January 14, 2019

An online course designed to offer students greater flexibility

Shivanand Balram (senior lecturer, geography) developed a fully online Canvas course with flexible elements designed to accommodate the needs of students who juggle academic and non-academic priorities. Student feedback has been strongly positive.

Occasionally, one of Shivanand Balram’s students nods off in class. Balram doesn’t call them out on it. He is well aware they “have a life” outside the classroom, and it’s quite possible the napping student worked a late shift the night before.

“Students’ priorities have changed,” he says. “Working is now a big thing.”

Rather than lamenting the change, the senior lecturer in geography has begun adapting his courses to the needs of students who increasingly juggle academic and non-academic responsibilities.

Flexibility equals choice

Shivanand Balram, senior lecturer in geography.

Last fall he took his biggest step yet by offering a fully online course—GEOG 150 Digital Earth—developed entirely within SFU’s Canvas learning management system. To his knowledge, it’s the first fully online for-credit Canvas course developed entirely by a faculty member for SFU students. (**See the note below about the central role of SFU’s Centre for Online and Distance Education (CODE) in distance education.)

The course incorporated several “flexible” elements enabling students to learn without the traditional constraints of time and place. For example, assessment was done with Canvas quizzes that could be accessed from remote locations, and short online instructional videos permitted students to listen to lectures when and where they chose. (He tested the same elements in some of his face-to-face courses as well with the goal of exploring the best ways to implement a “middle-ground” blended learning opportunity for students.)

Many of his design decisions were shaped by cognitive and instructional design considerations. However, others were driven by a very pragmatic desire to respond to the realities of his students’ lives. For example, he set Sunday night deadlines for assignments on the assumption that students who work evenings have more time for school work on weekends.

It’s the kind of consideration he believes universities need to pay more attention to.

“I think we’re not adequately meeting students in the place that we should be, and that is, we’re not understanding that they have a life too.”

Better for students, good for departments

The Department of Geography was very supportive and assisted Balram’s initiative through a course release and technical support. The department has been seeking ways to increase enrolment in its courses and, says Balram, views more flexible course delivery options as a possible solution.

The next steps will depend on the lessons drawn from last fall. Balram regularly gathered detailed feedback from students in his online course and a concurrent face-to-face course and is currently analyzing the responses.

The early results are encouraging. In their end-of-course evaluations, two-thirds of students in GEOG 150 gave the course an overall rating of 5 out of 5, and they affirmed the value of various flexible learning components in aiding their learning.

For Balram, those are the measures that count.

“My interest has to do with student learning,” he says. “If I can encourage students to do their best given their circumstances, then I’m satisfied. I think flexible learning is one of the things to do.”

**NOTE: The Centre for Online and Distance Education (CODE) is the primary developer of online courses at SFU. In fact, CODE has established one of the largest distance education online programs in Canada. Currently CODE has a portfolio of over 200 courses—including geography courses—developed collaboratively with SFU academic departments. For more information, visit the CODE website.

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