Amanda Watson says that advances in technology are generating new opportunities for communicating with students.

FASS News, Faculty, Sociology & Anthropology

FASS modernizes online learning

September 19, 2019

Distance education has come a long way since the days when the university would mail courseware packages to students who would complete the work and mail it back for marking. Back then, Simon Fraser University was at the cutting edge of distance learning. This semester, a new pilot program in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) aims to see faculty engage with students through a revamp of its online course offerings.

Amanda Watson is guiding FASS on matters of pedagogy as it transitions its distance learning programming. The new model will see the University’s departments take over administration of courses from the Centre for Online Distance Education (CODE).

Watson was appointed a FASS Teaching Fellowship in May 2019 for a three-year term that coincides with SFU's transition. Her body of research covers feminist teaching and learning, and social theory and labour, a background that provides her with a lens that lends itself well to evaluating the pedagogical implications of the transition to the new instructor-led courses.

“I’ve been conceiving of this three-year fellowship as an important way for me to serve the university because it merges my theoretical interests with my teaching and learning interests,” Watson says. “Because I have expertise in pedagogy I can comment on whether or not I think certain tools will be accessible to students or whether the environment will be engaging.”

Watson, who has been a continuing Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology since 2016, is taking part in the pilot project herself. She underscores that mounting an online course is more challenging than preparing a face-to-face course. Watson knows firsthand the learning curve involved; this semester she is designing her first online course with a team of experts in online course development to be delivered in the Spring. Watson is learning that thoughtful organization up front will be important for smooth delivery throughout the term. In a face-to-face setting instructors can shape a course message as the semester progresses. But with distance education, the story of the course needs to be completed in the planning stages so that the technical components of the course can be implemented for the start of the term.

Then there is the interaction with students. Whereas in the past, online courses were commonly guided by teaching assistants or tutor markers with faculty at the helm, faculty members will now engage directly with students. Weekly discussions, interactive Q&A, pre-recorded podcast or video explanations, and guidance from the instructor will replace weekly lectures. And with students adept in new media technologies, faculty are encouraged to imagine new possibilities for learning and assessment in the online classroom.

“We have to look at what we can do within the parameters of our learning management system (Canvas) and what works for students,” Watson explains. “Sometimes what we imagine to be a flashy and exciting use of technology is not always pedagogically effective according to student feedback. That said, advances in technology are generating new opportunities for communicating with students, and our team of online course developers support faculty in executing their big ideas for meeting educational goals."

Many FASS students already complete some course requirements from abroad. As quality instructor-led course offerings come online it may accommodate a student’s final semester, for example, to be completed anywhere in the world with an internet connection.

While aware of the challenges of instructor-led online learning, Watson is excited by opportunities: “Will faculty teaching online courses find new ways to be more accessible to students? Will we accommodate our students whose busy schedules keep them from sitting in our classrooms? I look forward to finding out.”