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Grow Your eLearning Program 5X: Try These 4 Strategies

Jeff Allison, eLearning principal for the Grand Erie District School Board (GEDSB) and principal of Hagersville Secondary School, shares his insights on crafting eLearning programs.

Coco Wang
Coco Wang

Customer Advocacy Manager, D2L

Coming from a family of educators, Jeff Allison went straight into teaching after university. His interest in technology led him to pioneer an eLearning course early in his career and even score a laptop, which was unheard of at the time.

As the ePrincipal of the GEDSB’s eLearning initiative, Allison has overseen a dramatic expansion of the program, from offering 16 sections to a staggering 80 in just two years. This initiative provides online courses for students across the GEDSB and Ontario, broadening their access to diverse educational opportunities.

Allison’s journey from dabbling with at-home technology to becoming the eLearning principal for the GEDSB led him to win the Ontario eLearning Consortium’s 2023 Leadership in eLearning Award.

Allison is an incredible D2L Champion and shares some tips to build an impactful eLearning program.

I was always playing with different technology, but I never thought that tinkering with an at-home computer would have paid off in the way it has.

I started by teaching a philosophy course online during the early days of eLearning and quickly learned that running a virtual classroom required a unique set of skills. Transitioning to teaching a Grade 11 course called “Designing Your Future,” a course that students usually choose to help fill timetable gaps, revealed its own set of challenges for engaging students in a digital environment.

So, when I work with experienced educators who have been teaching for multiple decades, I keep in mind that while they understand how to run a class in a physical space, it can be jarring to run a class in a digital space.

At Grand Erie eLearning, we run online courses for students across the district that are also accessible to students throughout Ontario. We have witnessed remarkable growth, expanding from 16 to 80 sections in just two years while also boosting student enrollment in schools with low participation rates. Reflecting on our success, I’d like to pass on a few tips for my fellow educators and administrators looking to scale an existing eLearning program.

I know that when I have questions that I bring to the D2L staff, whether it’s implementing a new tool, or job training that they’re offering to support either myself or my fellow educators, they’ve always been very responsive, very competent, very knowledgeable about what they’re doing. And if you run into hiccups along the way, they bring someone else in to help out.

Jeff Allison, eLearning principal, GEDSB

1. Build Partnerships With Online Learning Enablers

It’s essential to gain buy-in from your fellow educators and administrators. eLearning should be seen as something for everyone and not something that’s being enforced.

The GEDSB oversees 58 elementary schools and 14 secondary schools for over 26,000 students spanning a large geographical area, from cities to rural communities. To no surprise, there was reluctance to embrace eLearning by some schools and departments that didn’t understand how eLearning worked or how it could best work for their students. So we conducted several school visits to meet with guidance departments and administrators in order to understand the needs of their students and how we could partner.

In our case, smaller-enrollment schools view eLearning as vital to offer a wide range of courses they may lack resources to provide in person. Schools with athletic communities and students on Individualized Education Plans were enthusiastic about offering flexible learning options to accommodate other pursuits and learning needs.

The main driver is to put student needs first. Online learning has allowed us to pool our resources and provide a dynamic and enriching learning experience for every student.

2. Listen to Your Students and Teachers

School administrators sought extensive feedback from students and teachers. From conversations and student surveys to delving into student course selections and consulting teacher preferences, gathering feedback offered the insights and confidence needed to scale our online programming.

Analyzing course selections across the district provided the proof points to justify running courses that allow students to pursue the interests they see as valuable to their future.

Our unique elective courses have emerged from teacher input. For instance, this year saw the launch of the first dance course in the province. The enthusiasm from educators when teaching a subject they are passionate about, sometimes after years of waiting, helps boost teacher motivation and significantly diversifies our course offerings.

3. Create a Support Network for Teachers and Students

We initiated a mentoring program, pairing new eLearning teachers with experienced colleagues. While we could only get together once or twice a semester, it was important to spend time building connections among them and providing an opportunity to align curriculums. For our English teachers, it helped create a continuum that allowed the skills acquired in Grade 9 to pave the way for further skill development in subsequent grades.

Similarly, for students in eLearning, it’s crucial they don’t feel isolated. Connecting them with fellow eLearning peers in asynchronous courses is vital. Our eLearning teaching staff conducts school visits to unite eLearning students, helping them recognize the human presence behind the screen and nurturing a culture of belonging. 

Whether it’s the customer success group, or if it’s the TAM, or the help desk, I’ve always felt like, when I needed help, I could ask for help and I would get a response that would help me. Sometimes it just seems like that’s a no-brainer, but it’s not always the case, especially with technical things. So, it’s nice when you have that confidence in the people who you’re asking for help that they can actually help you.

Jeff Allison, eLearning principal, GEDSB

4. Empower Teachers With Ongoing Support and Guidance

To support the growth of our eLearning program, we asked our teachers what they needed. What new skills would they need to build, create and run online learning? Were all our staff aware of the many ways they could use D2L Brightspace to engage with students?

To answer these questions, we hosted 14 professional development days over two years, providing tailored tracks on topics like AI, engagement strategies and building interactive content, that helped our teachers become expert online educators. Each day featured three to four breakout sessions in the morning and afternoon, along with dedicated networking opportunities and subject-specific group meetings.

This year, we launched a cross-board boot camp for the support staff and educators of our local school boards. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Engaging in shared experiences and varied perspectives truly reinforced our partnership and empowered participants to explore diverse applications of the Brightspace tool.

A popular segment for our teachers is called quick hits, which involves a lightning round through different Brightspace tools and features they can revisit and explore later in the day. The various ways we expose our educators to a wide range of Brightspace capabilities have been instrumental in enriching student learning experiences and significantly contributing to the growth of our online programs.

The dedicated investment in our educators’ professional development has been a cornerstone of our success. Backed by the responsive support from D2L combined with the passion, commitment and enthusiasm of my colleagues, we are expanding our eLearning to include courses and grades for all pathways, enabling required courses to be shared among schools and integrating eLearning into other programs, like Continuing Education and Alternative Education, across the district. 

As we continue to harness the full spectrum of Brightspace functionalities and foster collaborative learning environments, we are setting new standards for educational excellence and truly honoring student voice and student choice.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Written by:

Coco Wang
Coco Wang

Customer Advocacy Manager, D2L

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Table of Contents
  1. 1. Build Partnerships With Online Learning Enablers
  2. 2. Listen to Your Students and Teachers
  3. 3. Create a Support Network for Teachers and Students
  4. 4. Empower Teachers With Ongoing Support and Guidance