October 16, 2019

Answers to your questions about SFU's new approach to online education

By Elizabeth Elle, vice-provost and associate vice-president, learning & teaching

Although the impact of SFU's new approach to online education will vary by academic unit, the ultimate outcome is expected to be greater diversity of courses and more seat capacity.

This text is taken from a document prepared by Elizabeth Elle, vice-provost and associate vice-president, learning and teaching. It addresses some of the most important questions raised by members of the SFU academic community in response to the university’s new approach to online education. You can also download a PDF version of this Q&A.

Changes in online education at SFU

What is the CODE to Faculties transition? 

Online courses that were formerly offered through the Centre for Online and Distance Education (CODE) are transitioning over the next three years to be offered as part of the course offerings of Departments and Faculties, included as part of faculty members’ teaching loads. Most units have decided on a 1:1 equivalency for online and face-to-face courses; decisions about load are up to the unit.* Instead of being taught by Tutor Markers with oversight by Course Supervisors, Faculty members will be responsible for courses, assisted in some cases by Teaching Assistants. During the transition, many of the “old” courses will continue to be offered but these will be phased out as the instructor-led courses are phased in.

What is the role of the Instructor and the TA in an online course?

It’s really up to the unit and instructors to decide how to teach. Some Faculties are coming up with documents about best practices and we will offer some workshops to help, but we won’t dictate to anyone how they should teach their courses. Note that labour relations has told us that TAs, not TMs, should be hired.  

Why is SFU making this change? 

It’s widely considered better educational practice and better for student learning if Faculty members teach online courses. There were additional concerns identified by two committees, the Online Education Working Group (report, March 2013) and the Task Force for Flexible Education (report, August 2015). These concerns included that CODE courses were funded through a limited and inappropriate budget model; and the base budget was not able to respond to enrollment demands. Essentially, early adopters were able to develop many courses, and this limited the ability of other academic units to participate due to lack of flexibility in the budget model. 

The transition will also allow greater innovation by faculty members, because we won’t just have a single model for what online learning and teaching looks like. For instance, next academic year we plan to pilot blended courses that include less “face time” than traditional courses, but more online instruction. We also expect there to be more choice for students moving forward, because departments and Faculties that did not previously have the opportunity to enter the online learning and teaching environment will be able to now. 

It sounds like blended courses, which have an in-person component, might reduce flexibility for students. 

Although some students thrive in fully online courses, where learning can happen whenever it is convenient for them, we’ve heard from some students that they would feel more accountable and be more likely to keep up with their work in a blended model. Faculty members have also said they would be more interested in teaching online if they could retain some contact with their students. And of course some courses will remain completely online for students who prefer learning that way. 

Won’t online teaching as part of faculty workload place a financial burden on departments and Faculties? 

The Provost has already provided transitional and ongoing additional funding for this initiative, and plans to make additional funding available for course development and other needs. Where feasible, ongoing funding that was directed to CODE for instruction will be transferred to the Faculties, and some funding may be redirected from other areas within the VPA portfolio. 

Can all units expect to continue to offer the same number of seats/courses as they do now? 

Because faculty members will be teaching these courses as part of their normal teaching workload, the number of courses a unit can offer will depend on their faculty complement. Funding from the Provost should allow new faculty members to be hired in many instances. We anticipate that some units will have fewer seats/courses, and other units will be able to grow the number of seats/courses they can offer. Faculties are being encouraged to cull low demand and rarely offered courses to create space for new high demand courses in a wider array of programs.

These changes should mean a greater diversity of courses, and ultimately more seat capacity, because the Faculties and departments for whom there was no capacity for CODE to offer their courses can now do so. Certainly some of the early adopters of the CODE system may see they don’t have the capability to continue with the number of seats they have at present, but from the student perspective, there will be a benefit of the transition.

Who decides which courses continue to be offered fully online, or which new blended courses to create?

The Faculties decide. Which courses to offer face-to-face, blended, or online will depend on the curriculum of each department or Faculty, and the needs of the students enrolled. It must be the experts within subdisciplines who decide what will or will not work for their students and instructors—no unit will be required to offer courses in particular formats.

Departments should make their requests to their Dean or Associate Dean, as there are financial implications of the transition—the need for faculty members to include online and blended teaching as part of their course load. 

One caveat: the university still has to decide on the models/schedules for blended courses. We anticipate being able to start offering this mode of instruction in summer 2020. 

What is happening to the CODE staff?

These amazing professionals are still here at SFU, ready to support you, in the newly established Centre for Educational Excellence (CEE). Although faculty members will deliver courses, the CEE staff will continue to assist instructors with course design, and will continue to provide all production components, from building Canvas shells and interactive course assignments through multimedia development. Members of CEE will also provide workshops and other training opportunities for instructors interested in starting to teach online.

I’m an Instructor/Department Manager/Department Chair. Can you clarify for me what CEE does, what the Departments/Faculties do, and what Instructors do for new instructor-led courses?

In general, if an instructor or department does something for an in-person course, they should do it for an instructor-led online course. 

The following table outlines the responsibilities of CEE, academic units and instructors.

Roles and responsibilities for online courses

Item CEE (or University) Departments Instructors
Course design We are here to support you! For a course revision, plan on working with us a semester in advance; a completely new course needs at least two semesters to realize your vision. Approve courses for development, normally with input from the Dean on priorities. Plan on regular meetings with our developers and course technicians for a semester or two prior to offering your course.
Course delivery     Instructors should engage with their students as appropriate for the course, for instance answering content questions, engaging in discussion groups, etc.
Scheduling   Course Scheduling in SIMS; post course outlines; order textbooks (Verba).  
Exams Scheduling will automatically schedule a 3 hr midterm and final. Liaise with Scheduling if any changes needed to timing or duration of midterm and final. Exam invigilation (are exams in person or online? If in person, any conflict with other courses you teach?).
Missed exams or assignments CEE will organize out-of-town exams, if instructors approve that students must take exams remotely.   Makeup exams and other missed assignments are normally up to the instructor to approve and reschedule.
Exams through the Centre for Accessible Learning     The instructor connects with CAL and provides exams. Note that if adjustments to the course itself are required to support these students, the instructor should liaise with CEE staff.
Teaching support staff Student Experiences with Teaching and Courses (SETC) questionnaires distributed by university. Hiring of TAs, additional invigilators, etc. Also TUGs, workload reviews, and TA evaluations are responsibility of departments. Supervision of TAs.
Course and Canvas support Course production and technical assistance; copyright approvals.   Work with CEE staff to fix technical issues like broken links.

*Sentence added November 6, 2019.


Institutional Initiatives, Technology and Media, Flexible Education, Teaching Practice