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Vol 38  No 15
June 8, 2006


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New alliance will study e-learning

By Deborah Inkpen

Dr. Jean Brown, Education
(Photo by Bill Tracey)

Many people remember their school days sitting at a desk receiving instruction from a teacher who was in the same room. However, today many students in rural Newfoundland are instructed by teachers who are in completely different locations and who communicate with their students via the Internet.

Dr. Jean Brown, Faculty of Education, said that new technologies are changing approaches to teaching and learning in schools and post-secondary institutions across Canada and the world.

“This is especially true in rural and remote areas where access to specialists and specialized programs are difficult to obtain.” She said that educational institutions in rural and remote areas have become beacons of high technology, often the only organization in the region that provides access to the Internet.

Dr. Brown is the principal investigator on a new project that will bring together researchers at Memorial, College of the North Atlantic, the province’s Department of Education, the Newfoundland and Labrador Teacher’s Association and school boards from across the province.

Dr. Brown and her team were awarded a Community-University Research Alliance (CURA) from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). The project, titled Building Communities in the New Learning Environment, was awarded $1 million over five years to create a community-university alliance to foster innovative research, training and the creation of new knowledge in the area of e-learning.

“We’ve been doing really interesting things in this province with e-learning, I think we are real leaders,” she said. “For example, the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI) was set up by the government to deliver courses in schools where it was impossible for a student to get access to certain programs due to the lack of qualified teachers in the area. The government had to come up with a plan to deliver online courses to students in rural and remote areas.

“Our distance education initiatives certainly started because of necessity. But I’ve become very aware that we’ve been doing some really innovative things however, we have just not had the infrastructure and the resources to do research to tell the world about it.”

“We had the Centre for E-learning, a university research centre but that did not capture all aspects of what was going on in the province. It became apparent to me over a period of time that what was really necessary was an alliance between the community of stakeholders interested in e-learning.”

Dr. Brown said that there are many unanswered research questions about e-learning like whether students who learn independently using computers are more independent learners when they go onto post-secondary; do they fair better or worse than their counterparts in traditional classrooms; what skills and competencies do they have; and what kind of supports do they need.

Building on the close working relationships already existing between some of the educational partners, their goal for the project is to establish a true community-university alliance in which partners will work together as equals in a research endeavour. “We see the province as an e-learning laboratory, a micro-system that provides unique opportunities for researchers to study and understand the complexities of e-learning, especially in rural and isolated areas,” said Dr. Brown.

“The provincial Department of Education, Memorial and the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association have formed a unique and powerful partnership that serves as a model for all communities in Canada and elsewhere. This evolving and promising partnership has thus far focused around structural issues, putting together equipment, personnel and the development of web-based courses. While there has been some research, it has been sporadic and individual. This dedicated research unit will foster innovative research, collaboration, training and the creation of new knowledge related to overcoming the educational challenges faced by this province.”

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