Declining enrolment makes for an unsustainable situation
Back in 2011, face-to-face enrolment numbers were declining for the School of Human Services, due in large part to the school’s rural location. As a result, the school was experiencing serious budget concerns and the Early Learning and Child Care program was at risk.
At the same time, Lakeland was struggling with its existing learning management system (LMS) provider to translate the college’s authentic learning philosophy into an online learning format.
A technology committee was established to look at online learning from a college-wide perspective. Lakeland had been using an LMS previously, but college administration was exploring other options for next generation learning management. The technical committee brought forward the Brightspace platform as a top replacement candidate, attracted by the platform’s interactivity, style sheets, and user-friendly interface. “Our students are not terribly tech-savvy,” explains Kelly Mazerolle, an instructor in the Early Learning and Child Care program. “The online learning system needed to be really easy and intuitive for them to use.”
Simulations help students experience real-life scenarios online
In the face-to-face Early Learning and Child Care diploma program, students at Lakeland spend 11 weeks in class studying theory, followed by 4 weeks in practicum. As part of the practicum, students run a play program for children. They are tasked with transforming two college classrooms into suitable child care settings–one for infant/toddlers and the other for pre-school aged children. Members of the community drop their children off to participate in sessions.
One of the challenges Lakeland faced in moving their early learning certificate and diploma programs online was to duplicate this practicum experience for distance learning students who never set foot on campus. “We needed to find a way to mirror the experience of setting up a classroom and interacting with children and parents virtually so our online students could have that important practicum experience,” explains McDonald. In discussions with D2L, it was determined that a simulated experience delivered through Brightspace was the way to go.
To build the online simulation, McDonald and Mazerolle sat down with the Brightspace Creative Services team to help them translate the real-life world of early childhood education into an engaging, interactive online learning experience. Students online would be presented with the same kinds of challenges and situations they would face in a real life day-care setting. The team met weekly with D2L to refine the simulation and make it as realistic as possible–right down to addressing diversity in the staff, parents, and children.
Blown away by student engagement
The Brightspace platform offers students collaboration tools and discussion forums where they can connect with each other to share their knowledge and experiences. “When we first launched the simulation, I did a run through with the pilot group of 20 students to see how well they were engaging,” says McDonald. “After the first day and 150 posts later, I was blown away. The response was overwhelming.”
Parcel-sized learning helps non-traditional students thrive
With the majority of students entering the Human Services online programming coming from non-traditional backgrounds, it was critical that Brightspace offer parcel-sized learning to not overwhelm a student who is juggling learning with family and work commitments. Over the 11 weeks they are “in school,” students are led through the online course content a little bit at a time, supported and prompted by Brightspace through friendly reminders. Students are encouraged to use the Dropbox tool to submit videos and photos of their interactions with children to show instructors how they are applying their knowledge in their jobs.
Lakeland is truly what I wanted and needed from a distance program. I felt that I could contribute my own ideas and the instructors helped to guide my thoughts and encouraged their development. I feel that Lakeland actually wanted students to challenge themselves and engage others in their field and make them understand why they believe in their theories of childcare. The program is the epitome of distance education.
Lakeland College Student
Engaging and retaining students
McDonald, Mazerolle and the rest of the Lakeland faculty initially wondered how moving to an online teaching model might impact their ability to create lasting relationships with students. In short, it hasn’t. “I was always a bit worried about how I would build rapport with students I didn’t see face-to-face,” says McDonald. “But we’ve found we know them just as well as students we see in the traditional classroom. We know who they are, what they struggle with and what they are great at. We have found, for many of our non-traditional students, learning online has actually helped build their confidence. They are able to fit their learning goals in amongst all the other things they have on their plate.”
The numbers certainly show students are thriving online. The Human Services School recently reported a 94% retention rate among students participating in online classes for the most recent fall semester.
Lakeland piloted four online human services courses in 2011-2012 and four students enrolled. Since then, online registration for human services programs has increased exponentially. Registrations are now nearly 450 and doubling year over year, with the program now pulling in students from across Canada.