teaching methods, providing the opportunity to customize learning experiences while fostering a sense of community. Additionally, recorded material could be used over multiple years, giving instructors more time to create engaging in-person experiences and connect with students.
We are currently exploring how to integrate blended delivery into our classrooms while maintaining our ethos and campus culture. We are not becoming a virtual university, nor are we rushing to implement an approach without proper engagement, debate, and discussion. We are, however, seeking to determine the best path forward as we rebuild from COVID-19, recognizing that we have learned major lessons from our experience over the past ten (almost eleven!) months.
It should also be noted that blended delivery is not new. We are not pioneering, nor are we attempting to implement ideas that have not been tested and implemented elsewhere. Blended delivery has been a part of post-secondary education for decades and is currently a core component of university curricula across the country and around the world. While previously we almost exclusively emphasized in-person learning and have been slow to embrace more flexible arrangements over the years, the disruption caused by the pandemic, and the new skills we have learned as we adapted, present us with an opportunity for change.
My perspective is this: The partial adoption of a blended delivery model could be the basis of positive change, one that not only enhances flexibility of instruction but also improves teaching and learning at CUE. The requirement for face-to-face interaction will continue to foster and grow the community we know and love, and the negative impacts that have resulted from purely online learning can be eliminated. Students can engage with some parts of their courses (like recorded lectures) at times and places that best suit their lives and needs, while also taking care to attend the in-person elements of courses to interact with peers and engage with instructors.
Of course, this approach may not work for all of our students, which is why the majority of our courses will continue to be offered in the traditional in-person format. We are not making drastic changes—we are, however, continuing to evolve as we strive to become Canada’s pre-eminent small university.
Where are we today?
On December 17, 2020, we held a Town Hall meeting to reflect on the fall semester, discuss the impacts of COVID-19, and look forward to the future.
During the Town Hall, I noted that one of the lasting impacts of the pandemic will be a heightened expectation of more flexible study and work arrangements. When thinking about the future, some will argue that the physical university is dead, while others believe that university education will revert exactly back to how it was prior to COVID-19. I think we fall somewhere in the middle—while we are eager to return to in-person learning, we recognize that the world has changed significantly and we need to continue adapting in order to meet the needs of today’s students, as well as the students of tomorrow.
Since the Town Hall meeting, we have made significant progress towards realizing a modern and effective blended delivery approach for CUE. Decisions have not yet been made and we are continuing to engage broadly to determine what is feasible.
The Blended Learning Working Group (BLWG) was created to guide us through this process and set the conditions for CUE to be successful. The BLWG is chaired by our Dean of Arts, Dr. Tim Heath, and includes a number of people with expertise in teaching and learning, including through flexible formats, from across campus. The BLWG also has representation from staff working closely with student groups, including international students.
I have asked the BLWG to determine how to integrate blended delivery into our campus community in fall 2021, with the ambitious aim of offering 25% of our courses in a blended format at that time. Considering the timeliness of our approval processes, the BLWG has no time to waste and is working diligently to explore what is possible, who needs to be engaged in conversation, and what resources need to be in place in order to offer exceptional learning experiences to students.
How will we convert 25% of courses into a blended format by fall 2021? That question is at the core of the work being done by the BLWG. It is an ambitious goal that, on average, would mean each faculty member would convert one of their courses to a blended format in time for the fall semester. It is important to note that not all courses are suitable for conversion to blended delivery and that blended delivery courses may not be recommended in every instance for international students, so the 25% goal applies to courses eligible for conversion. However, we are not looking to force change or disadvantage students and, instead, the BLWG is working collaboratively with colleagues across faculties and departments to find a path forward. The BLWG is also exploring flexible course delivery methods and high-impact teaching practices that we will need to infuse into our work in order to be successful.
Will course quality suffer with an emphasis on blended and/or flexible delivery? Quality is extremely important and is one of the reasons why students choose to study at a small university like CUE. Right now, we are seeking progress over perfection in order to set the conditions for successful integration this fall. The quality of our blended delivery offerings will increase as we continue to engage in conversations with faculty members, instructors, staff, and students, and as we learn from our experiences over time.
During the Town Hall, I shared that we also need to think about our resources—from space to expertise to tools and supports, we recognize that blended delivery is resource heavy. It will also mean changes for our staff, such as flexible work arrangements, to ensure we are finding balance and moving forward together. This remains the case, and, while our budget is much tighter than in past years, we are prioritizing the provision of support for faculty and sessional instructors. This includes the creation of a small teaching and learning centre, and the planned hiring of an instructional designer to partner with our Senior Educational Developer, Dr. Danny Braun, in his work. We will also see that resources are dedicated to ensure all students have access to online resources for blended programs.
While our leadership team has proposed the adoption of a more flexible course delivery model, it is not a decision we are making, or have the authority to make, in isolation. Conversations are ongoing and a motion, drafted by the BLWG in consultation with various campus groups, will be brought to the General Faculties Council (GFC). We expect a decision will be made by March 2021. This will not have any impact on courses prior to fall 2021.
This proposed approach is currently being discussed across the university, and we would welcome thoughts, ideas, and feedback. It is important for both academic and non-academic departments and colleagues to think about what a blended approach would mean for them, and for students to consider how it would change their approach to education. The BLWG will be reaching out to both the CSA and GSA in the near future. You can also send your feedback directly to the Office of the President.
Change is never easy. We want to be Canada’s pre-eminent small university—a small place whose graduates go on to have a big impact locally, nationally, and globally. We are a community of scholars, dreamers, doers, and bold thinkers, and we believe offering more flexible arrangements will capitalize on our strengths while providing exceptional value and learning experiences to our students. We also want to ensure we are implementing the lessons we have learned from COVID-19, and that we are prepared for whatever the future has in store for our institution.
We have a lot of work to do if we are to successfully move down this path, but CUE has always regarded itself as nimble and innovative. I am confident that if we adopt this change we will be met with success, as is the case with most changes we have set our minds to over the years. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.
Dr. Tim Loreman
President and Vice-Chancellor
NOTE: While we have envisioned fall 2021 as being the time to implement this flexible learning initiative, it is important to note that we are continuing to actively monitor the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. No decisions have been made regarding course delivery for fall 2021. We will continue to make responsible decisions that prioritize the health and wellbeing of our community, and will delay this initiative should the conditions not be met for students and employees to safely return to campus.