What does an education at VIU look like in 2012? Students are returning to the classroom for another year of lessons, and the way that they learn is changing. Education is becoming more accessible, but are students receiving the learning that they want and how they want it?
English Dictionary is the most relevant to modern university education: “The culture or development of personal knowledge or understanding, growth of character, moral and social qualities, etc., as contrasted with the imparting of knowledge or skill.”
However, the answer to the question that this dictionary definition cannot satisfy, is whether the breadth of an education is important. A person can attend a university course on a singular, narrow subject and satisfy the definition for having had an education, but that narrow education will not necessarily have been given context within the wider spectrum of human knowledge.
What can an education look like at VIU?
Several professors in the English and Media Studies departments have been experimenting with how they deliver classes. They are looking to develop methods of easier access to education, and more context for what they are teaching. They’re setting an example that they hope could lead to a decreased disparity between the subjects that students are learning. A key part of acquiring knowledge comes from understanding how different disciplines and ideas relate. When students are moving from building to building to different subjects where there is little or no communication between departments, they aren’t necessarily given instruction or a forum for discussion that relates those different subject areas.
English Professor Daniel Burgoyne and Media Studies Professors Doug Stetar and Marian van der Zon have been experimenting with tying their first-year courses together into “Interdisciplinary Studies.” In 2009, the course category was designed by Burgoyne and Stetar out of their curriculums to connect the first-year university writing requirement, taught by Burgoyne, and the first-year popular culture component of the Media Studies program, taught by Stetar. Of the format, Burgoyne says, “Usually I take the first half of each class and Doug takes the second half, although we do team teach sometimes—or just overlap. All of the readings and assignments are integrated. Basically, I work on stuff from one angle and Doug works from another: I focus on writing and research; he focuses on theory and analysis. And we have conversations. We have an evening session with group presentations in a theatre about half-way through the course.” The course satisfies three of the six credits of English that are required for all VIU students, and three credits for Media Studies 112.
Interdisciplinary Studies is entering its third year, now offering courses in both the fall and spring semesters. I asked Burgoyne if he thought that the positive reception towards the class came from students’ desire for an inter-connected education. He says, “Yes, it does come from a desire for a more interconnected education. Personally, I wanted my English course to have less arbitrary content— to have [students] engaged in a discourse that we could then write about. Students appreciate the more holistic experience. I think this drive for interdisciplinary study is where the university needs to go, and I hope that more of these types of courses will be created over the next few years.”
This kind of education is available at VIU through the Liberal Studies program—students study topics in art, literature, history, and science and see how they interconnect, which provides a broad-based education. Projects can come in a variety of mediums—visual art, combined with essays, and separate seminars to discuss readings. While this education develops a base of skills that make a student employable in a range of fields upon graduation, the breadth rather than the depth of knowledge would not be sufficient to enter into some fields. For students entering into a more narrowly focused degree field, the problem that comes with receiving a broad education through a supplement of electives, is that the classroom discussion of the connections between these disciplines isn’t there. It is up to the student to piece together what they might learn. Without the benefit of seminar discussion to share ideas on how the material relates, a whole range of discourse is lost.
As technology advances, so does the way education is delivered. Most students will be familiar with the Moodle platform through which most online courses are delivered. (For the unfamiliar: Moodle is an online forum space often used to supplement traditional classroom teaching, also used as the basis for entirely online courses). However, there are more options in the works to provide education to those who want it, but can’t necessarily attend a regular lecture, while allowing for other students to still benefit from the in-classroom experience of the same course.
Also in the English department, Professor Terri Doughty ran an experiment last year, called “Blended Learning” from VIU’s Cowican campus, at which she taught a 300-level class called Narrative Studies: Fairy Tale Traditions and Revisions.
Blended Learning allows students to choose how to attend a course: in person, online, or both. Doughty says, “In my class, I delivered a face-to-face class weekly and had online students participating via Moodle. The flexibility with the format is great: face-to-face students can pick up what they missed via Moodle if they cannot attend classes, and online students are welcome to attend face-to-face classes whenever they can. I had assignments that required face-to face and online students to interact with one another online, and I also taped classes and uploaded the audio files to Moodle so that online students could have a sense of the face-to-face classes.” The class had 20 students attending online, and eight in the classroom.
The Blended Learning format that Doughty tried last year not only provides more options for students’ schedules, but allows for the participation of some students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend university—such as parents of young children, full-time workers, and those who live in remote locations.
Blended Learning is catching on. Doughty continues to teach such classes this year—this time from the Nanaimo campus, and there is a possibility of adding a video component to method so that students can view lectures remotely, or review them for studying purposes (this method has already been used by English professor Sally Carpenter). This year, the ratio of in-class to online students may change significantly as the course is offered at the Nanaimo campus.
Burgoyne plans to adopt the blended learning format for the spring 2013 offering of interdisciplinary studies.
What does a university education mean to students?
Not everyone wants a broad-based education from university. With the money and time that a formal post-secondary education requires, for many the best option is to receive the training in their chosen field and get started on a career path—but desires for the content of an education change over the course of post-secondary study.
Fifth-year English student Kala Atkin, originally intended to go into the Education program, but says that her educational goal has changed: to come out of university more cultured—then find a career, eventually. “I believe that I am receiving a well-rounded education,” she says and is receiving that education by taking a variety of electives.
One third-year Math student says that her educational goals are career-oriented, though not specifically yet. She says she will have to leave VIU to complete her undergraduate, but adds “I believe VIU provides a good range of courses, and sees that degrees and programs incorporate more than just your focus subject.” Thanks to elective requirements, students step outside their comfort zone to acquire that breadth of education. Asked whether she would want to see more connected disciplines in her areas of study, she says “I understand it takes a lot of resources to offer such programs. It’s seeking those options which has me eventually leaving VIU.”
Blended learning and interdisciplinary teaching are steps in the right direction towards providing alternate education options for students. The question for now is, will the rest of the university look at these examples of teaching and put them to use in other departments? If your department at VIU is actively working to provide more accessible education, or alternate teaching methods, we want to know. Send your letters to <email@example.com>
The third definition listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is the most relevant to modern university education: ‘The culture or development of personal knowledge or understanding, growth of character, moral and social qualities, etc., as contrasted with the imparting of knowledge or skill.’ “