The Master Practitioner
How do you practice what you preach? You practice what you teach! And you might have to play “mother hen” to a few students along the way. But one thing is certain, Mary O’Neill has what it takes to help higher education professionals transition towards ever changing online delivery opportunities.
An Unconventional Path to TeachingMary O’Neill did not start out to become an educator, she started out as an applied communications student who eventually found herself managing video productions for the healthcare industry. As she designed presentations and workshops, she found she had a gift for teaching which lead her to obtaining her online master’s degree. As a master’s student, Mary found that it was “wonderful to see the future for online delivery in education.” As Mary continued in her studies what really intrigued her was how “fantastic it was to see these educational technologies being applied as strategies to increase student’s success in the classroom.” And from there, her pathway into online delivery of education blossomed. As Mary began her teaching career at Vancouver Island University (VIU), she and her colleagues were empowered to create - and she now coordinates - an innovative new program known as the Online Learning and Teaching graduate Diploma program (OLTD). This unique program develops educators in all aspects of online learning by introducing these educators to a plethora of resources and opportunities for implementation.
Getting the “By In” in Developing Curriculum for Online LearningWhen asked about higher educator’s “by in” for avenues of online learning during the development of the OLTD, Mary indicated that there are valid concerns about adopting new technologies especially with those educators who “have done the same thing,the same way for so long they ask why change it?” Mary indicated that VIU has demonstrated ways in which higher education facilities can help teachers embrace distance learning, blended classrooms, and online courses. VIU took the unusual step several years ago of outfitting all of their educational classrooms with the hardware and software necessary to perform distance, blended and computer enhanced delivery of learning. “We put the tools in front of them [educators]- and very gently and in a comforting kind of way modeled what we felt were best practices... but more in a mentorship model.” Additionally, British Columbia began implementation of the BC Education Plan Curriculum for K-12. This program is designed to help encourage and improve student based learning. In this plan, which should be fully implemented over the next two years, a major piece of the curriculum is technology integration and enhanced collaborative learning. Since this plan is being implemented, VIU faculty believe that their new graduates need to be prepared to go into the classroom with these new collaborative tools and technologies already well understood. Mary indicated that “if we’re not modeling it ourselves it is a huge disservice to the students, so professors have even more buy in to use their own forms of blended curricula.”
Advantages and Disadvantages of Online LearningThe advantages of online learning are well documented. By its very nature, online learning and blended learning are more collaborative in nature. Flexibility in time, manner, and substance of delivery is a vital component to the online learner and can help foster enhanced creativity. Let the students help direct their learning Mary says and you will be amazed at what they come up with. Some students are more visual learners while others are more aesthetic learners. Because every student’s frame of reference and personal dynamics is different if you “place learning in the hands of the learner -it can be so dynamic” Mary said. “Just letting them draw on their own inquisitiveness and in their own world allows them to keep questioning and keep coming up with new ideas and new ways to share the ideas with their peer groups- it’s such a win-win.” Even with all the advantages of online learning there are some distinct disadvantages. There are always the challenges of student engagement; how to gauge active participation, not seeing hands-up for questions, eye contact, or ability to read body language for example. With online learners there is the issue of multiple people dispersed through multiple time zones. Coordinating a meeting time for all participants can be harrowing. Mary also indicated that she, herself is revamping her courses to “really try and keep the sense of community and cohesiveness and synchronicity” which at times can leave an online learner isolated. She calls it “the loneliness of the long distance learner,” solitary here is not good. There are also the occasional technology hiccups, a site not functioning properly, web conferencing tools not working, bad internet connections, and the different types of meeting spaces such as Bluejeans can be a little less formal. Two particular problems that VIU is currently addressing with their students in China is the network specifications and social media blackouts of sites such as Youtube and Facebook. This can definitely frustrate the purpose and cause many more challenges to students learning at distance than in traditional classroom settings. Mary looks at these challenges though as learning opportunities. The student’s expectations for online learning is continuing to evolve and thrive and is much more forgiving according to Mary. Students and teachers come into the OLTD program with open minds and a ‘don't sweat it - we will figure it out’ attitude -if isn't working get on the phone or email to get it to work for you.” After all, that is what happens in the real-world classroom environment that these students will be teaching in. Which is why Mary is also an ardent supporter of the S.P.A.R.K.S. program which is dedicated to enhancing and enriching students’ lives and educational experiences through their own personal interests. Mary firmly believes that S.P.A.R.K.S. is about identifying and drawing on your own personal strengths and if a student is engaged in their learning, they are change agents for the world. More on this fabulous program can be found here:
- The Search Institute : http://www.search-institute.org/
- The SPARKS Mural Project- http://www.sparksmural.com/