A New Pedagogy is Emerging... and Online Learning is a Key Contributing Factor

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In all the discussion about learning management systems, open educational resources (OERs), massive open online courses (MOOCs), and the benefits and challenges of online learning, perhaps the most important issues concern how technology is changing the way we teach and - more importantly - the way students learn. For want of a better term, we call this “pedagogy.”

What is clear is that major changes in the way we teach post-secondary students are being triggered by online learning and the new technologies that increase flexibility in, and access to, post-secondary education.

In looking at what these pedagogical changes are and their implications for students, faculty, staff, and institutions, we consider:

  • Some key developments in online learning and how they impact our understanding of pedagogy;
  • Applications of these developments through highlighting innovations in Ontario colleges and universities from the Pockets of Innovations Series on the Ontario Online Learning Portal for Faculty & Instructors; and
  • Some questions about changes in pedagogy and in student learning.


What drives the development of this new pedagogy? Changes in society, student expectations, and technology are motivating innovative university and college faculty and instructors to re-think pedagogy and teaching methods.

New Demands of a Knowledge-Based Society

There are several separate factors at work here. The first is the continuing development of new knowledge, making it difficult to compress all that learners need to know within the limited time span of a post-secondary course or program. This means helping learners to manage knowledge - how to find, analyze, evaluate, and apply knowledge as it constantly shifts and grows.

The second factor is the increased emphasis on skills or applying knowledge to meet the demands of 21st century society, skills such as critical thinking, independent learning, knowing how to use relevant information technology, software, and data within a field of discipline, and entrepreneurialism. The development of such skills requires active learning in rich and complex environments, with plenty of opportunities to develop, apply and practice such skills.

Lastly, it means developing students with the skills to manage their own learning throughout life, so they can continue to learn after graduation.

New Student Expectations

Even the most idealistic students expect to find a good job after several years of study, a job where they can apply their learning and which will also provide a reasonable income. This is especially true as tuition increases. Students expect to be actively engaged and see the relevance of their learning to the real world.

Today’s students have grown up in a world where technology is a natural part of their environment. Their expectation is that technology will be used where appropriate to help them learn, develop essential information and technology literacy skills, and master the technology fluency necessary in their specific subject domain.

New Technologies

Recent developments in digital technologies, especially web 2.0 tools such as blogs, wikis and social media, and mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, have given the end user, the learner, much more control over access to and the creation and sharing of knowledge. This empowers learners, and innovative instructors are finding ways to leverage this learner control to increase motivation and relevance for learners.


As faculty and instructors become more familiar with digital technologies for teaching and learning, pedagogical challenges and strategies are emerging. The developments listed below have had an impact on how teaching is structured and how and where learning happens.

1. Blended learning

Until recently, there was a clear dichotomy between classroom-based teaching, often supplemented by technologies, a learning management system, and digital resources, and fully online teaching, in which the entire course is provided online.

Now there is a much closer integration of classroom and online teaching under the generic term of blended or hybrid learning, where classroom time is reduced but not eliminated, with the rest of the time being used for online learning.

In the ‘flipped’ classroom, the professor may record a lecture and/or provide access to videos, readings, learning objects, quizzes, and other resources which students work through prior to coming to class. Classroom time is spent on interaction between students and instructor, whether through discussion, problem-solving, practical exercises, or lab work.  In some cases, the materials are designed to be used after class for review and assignments.

Successful blended teaching and learning require a focus on what may best be done on campus, such as face-to-face interaction between students and instructors, and what may best be done online, such as providing flexibility and wide access to resources and experts. This requires a re-thinking of classroom layouts as more interaction takes place, involving the students, instructors, and outside experts who participate in-person or virtually. Teaching models for both classroom and online delivery need to be re-considered and re-calibrated in response to new technological capacities.

2. Collaborative approaches to the construction of knowledge/building communities of practice

From the early days of online learning, there has been an emphasis on enabling learners to construct knowledge through questioning, discussion, the analysis of resources from multiple sources, and instructor feedback. Social media have encouraged the development of communities of practice, where students share experiences, discuss theories and challenges, and learn from each other. The professor is no longer responsible for delivering all of the knowledge or even all of the sources for learning – but maintains a critical role as guide, facilitator, and assessor of the learning.

Some institutions, such as the University of British Columbia, have now created course blogs and wikis that encourage contributions and reflections from the wider public, to accompany formal courses that are 'private' to enrolled students, thus opening up courses to external expertise, and providing students with important contacts and networks outside the institution.

Most professors would not have experienced learning, much less teaching, in such collaborative environments, especially when facilitated through technology. It requires a re-consideration of roles, authority, and how learning is achieved and measured.

3. Use of multimedia and open education resources

Digital media, YouTube videos such as TED talks or the Khan Academy, and, increasingly, open educational resources (OERs) in the form of short lectures, animations, simulations, or virtual worlds enable professors and students to access and apply knowledge in a wide variety of ways. There are now many thousands of examples of stand-alone, open educational resources that can be downloaded free for educational use. Examples include MIT's OpenCourseWare, Apple's iTunes University, and the UK Open University's OpenLearn.

OERs help students who have never fully mastered key concepts or techniques, or have forgotten them. They provide an alternative route for students who struggle to keep up in classroom lectures. They also appeal to an increasingly large group of learners who are just interested, but don't want to enroll in, a formal course or program. Instructors can incorporate them into their course designs.

Even text books are changing to incorporate video and audio clips, animations and rich graphics and become more interactive, allowing both instructors and students to annotate, add or change material including interactive assessment questions and feedback. These electronic texts are, of course, accessible via mobile smartphones, tablets, e-readers and other mobile devices.

Using multimedia for education is not new, but, with the Internet, the selection and integration of appropriate sources – by both professors and students – raises questions of quality, timely and appropriate usage, multiple points of view, and packaging of a wide range of resources within the framework of course-specific learning objectives and assessment practices. Balancing the use of multimedia and open educational resources with professor-delivered content raises issues of course ownership and of measurable learning outcomes.

4. Increased learner control, choice, and independence

Students can now access content, free of charge, from multiple sources via the Internet. They can choose alternative interpretations, areas of interest, and even sources of accreditation. Students have tools, such as smartphones and video cameras that can collect digital examples and data that can be edited, stored and used in student work. Thus strictly managing a set curriculum in terms of a limited content chosen by the instructor becomes less meaningful. The emphasis shifts to deciding what is important or relevant both within a subject domain, and to the needs of a particular learner.

Learners within any single 'class' are likely to have multiple needs. Within the framework of the learning objectives, more flexible approaches to content choice, delivery, assessment, and other factors are emerging. Equally important is the development of learners taking responsibility for their own learning, and approaching this as a skill to be taught and developed.

This approach challenges the instructor to move away from selecting and transmitting information in large blocks or chunks, such as a one hour lecture, to guiding students to find, analyze, evaluate, and apply information that is relevant to a particular subject domain. This 'relevance' becomes more negotiated between instructor and student. Indeed, the term 'instructor' becomes misleading in this context, as the role moves more to that of facilitator with less control over where and how learning takes place, and often entering into negotiation over exactly what the content is.

5. Anywhere, anytime, any size learning

The development of ‘any size’ learning can be seen in the creation of smaller modules, such as those offered through the 'Learn on Demand' program at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, that can be built or aggregated into certificates, diplomas or even full degrees, and which can also be used as stand-alone, free, open resources. These smaller modules fit the needs of many full-time students who are working part-time, as well as those needing greater flexibility or additional help with their learning. Instructors can incorporate open resources into their courses and students can use them for independent learning and research.

There is growing demand from learners for short, 'just in time, just for me' learning modules that fit an immediate learning need.  The creation and aggregation of these modules for credit requires reconsideration of course structure and the crediting of learning that is not equivalent to a full course completion. In the evolving world of open access to learning, students who successfully complete such modules may be awarded 'badges', with the possibility of credit being transferred at a later time into a more formal program.

Mobile learning, with smart phones,  tablets and other devices, is the basis of the anywhere, anytime learning provided through online learning. Offering content, quizzes, multimedia resources, and connections among learners using mobile devices requires a new look at course design, content packaging, and a consideration of limitations of data packages.  How to best integrate mobile devices into course delivery and assessment is a field of continuing exploration.

6. New forms of assessment

Digital learning can leave a permanent 'trace' in the form of student contributions to online discussion and e-portfolios of work through the collection, storing and assessment of a student's multimedia online activities. Peer assessment involves students in the review of each other’s work, providing useful feedback that may be used in revision of documents and a better understanding of issues.

Learning analytics are being developed to make this tracking of student learning as demonstrated through their digital activities easier and more scalable. Such analytical feedback to students can be continuous throughout a course, resulting in early diagnostics that enable learners to focus on areas of weakness before a final assessment.

The accessibility of such demonstrations of learning offers many advantages both to students and professors, compared with traditional forms of assessment. It also brings new challenges concerning what type of learning to assess, student support in using technology for sophisticated demonstrations of learning, and issues of security for exams.  Not all students are as fluent and secure in their use of technology for learning and assessment as their continuous texting may indicate.

7. Self-directed and non-formal online learning

While there has always been a minority of learners fully capable of managing their own learning, and a long history of self-directed and non-formal learning in adult education, recent developments such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) provide many more potential learners with support and encouragement for self-directed or non-formal learning. The availability of free open educational resources combined with social networking enables large numbers of learners to access knowledge without the necessity for meeting institutional prior admission requirements, following a set course, or having a personal instructor. Computerized marking and peer discussion and assessment provide learners with support and feedback on their learning.

Such initiatives are still in early stages of development, and more experimentation and evaluation is needed, but such opportunities for self-directed and non-formal online learning are likely to play an increasingly important role in learning.


Underlying these developments are some common factors or trends:

1.    A move to opening up learning, making it more accessible and flexible. The classroom is no longer the unique centre of learning, based on information delivery through a lecture.

2.    An increased sharing of power between the professor and the learner. This is manifest as a changing professorial role, towards more support and negotiation over content and methods, and a focus on developing and supporting learner autonomy. On the student side, this can mean an emphasis on learners supporting each other through new social media, peer assessment, discussion groups, even online study groups but with guidance, support and feedback from content experts.

3.    An increased use of technology not only to deliver teaching, but also to support and assist students and to provide new forms of student assessment.

It is important to emphasize that these are emerging pedagogical trends. More experimentation, evaluation, and research are needed to identify those that will have lasting value and a permanent effect on the system.


These new developments are not emerging as neatly as the above analysis suggests, with many initiatives combining the methods listed above. Professors and teaching and learning specialists in post-secondary institutions in Ontario have been re-thinking pedagogy and designing resources, courses, and programs that benefit from new approaches to teaching and learning. Using innovations featured in the Pockets of Innovation series on the Ontario Online Learning Portal for Faculty & Instructors, short case studies exemplifying new trends in pedagogy are outlined below.

1. Blended learning

Case Study: Blended Learning in Introductory Psychology at McMaster University

The Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour at McMaster University responded to the challenge of how to provide high-quality learning for the thousands of student enrolled in first-year psychology by introducing a blended learning module in 2007 that has continuously been researched and improved. The blended course features:

  • Weekly Web Modules: The primary course content is delivered using slides, video, animation and text with narration, with each lesson divided into units for easier access and targeted learning.
  • Testing: Weekly online tests with multiple choice questions assess conceptual understanding and application of the knowledge. There are 12 weekly tests and the top ten marks count for 40% of the students’ final grade.
  • Weekly Live Lectures:  One weekly live lecture no longer delivers the entire course content, so it can be more dynamic while expanding the web modules. The weekly lectures are attended by about 90% of the students and offer an opportunity for direct interaction with the course instructor.
  • Weekly Tutorials: The weekly tutorials are delivered by teaching assistants for groups of 26 students.
  • Feedback: A range of tools are used to provide regular feedback to students. Of the thousands of student comments received concerning the course, the great majority have been positive.

Additional examples of Blended Learning

Blended learning applications and strategy at Mohawk College

Blended learning courses and support at Lambton College

Matching Online and Experiential Learning at Durham College

Engaging First-Year Students at Queen’s University

Blended Learning in Organic Chemistry at Wilfrid Laurier University

2. Collaborative approaches to the construction of knowledge/building communities of practice

Case Study: Knowledge Building using online environments at the University of Toronto

The Master of Science in Biomedical Communications is an interdisciplinary program in the design and evaluation of visual media in medicine and science. Students upload consecutive drafts of their medical visualizations on Knowledge Forum so that classmates, instructors, and external experts can comment and contribute to improvement. Students learn through providing and receiving assessments and building on each other’s ideas.

The students have expanded online group interaction and building of ideas to other technologies that they use more readily, such as Twitter, wikis, and Google docs. Structuring group feedback is no longer the sole responsibility of the professor but an intrinsic component of the learning. In a formal evaluation study, all of the students assessed the educational value of the process of online Knowledge Building as excellent or good.

Additional examples of Collaborative Learning and Communities of Practice:

Facilitator Community of Practice at Brock University

Graduate students at Nipissing University

3. Use of multimedia and open education resources

Case Study: SPARK, A Virtual Learning Commons at York University

SPARK is an open educational resource that supports undergraduate students in their research, writing, and learning skills. Students can work through the site on their own or be assigned activities within it by their professors. Each of the 13 multimedia modules takes 8 to 10 minutes and offers additional resources.  SPARK is developed under a Creative Commons licence and freely available for use in other colleges and universities.

Additional examples of Multimedia and Open Education Resources:

Examples of virtual reality at Loyalist College

Simulation-Based Learning Tool at Sheridan Institute

Creating Learning Objects at Fanshawe College

OER development at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University

VidéoTech – OER for French language learning at Carleton University and University of Ottawa

4. Increased learner control, choice, and independence

Case Study – Student-Generated Course Content at George Brown College

A professor, making extensive use of technology in graphic arts, found that maintaining mastery of the software in the field was increasingly difficult, with a time lag from software release to curriculum integration of 18 months resulting in students being exposed to dated product.

The new model of pedagogy moved from a top-down, teacher-delivered curriculum to one of distributed teaching and learning in which everyone in the classroom is both a teacher and a learner.

The students, in teams, work with each new software application to understand its structure and functions and prepare documentation for its. Team presentations are made to the full class, documentation is exchanged, revised, and edited, and finally assembled into a manual entitled Legacy of Learning. In the following years, students update and add to the manual. The professor becomes a co-learner, and the students are co-researchers, co-testers, and co-documentarians.

Additional examples of Increased Learner Control, Choice, and Independence

Developing self-directed learners at Niagara College

Digital Media Zone at Ryerson University

Building learner presence at the University or Ontario Institute of Technology

Students as teachers and learners at Western University

5. Anywhere, anytime, any size learning

Case Study: E-Textbooks at Algonquin College – 100% of the students with 100% of their resources 100% of the time.

Working with the big publishers of text-books for college students, Algonquin College is providing students with access to all of the resources in their courses online for up to four devices per student. The online texts are enhanced with multimedia, quizzes and other features to make learning more engaging.

The students are charged a supplementary fee for getting 100% of their textbooks – the fee is currently 63% of what they paid in the past. The goal is to supply the resources at a 50% saving on the price of the print textbooks. By September 2014, e-texts will be used introduced in all programs in the college. The e-text initiative is part of a wider Digital College strategy at Algonquin College.

Additional examples of Anywhere, Anytime, Any Size Learning:

Mobile-Assisted Language Learning at George Brown College

Going Mobile at Nipissing University

6. New forms of assessment

Case Study: Peer Evaluation, Assessment, and Review at the University of Guelph

PEAR, a peer evaluation, assessment, and review tool,  facilitates and automates much of the administrative work associated with student peer review, making it more practical for learning, even with large classes.

The peer review process can be as open or restricted as the professor wishes; the submissions can go from student to professor, to professor and editor, to classmates, to outside reviewers, or an iterative process through these steps.  Reviewers can share comments with each other; the students can respond to comments and explain their choice of revisions; and class groups can be created with assigned articles to review.  The project overview keeps track of all exchanges, submissions, reviews, and responses.

Additional examples of New Forms of Assessment

E-Portfolios at Wilfrid Laurier University

E-Marking at the University of Ottawa

Online Marking at University of Waterloo

PeerScholar at the University of Toronto

7. Self-directed and non-formal online learning

Cast Study: Developing a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) at Fanshawe College

Fanshawe College developed a MOOC to emphasize the practical and personal elements of sustainability, creating six modules with videos, interviews, links to further information, and various levels of achievement. The course had over 500 registrants, with a completion rate of 17%. More than half of the registrants were over 35 years of age, and the great majority joined simply to learn about sustainability.

Additional Examples of Self-Directed and Non-Formal Learning

MOOCs at the University of Toronto


There is a ground swell of change taking place in teaching methods. As the Pockets of Innovation Series reveals, across the province, innovative applications of technology to teaching and learning are being developed, researched, and evaluated. Some questions related to your experience in adapting the new pedagogy are listed below.

Impact on Teaching and Course Design

A new pedagogy is intrinsically linked to teaching practice and strategies for course design and delivery.

  • What new factors do you take into account in your teaching and course design and what elements of classroom practice do you maintain?
  • What have you learned about student’s needs, preferences, concerns, and success rates with online/hybrid learning?
  • What specific strengths and limitations for online delivery are linked to the subject matter which you teach or for which you prepare resources?

Impact on Student Learning

Student learning is the other key component of an emerging pedagogy, with their success as the goal of all our efforts.

  • What new demands are student making in terms of how they want to be taught and assessed and what are your responses?
  • What new roles are students taking in their online or hybrid learning and how has this changed your teaching practice?
  • What new strategies for and areas of student support are being built into course structures to facilitate effective online learning?

Technological Choice

Matching pedagogy, learning objects, subject matter, and student access and success to appropriate technologies, software, and online strategies is the ongoing challenge of online learning.

  • Which technologies are you using and what strengths and challenges do they present for online and hybrid course design delivery, assessment, student interaction, and student support?

Technology allows us to teach differently, to meet new as well as old needs. It is helping drive innovation in teaching and learning. But in the end, decisions need to be made about how best to use technology, and for what purposes.