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Published June 7, 2005 | Humanities

A Project for the Humanities Program: A Virtual Multidisciplinary Course

Manon Pilon has been teaching geography at Bois-de-Boulogne for 25 years. She is also the Human Science Program Coordinator. On a beautiful spring day, she accepted to share a little bit of her experience with us.

You have been teaching geography in the Human Science Program for many years. Has IT always been present in your work?

Yes, but the integration was very gradual. At the beginning, I was using Word to take personal notes on different subjects from which I would then produce hand-outs for my students. I eventually took advantage of the Internet to find new information and would ask my students to do the same during learning activities. I now integrate different course content and activities into DECclic which I regularly use to guide my students.

What were the main factors that triggered your desire to integrate IT into your teaching?

In the first place, I would say that it is very difficult to ignore technology that has become such an integral part of students’ lives. By the time they are in high school, the computer already holds very few secrets for them and the Web is a tremendous source of information. Our challenge is therefore focused on getting them to develop their research methodology and to recognize valid and reliable information.

I would also add that I love to innovate. The use of technology and particularly of the Internet allows me to get relevant and up-to-date information, as well as to vary my teaching and learning activities. Regarding the multidisciplinary course on the Web in which we are interested for the purpose of this story, the support provided to me by my CEGEP has facilitated the integration even more.

Can you talk to us about this project?

First, I have to say that I was not alone in this adventure since many other teachers from my program have been involved. The idea of a multidisciplinary course emerged from team brainstorming during the implementation of the new program (profile without mathematics). More specifically, the goal of this course is to enrich the students’ knowledge in seven disciplines of the program: anthropology, political science, sociology, geography, history, psychology and economics. At the end of the program, the students are invited to put the knowledge they have gained during the first year of the program to use, along with what they learned in their methodology and quantitative methods classes.

Aside from preparing students to realize their integration activities through experiences that focus on autonomy and methodology in a virtual world, this approach also helps us avoid prioritizing one discipline over another. This multidisciplinary course allows us to attain four general objectives of the program:

  • To have students distinguish the main facts, notions and concepts related to the object of study, i.e., the human phenomena, from a disciplinary and transdisciplinary perspective;

For this first objective, the students have to work with different concepts and information regarding the disciplines of human science adapted to a specific theme (the water) for 2004 and 2005.

  • To have students use appropriate information technologies;

The obligation the students have to use DECclic in order to have access to course material and to communicate with the teachers forces them to develop their ability to use the technology.

  • To have students use the necessary research and methods in order to pursue their studies;

The proposed learning activities make the students use various research methods which will easily be reinvested in other facets of their studies.

  • To have students convey their ideas clearly and correctly in the language of instruction;

Communication by e-mail, as well as through written assignments, makes the students express their ideas clearly by using appropriate language.

Aside from facilitating the creation of a truly integrative project, the use of DECclic has also helped decrease a problem we had with room availability and scheduling since many activities, as well as student training, are done long-distance.

Were the program team members used to IT and, more particularly, to DECclic?

Not really! All the teachers were using Word, but nobody was very familiar with DECclic. For many, this was their first experience using IT with their students. Since the teachers wanted to work together and build a multidisciplinary course, the integration project seemed to be the best solution. This has been the catalyst for integrating IT in their teaching. After their experience with the multidisciplinary course, many teachers now use DECclic with their students, to varying degrees. Some teachers have placed all of their course content on DECclic, while others use it only for evaluation purposes.

What helped you create the pedagogical material and post it on-line on DECclic?

We were able to count on the support of people who were willing to help us with our project. We received training regarding the use of DECclic, were aided by a teacher who was made available to us one day a week ,and a pedagogical advisor helped us develop the pedagogical material.

And what about support for students?

To help the students in their approach to learning, the course encourages an individualistic methodology in the form of mentoring, where the students evolve at their own pace, guided by an imposed structure. Mandatory meetings with a tutor and other students take place during the course of the semester. Students may also communicate (through the DECclic message system) and/or schedule a meeting with their teachers regarding questions related to their discipline, or with a tutor regarding technical questions or those related to their discipline if the tutor is responsible for that unit.

More specifically, the teacher helps students with respect to the comprehension of course content, overlooks students’ progress to ascertain academic success, and is responsible for evaluating the students. The tutor also strives to encourage and maintain the students’ level of perseverance, motivation, and progression. The tutor ensures that students follow their schedule and helps them with their time management.

How would you describe this collective experience?

Throughout this experience, the teachers have defined the project, trained themselves, have discussed the pedagogical standards (the content relating to the discipline, the length and difficulty of texts, the type of activities, number of formative assessments, guidance criteria, in-class final evaluation, grading system, and so on), have integrated DECclic into the project, and followed up on this entire undertaking. With time, the course has become more coherent, the management of course content and student progress has been refined, and we are realizing more and more how much DECclic facilitates our task.

The positive impact of this project is evident at a professional level since we have improved our program thanks to the creation of a multidisciplinary course which adds greater cohesion to this branch of studies. The team spirit has also been improved by us working together on a common project. The bi-monthly meetings throughout the duration of the project have also improved our interpersonal relationships. Each meeting was simply another opportunity to better get to know a colleague and learn about his discipline.

Is it possible to see some excerpts of this project?

The policy of our school does not permit us to give access to the course. Nevertheless, I am available to give presentations at other CEGEPs upon request; my e-mail address is: manon.pilon@bdeb.qc.ca.

I can, at least, give you an idea of the structure of the course:

  1. At the beginning of the semester, a first meeting in class allows the students to understand the course objectives and structure, as well as to get acquainted with DECclic.
  2. For the remainder of the course, the students work long distance, at their own pace, but while respecting a schedule regarding their assignments. Seven different units which address the themes according to the different disciplines are presented in DECclic. Each unit requires two weeks for completion. Each unit culminates with a self-assessment activity and a short practical assignment. During the execution of their practical assignments, the students may communicate, by e-mail, with the teacher responsible for the respective discipline to get additional information or to have any questions answered regarding the assignment.
  3. Throughout the course, the tutor closely follows the students’ progress. The tutor stimulates and encourages the students, makes sure the assignments are handed in, oversees any difficulties, answers questions if they are related to his/her discipline, and so on. A face-to-face meeting may sometimes be necessary and the students are invited to communicate with the tutor should it be necessary.
  4. The course ends with an in-class final exam.

What about the students in all this?

Generally speaking, the students appreciate the course and, more particularly, the fact that they can progress at their own pace. On the other hand, it may happen that some students regret not having the chance to physically meet with their teacher during each class.

Over and above the individual methodology and the use of the virtual classroom, the distinct nature of this course is mostly evident at the level of supervision Very often, the students are surprised to learn that they are closely monitoredI in the sense that the tutor knows exactly which activities were completed in the course. The students cannot hide the fact that they did not look at a unit or did not do the exercises since DECclic registers each visit made by the students on the site.

What are the next steps?

For the time being, we are refining the content presented in DECclic and improving, with each semester, the formative and summative assessments. There might be a new theme or other pedagogical formulas developed in the future. We foresee that we will be studying the question during the fall semester of 2005.

What would be your advice to other colleagues who would want to integrate IT into their pedagogical practices?

Every team of teachers is different, but I think that there are some minimum requirements necessary for effective IT integration:

  • A team consensus on the project;
  • A minimum understanding of DECclic;
  • Adequate technical support for the teachers and students;
  • A very good targeting of the content which will be integrated into DECclic;
  • A willingness to adapt the content of the material as more experience is gained.

In conclusion, I would say that a program only stands to gain from a diversity of pedagogical activities that does not, however, focus all of its course content on DECclic. In our case, the decision to integrate IT into a multidisciplinary course at the end of the program was the right decision to make.

Thank you, Manon, for sharing your success story with us.

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