Universities across Canada have experienced tremendous growth over the last 35 years. Full-time enrolment has more than doubled since 1980, rising from 555,000 to 1,075,000, according to estimates published by Universities Canada in 2018. What has driven this growth? The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) believe it is due to the country’s ever shifting labour market. Since the 1970s, Canada has been moving away from a resource-based economy to a service-based one, with the creation of 1.5 million new professional and management jobs in the last 20 years alone, the majority of which were filled by university students.
To cite a report published by the AUCC in June of 2011, while the labour market is demanding a more highly skilled and educated demographic, the working population, ranging from 25 to 64 years of age, will grow by just 8 per cent by 2030 while the population over the age of 65 will double. The AUCC believes that in order to respond to the lack of population growth available to support the predicted, and drastic rise in Canada’s aging population, post-secondary institutions will need to expand their reach, primarily to untapped segments of the population and international students, and increase the overall quality of education that students receive. Schools across the province and country are already working towards this goal.
One way that post-secondary institutions in Alberta are doing this is by developing and implementing online courses, advanced learning management systems, and educational apps. The University of Alberta, for instance, operates the MyUAlberta app, which allows students to quickly access UAlberta essentials like the library, the UAlberta GSuite, and even Bear Tracks where students can register for courses or check their grades. The university also operates a learning management system known as eClass that can be accessed through a web browser, so it functions more like a web app than one that you might download through an app store. eClass is powered by Moodle, a free and open-source learning platform.
“Whether a course is offered face-to-face, online, or as a blend of the two, the use of a learning management system (LMS) facilitates a stronger learning experience by supporting student learning anywhere, anytime,” says Christie Schultz, assistant dean (academic) of the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension.
Schultz’s first experience with learning management systems was at the University of Alberta in the late 90s. Then, LMS were primarily used as document repositories, but now systems like eClass go above and beyond by offering a range of possibilities for learning and interaction — from live discussions to quizzing tools and much more, in addition to providing sophisticated course management tools for instructors.
The University of Alberta migrated to eClass in the 2012-2013 academic year, replacing the older LMS that were in place. The system is updated regularly, with significant annual upgrades taking place every summer. Tools within the system are evolving and emerging all the time. Badges, a gamification feature in eClass intended to make learning more interesting for students, was introduced last year and allows students to receive badges when they complete specified activities.
“At the Faculty of Extension, we make a point of producing a quality experience for our students, and technology helps us to do that. We use educational technology to better support lifelong learning at a time and pace that works for educators and learners.”
One example of this is the Health and Safety Law course offered by the Faculty of Extension. Schultz explains that this course is taught in two formats: a blend of both face-to-face and online components, and an online synchronous format which uses eClass and eClass Live to provide content, instruction, and assessments. Students have the week to work on any readings, discussion postings, assignments and quizzes that may be due, and they all meet virtually once a week to attend a lecture that is recorded for future reference. The instructor can then read work and assign grades directly within eClass. Assessments can even be designed to be auto graded with pre-programmed feedback.
“The beauty of this format is that students can revisit and review all course content at any time and as many times as necessary,” says Schultz. “For continuing and professional education to be as accessible as possible for our students, it needs to be available to them when they need it, where they need it.”
Technology is also intertwined with learning through student projects at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension.
“Earlier this year we launched a project — developed alongside graduate students, Indigenous knowledge keepers and Rob McMahon who teaches in the Faculty of Extension’s Master of Arts in the Communications and Technology program — that placed augmented reality video stories alongside Sweetgrass Bear, a sculpture by artist Stewart Steinhauer. Sweetgrass Bear is permanently displayed at the Faculty of Extension’s building. These stories come to life with the help of a phone or tablet and an AR app, serving as a place-based learning experience that contributes to improving Indigenous-settler relations.”
You can learn more about this exhibition at SweetgrassAR.ca
To take online learning to the next level, a group of visionaries from Alberta founded Onlea — a software company located in downtown Edmonton on a mission to advance quality online learning experiences around the world. Onlea has been producing flexible, mobile-friendly, interactive learning courses, educational experiences, and assessment solutions since 2014.
“The integration of apps and e-courses in post-secondary institutions has removed some of the existing barriers to education,” says Adriana Lopez Forero, president. “In the past, many learners were left behind by traditional teaching models, but online learning and mobile devices have created unique opportunities to reach as many learners as possible on their own terms.”
Onlea has developed over 45 different online learning experiences, reaching over 400,000 learners in 167 countries around the world. The creative studio helped create some of the highest quality MOOCs (massive open online course) released by the University of Alberta, including Indigenous Canada, named the most popular Canadian course in 2017 on Coursera; Bugs 101: Insect Human Interaction; and Mountains 101, which has remained one of the top 100 online courses worldwide on Class Central since its inception in 2017.
Onlea’s educational collaborations span further than the University of Alberta. They have partnered with NorQuest College on a new goal to professionally train and re-skill workers for emerging markets in hemp and cannabis production. They are also in the midst of a partnership with Athabasca University and the Rick Hansen Foundation, located in the British Columbia Institute of Technology, to develop an online course focused on assessing public spaces for accessibility.
“According to Statistics Canada, 1 in 7 Canadian adults will experience a disability in their lifetime, whether it is permanent or temporary. This course is designed to train architects, property developers, and construction workers on how to make public spaces accessible to everyone,” Lopez Forero explains.
In order for users to fully understand what it feels like to be a person with a mobility disability, the course begins with a virtual reality simulation that explores the daily challenges someone in a wheelchair faces when public spaces are not designed to be accessible.
“Supporting and developing partnerships with each of these institutions has been a great honour to our team. It’s our way to contribute to Alberta’s economic development by supporting, training and re-skilling our workforce to ensure no learner is left behind.”
Outside of Alberta, Onlea has developed MOOCs for Georgia Tech in the United States, the University of Tromso in Norway, and most recently the George Brown College in Ontario, where the team at Onlea developed an online course to teach citizenship concepts to newcomers of Canada who are deaf or have a hearing impairment.
“The future of education lies in convenient, personalized, and accessible lifelong learning experiences,” says Lopez Forero, who believes we all need to become lifelong learners in order to adapt to an ever-changing world. “Each one of us will be faced with changing careers multiple times during our lifetime, and we need access to new skills when we need them, without any imposed barriers to education. In this context, learners need to be able to build their own learning curriculum.”
This is a trend known as micro-learning, where learners are able to build their own curriculum based on their specific interests and passions instead of following a traditional, standard career path that involves large sums of student debt, often associated with a skillset you may or may not be able to use.
“Imagine a world where you are able to take the accounting courses you need and combine them with a passion for data science and biology, to become an expert in biology accounting for a research lab. Imagine being able to learn these skills from any location, like at home as the parent of a newborn baby, or an individual with a mobility disability or even at the airport as someone who constantly travels for work. Imagine getting the specific skills you need for the job you love with no pre-imposed barriers. That is personalized and accessible life-long learning and that is the future of education that Onlea is building,” concludes Lopez Forero.
“Since we haven’t yet discovered a way to add more hours to the day, the best we can do is be more efficient with the time we have. The use of mobile devices expands the boundaries of anytime, anywhere learning,” says Vince O’Gorman, CEO and president of Vog App Developers. “Mobile technologies offer learners different levels of engagement and provides active learning activities not only inside the classroom but also in out-of-school environments, which provides an easy and fast way to access information.”
Since 2012, Vog has developed approximately 145 mobile applications across many industries such as oil and gas, health and safety, and education.
O’Gorman believes that the integration of apps in post-secondary schools impacts not only the way student learn, but the whole education system by connecting everybody who is involved with the student learning process.
“Technology also has the ability to enhance relationships among teachers, educational institutions, and students. When teachers effectively integrate technology into subject areas, they can grow into roles of advisors, content experts, and coaches by adopting new learning methods, tools and scenarios, as well as new motivation, monitoring and evaluation approach. The future of education is already here — with all the necessary tools and resources at our fingertips.”
O’Gorman isn’t wrong either. After all, students are already able to attend classes by going to campus or by connecting remotely. Features like the integration of collaborative classrooms, where students can help one another by sharing and learning with their colleagues and monitors; pre-recorded lessons which allow students to get help with reliable references, focus on the parts they are struggling with, and catch up in case they missed a lesson; and game-based learning, where simulated training modules of real workplace situations allow students to develop their practical skills and reach their educational goals, are also available in classrooms today.
“We see all of these features together in the palm of every student’s hand and extensions of these tools growing more specific and interactive. We also believe that the use of virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, and robots will increase and facilitate the learning process when integrated into educational apps.”
When it comes to continuing education, technology is the way forward.