TWU has a long history of success in providing highly engaging and effective higher education experiences for students, primarily in a residential, face-to-face learning environment. The idea of TWU as a learning community runs very deep. However, as we enter a New Era for TWU, there are pressures from within and without to take the next steps to continue to not only remain relevant, but to take leadership in providing engaging higher education experiences in an online environment.
Typically, when universities think of online and distance learning, they immediately begin to consider which of the dozens of Learning Management Systems (LMS) they will deploy to deliver learning materials to remote students. In this scenario, higher education too often becomes a transactional experience and interactions are reduced to impersonal, sometimes completely automated, and data-driven exchanges.
Everyone I speak to at TWU is appropriately concerned about this model.
A New Era
There is a better way, and it involves rethinking how we provide transformational learning experiences for TWU students, especially for those who are engaging in TWU degrees from a distance.
The New Era represents not only new challenges, but also new opportunities. Modern web technologies and widespread access to broadband internet have matured to the point where web-based learning communities can provide for extremely rich and meaningful interactions in alignment with TWU’s Student Learning Outcomes (SLO).
While the intent of this note isn’t to provide a complete commentary on each one of the identified outcomes, there are several outcomes that preclude a typical transactional learning environment.
The preamble of the SLO document is a good place to begin when thinking about the kind of digital environment that will be necessary to support our goals:
Trinity Western is a Christian, liberal arts University. As a Christian university, Trinity Western is grounded in the historical Christian tradition and seeks to unite reason and faith through teaching and scholarship. As a liberal arts university, Trinity Western prepares students to deal with complexity, diversity, and change by providing them with a broad knowledge of the wider world and helping them to develop transferable intellectual and practical skills.
So there are three things that students are to do in the preamble:
1. Unite reason and faith through [learning] and scholarship;
2. Deal with complexity, diversity, and change;
3. Develop transferable intellectual and practical skills.
One way to conceptualize these three primary activities is to view them as being on a progressively open, or public, continuum.
The uniting of reason and faith through study and inquiry can be an intensely personal and difficult task, especially when long-held beliefs are challenged. This often requires a significant amount of trust and vulnerability between students, their peers, the faculty, and other associated personnel. We have an obligation to provide the option for students to do this in a safe environment.
Learning to deal with complexity, diversity, and change requires students to encounter complex, diverse, and changing situations. While this can happen in the safety of the LMS, with very similar and predictable peers, it is much more authentic to experience these things in contexts where the prevailing worldview is different from our own Christian worldview, where the complexity is rooted deeper than mere denominational differences. This is why we offer travel studies and missions trips for our resident students, and this is why we need to see our technological boundaries as being selectively porous.
Finally, the development of transferable intellectual and practical skills requires us to allow and prepare our students to engage with digital technologies in such a way that they are using technology to shape the web, rather than having the web shape our students. When our students leave TWU, they will almost never be required to engage with only a single technological tool. They will be required to be fluent in a wide variety of tools, virtually none of which will be an LMS.
It turns out that the diversity of outcomes that we intend for our students requires that we provide opportunity to use a whole suite of tools for various tasks which will require various skills.
It is for this reason that I am convinced that whatever digital learning environment TWU provides for students must be flexible enough to enable privacy and openness, personal and public interaction, and simplicity and complexity. Further, it is important that decisions around where on any of these continuums students will interact are made by the students themselves. They ought to control who sees their work. They ought to control how personal or public their learning is. In short, we ought to empower students to build their own web of influence as they are transformed by their experiences.
The Walled Garden
I am suggesting that TWU needs to move away from a ‘walled garden’ approach to learning technology where all interactions between students, faculty, and the university are locked behind a password and are disconnected from the wider web.
To a ‘learning platform’ approach that integrates digital learning tools with both administrative functions and external engagement.
TWU’s Student Learning Outcomes
The specific outcomes identified as being important in the development of TWU graduands also lead to looking beyond an LMS for our digital learning environment. Some are highlighted below.
[Students will develop] skills including: critical and creative thinking, quantitative and qualitative reasoning, communication, research, and information literacy.
Two key items in this list of skills are communication and information literacy. We live in a society that is saturated with information from a huge diversity of views and sources, both digital and analog. We have an obligation to our students to provide them with the skills necessary to make wise decisions about the trust that they invest in sources of information and to become effective communicators in a digital world.
[Students will develop] an ability to respond with wisdom, humility and charity to questions, issues, and problems of the human condition.
While there will be some degree of variety in the challenges faced in the confines of a class cohort, the most significant challenges will come from outside the cohort and the university. We have an obligation to allow our students to interact with those who hold radically different viewpoints and have radically different backgrounds so that they can learn to do so with wisdom, humility, and charity.
[Students will develop] “creative, performative, material and narrative forms of critical inquiry”, and “collaborative and community–based interdisciplinary practices.”
Neither of these outcomes can be met if we are solely reliant on an LMS.
[Students will develop] a holistic awareness of their personhood, purpose, and calling within the context of the communities in which they live and study.
The walled garden of an LMS actively works against this outcome by sealing student learning behind a password.
[Students will develop] a spiritual dimension by means of an exposure to a reflective and caring Christ-centred community…
While it may appear that a password-protected community is best for meeting this outcome, the structure of an LMS works to prevent ongoing conversations and engagement because all courses end. Momentum and community is lost at the end of every course and must be built up over and over again.
[Students will develop] the resources, skills, and motivation to become engaged global citizens who serve locally, nationally, and globally in socially and economically just ways.
The open web provides an increased level of amplification for cultural engagement that hasn’t happened since Gutenberg. If we believe that our students are among the best-prepared, and that they should be engaged global citizens, then we ought to give them a voice.
We need, at minimum, three categories of tools to provide the backbone for our digital learning environment. We need tools that
1. prioritize privacy and security.
2. allow for public engagment on the open web.
3. promote collaboration and scholarship.
Further, the tools that we provide
1. should be open source to avoid us paying high licensing fees to for-profit companies.
2. must not be fronts for external companies to collect and sell data on our students.
3. must allow students to control their information, including being able to take their work with them when they leave TWU.
4. must allow for inclusive design and individualized accessibility.
5. should allow users to license their work under a Creative Commons license.