Skip to main content

Ontario Tech University: Taking a lead role in e-learning

Questions and answers with President Steven Murphy

Dr. Steven Murphy, President and Vice-Chancellor, Ontario Tech University.
Dr. Steven Murphy, President and Vice-Chancellor, Ontario Tech University.

Ontario Tech University’s long-standing commitment to adapt to the ever-changing educational landscape was certainly reinforced in March as the university responded to immediate operational changes required due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Transforming the learning experience to ensure no one was left behind when all in-person classes were cancelled, Ontario Tech paused only for a day (March 13) to quickly pivot and transfer all coursework online. The shift enabled all 10,000 students to continue the semester courses and programs without interruption, and keep their plans for degree completion and beyond in place.

Dr. Steven Murphy, President and Vice-Chancellor, and Co-Chair of eCampusOntario, answers questions about the rapid and seamless transition of Ontario Tech’s curriculum for the closing weeks of the Winter 2020 semester:

What does it mean to move classes and assessments online?

"Society may envision a classroom on the Internet that looks very similar to a face-to-face classroom with very few drawbacks. The reality is very different.

An incredible amount of complex work goes into putting ‘a class’ online, while creating the same sense of ‘community’ found in a traditional classroom. It takes hours and days to prepare a single three-hour class that would typically involve voice-over visual presentations, a video capturing the instructor discussing the content, and some ability to facilitate group discussion or class interaction.

In addition to using a learning management system, instructors need to think about embedding video and/or audio into the course content using tools or functionality they may not be fully familiar with. Or instructors may be able to present content from a different location."

How do professors and instructors ensure all students feel a sense of connectivity during online classes?

"Each instructor comes into this with different levels of experience and technical proficiency. Beyond the ‘nuts and bolts’ of moving content online, instructors must think about how to build a sense of community and connectedness. That’s equally important to the content of the course itself. This is no easy feat, as some students live in different time zones and often access material when it is convenient to them.

Whether to have synchronous communications (real-time, technologically enhanced), versus asynchronous is another decision point. Open discussion forums can be a middle ground where students can interact and feel connected to what others are saying or doing, but you may lose out on delivering some of the synchronous need for human contact. Recording these sessions with students who participate is but one solution of many."

What are the longer-term effects of this rapid move to online?

"This remarkably rapid transition has demonstrated the strength, resiliency and leadership that resides in our community. If we are able to shift to online delivery in a matter of days, what else can we collectively accomplish?

Most certainly there will be lessons learned from this period we’ll ultimately be able to apply to more traditional face-to-face classes. We must learn from our entire community and hear what worked well and what didn’t.

In some ways, this is an experiment where ‘failure’ is encouraged. Professors are human. They will adapt things that are not working, and that is the very definition of learning. So we become a more tight-knit and resilient community, capable of doing virtually anything we collectively set our minds to."

Are we ready for the dramatic changes likely to unfold in post-secondary education? Is the technology in place, and are learners ready?

"We never believe we are fully ready. But again, this challenges the academic norms of the professor needing to be all-knowing, when in fact they are very human (in the best sense of the word). The technological tools are available to create a first-rate online learning experience, but we also can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We aren’t striving for perfection; we are striving to give our students the best experience possible given the situation.

No one is ever fully aware of what they are capable of until they make the leap. The current situation has forced the leap and the Ontario Tech community has responded. And while our students are digital natives, it would be faulty to assume they don’t crave human bonds—they do."

What can we learn as a society from what’s transpiring right here, right now?

"Part of being human is rallying around each other in times of crisis, whether that was supporting people in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2001 after 9/11, or checking in on our students and neighbours during a pandemic.

We tend to see the best and worst of humans in any crisis. But the best far outweighs the worst every time. We then tend to fall back into our more self-absorbed norms, so we could again challenge ourselves to see the world slightly differently: to realize everyone is always struggling with their own story, and that we can do a lot for humanity through small acts of kindness.

We learn that in difficult times we collectively try to do what’s best for our community. The amount of academic sharing regarding usage of electronic tools, and basic support amongst peers is remarkable."

What are the interesting technology-human connection lessons we are discovering right now? 

"There’s no doubt the connection between technology and humans continues to blur. A good basic question to ask would be: Where would any of us be if our smartphones died in this time?

We are dependent on technology, and yet, we rightfully have a love-hate relationship with that dependency. We don’t always keep up with the latest technological developments, but in times of crises like these, we turn to Google Meets/Hangouts, Skype or FaceTime to get the human contact we crave and need."

What else might Ontario Tech learn from this period to help not just current students, but also the greater community?

"We are well-positioned to drive innovation through our Office of Research Services. Many of our researchers are actively working on various project with our industry, community and government partners. Ontario Tech’s depth of expertise and insight will help spawn new approaches toward the deployment of technologies for ethical purposes.

We, as universities, are also economic development hubs, so we are planning out our capital needs to provide government with shovel-ready projects to employ Ontarians as soon as the virus recedes.

We are also planning for how to best support small businesses as they are dealt a severe blow from COVID-19. This can include linking them to upskilling programs and opportunities offered through our Office of Continuous Learning and Ontario Tech Talent, and providing entrepreneurial support through our Brilliant Catalyst platform."

Media contact
Bryan Oliver
Communications and Marketing
Ontario Tech University
289.928.3653 (mobile)