The University of Guelph is teaming up with four other postsecondary institutions and Desire2Learn (D2L), a provider of learning management systems, to develop a way to track and assess student learning outcomes across programs.
The other institutions are the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University, McMaster University and Mohawk College. The initiative is funded by a $6-million grant from the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. The schools will use D2L’s learning management system and predictive analytics technology, known as Insights, to carry it out.
U of Guelph was one of the first institutions in Canada to adopt learning outcomes for all degree programs and specializations. The university’s Senate approved in December 2012 a set of five learning outcomes: critical and creative thinking, literacy, global understanding, communication, and professional and ethical behaviour.
The next step is to find a means of measuring those learning outcomes and assessing whether they have been achieved, not just in individual courses but across programs and over time, said Serge Desmarais, U of Guelph’s associate vice-president academic. “Universities talk a lot about learning outcomes but in the end it’s about being able to capture them,” he said. “So far there is no system that does that. So it’s pretty exciting hat we are able to engage with D2L in an effort to move this forward.”
“This is new territory for all of us,” added John Baker, president and chief executive of D2L, which is based in Kitchener, Ontario. “We want to make sure that we are putting in place the right systems to support the best possible experience [for students].”
The ability to measure learning outcomes on an ongoing basis will enable instructors and institutions to make adjustments to courses and ensure that students are achieving the desired outcomes, he explained. It will also help students understand the skills they have acquired over the course of their academic careers, he added.
Mr. Baker said the project is one of the largest and most advanced in the country to deal with learning outcomes. “It’s a fairly extensive project that involves everything from curriculum mapping to learning outcomes to assessments,” he said.
Dr. Desmarais said the project could take years to implement. He acknowledged that its most challenging aspect won’t be technological but cultural. “Even if we develop a perfect program and the learning management system can capture everything that we want, we need to move from a culture where we assess content to a culture where we assess outcomes,” he said. “We need to have the support and sense of collective mission around these issues and I would say universities are not there yet.”
The move towards learning outcomes has generated controversy at university campuses where some faculty members have opposed the trend, which they see largely as an accountability and quality-assurance exercise. “I don’t see it that way at all,” Dr. Desmarais said. But, he acknowledged, it is a move away from “our sense of what a traditional liberal education used to be.” He added that evidence shows that well-articulated learning outcomes help students understand what they are getting out of a course and their education.
The statement in the article that the University of Guelph has adopted learning outcomes for its degree programs reflects the University’s own public relations, but should be considered critically. My daughter is finishing a BA at UoG, and her experience is that its statement of learning outcomes is overlaid on its graduation requirements but doesn’t drive them. The general structure of graduation requirements for her program, established in the late 1960s (for young full-time residential students), simply hasn’t been rethought in the light of new learning outcomes (or new student realities, for that matter). A process of what UofG calls “curricular mapping” to outcomes has been promised by the Provost’s office but apparently not started. My daughter’s petition to substitute the demonstration of an achievement of a learning outcome for the letter of a 1960s graduation requirement was rejected without explanation. The moral was that programs at UoG are defined by a code of requirements, not learning outcomes, notwithstanding the public relations.