Redefining the learning experience

The phenomenon of digital or e-learning has roots that go back to the 1960s, a decade that saw cutting edge advances in technology and communication. The electronic method had proven to be supportive, innovative, and tree-friendly, and educational institutions around the world have begun to embrace it. Of course, the more traditional learning method we all experience almost every day prevails, but it is now mixed with and enriched by the electronic experience. If you doubt this, imagine the disaster that ensues if you fail to check Blackboard on a regular basis.

This semester, I found out that one of my courses is going to be taught online. My reaction was a blend of curiosity with a hint of fear — this was a first for me. I had many questions. How is it going to be structured? What exactly is going to be “online” about it? I was excited at the prospect of attending my first class and getting some answers. What was most interesting was that “attending class” had taken on a whole new meaning.

Titled “Neurobiology of Behavior,” the course is the first of its kind at the University of Toronto in a number of rooms. According to the course instructor Dr. Franco Taverna, it is the first course to be structured and delivered completely online using the newly licensed Blackboard Collaborate web-seminar (or webinar) tool. Providing a real-time experience for about a hundred students, Blackboard Collaborate is the primary form of interaction and the medium in which the lectures and tutorials take place. It becomes a space of its own, just like Convocation Hall or Sidney Smith.

The features and tools of the webinar software serve to recreate the traditional elements of a class or lecture hall, but simultaneously provide a much more immersive medium for learning. As the instructor speaks, I am able to see and hear him clearly. I am also able to scroll down the list of students logged into the session. Through a chat window, I can share thoughts on a certain theory, answer or ask a question, or discuss an argument with a peer — all in real-time. One of my favorite features is the “raise-hand” button that I usually use when I have an inquiry or comment to make. This particular feature, at least in my opinion, ensures that even though we may all be dispersed geographically, we are at least as interactive as we would be in a lecture hall.

The whiteboard tool is a major part of the webinar software. It not only substitutes the overhead projector but also becomes another medium for student interaction. In lectures and even more in tutorials, we are randomly sorted out into a number of ‘rooms’ where we discuss, argue, and also share our thoughts or answers right on the whiteboard tool. Of course, we can also participate vocally through a microphone or simply type it all into the chat box.

It is important to consider the advantages and disadvantages of the virtual classroom. Talking to a couple of students gave me a sense of the overall feel of this class. One of the students likes to stay warm and cozy at home especially with Toronto’s unpredictable winter weather. She also finds it easier to ask a professor a question in the virtual classroom — the online format takes some of the pressure off.

Another student said that she is actually motivated to attend lectures. In a virtual class, the notion of attending becomes just as virtual as the class itself. Hence, skipping class becomes a much easier task. However, this student’s experience tells me a great deal about the advantages of the webinar structure. She suggests that this format can result in a decrease in the amount of classes students skipped, “due to its sheer convenience.”

I would completely support the virtual classroom. However, I appreciate the legacy within university campuses and the aesthetic beauty of many grand lecture halls. I believe further incorporation of webinar-based courses at the University of Toronto can have a great impact on its educational system and provide a whole new innovative, immersive, and modern means of instruction.

Omar Bitar is studying Neuroscience and Sociology.

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