In this episode, we chat with Dani Dilkes, an e-learning specialist and doctoral candidate at Western University, London (Ontario).
Imi Dencer-Brown (IDB): hello i'm Imi and welcome to conversations on online learning a podcast in which we discuss online learning and how to support it in each episode we'll ask our featured guests to relate to their own particular area of expertise and experiences related to online learning and we'll discuss how this has informed their understanding of online learning we'll also ask our guests to share their advice for teaching and learning support staff who want to enhance and develop their own online learning support our guest today is Dani Dilkes and she is an e-learning specialist and phd student at western university london ontario welcome Dani
Dani Dilkes (DD): thank you so much Imi lovely to have you here and
IDB: so Dani i'm going to start with asking you what do you do and how did you come to do it?
DD: so i am as you said i am an e-learning specialist and i actually work in the md program so the undergraduate medical program at western university i've been here just over two years before that i worked primarily in language learning and education so you can imagine it was quite a jump from that to medical education and i primarily support the design of online learning experiences so my job as you can imagine has ramped up quite a bit since march and i really set kind of the design the tone the way that we're building those online learning experiences for our students in the program fantastic and how did you make that transition from language to the medical program and what's that been like for you it was it was very interesting coming into it because I started in the language program as both an instructor and a designer so I taught language i my specialty was critical reading and writing so i was able to act as both the subject matter expert and the kind of design expert and then shifting into a discipline where i had very little of the background knowledge i think it was it was a hard transition to just kind of advise on design and the culture was so significantly different from language teaching and learning that i would say i probably experienced significant culture shock for about the first year that i was working there just trying to understand how everything worked within the culture
IDB: oh fantastic and with that Dani what are some of your areas of expertise related to online learning would you say?
DD: so i would say that's i'm going to say that's kind of a hard question to answer right now as a student i'm still trying to figure out where i want to focus i would say most of my experience kind of comes from practice rather than research and theory and i'm trying now to find where my niche might be between the two but in terms of design and supporting kind of faculty and instructors and teaching online i would say that my biggest area of expertise is more focused on faculty development teaching and training both of technologies and the processes and recently we've designed a process in which we actually have student informed or i like to say community informed design for our online program so throughout this entire process of the past eight months and shifting to online we've tried to involve students faculty staff and make sure everyone's voices are heard for all the decisions that are being made in terms of how the program is being delivered
IDB: fantastic and how have you got students involved with that what does that look like um in an online environment?
DD: so early on in the summer when we when we realized that we needed to plan for perhaps not going back to normal in september uh we initiated a conversation with our students to try and figure out what went well the year before with any of our digital learning experiences and where they sort of saw gaps and how they felt they the curriculum in september would be best rolled out we did that through a number of student surveys and then we held student focus groups and we focused really on kind of primary aspects of the design so we had focus groups that were focused primarily on asynchronous learning and how students wanted their asynchronous content packaged and delivered we held focus groups on synchronous learning so what kind of sessions would they want um how what kind of tools would they want how would they like to see that synchronous digital learning environment and then we held sessions actually this was the kind of the fun one where we actually got students to give us feedback on the design of our course sites so it was a very kind of pragmatic like here are some mock-ups of different course sites what's the best way for us to package all this information for you that's amazing to have such input and from your students and did they know what that looked like kind of before um the pandemic happened and having their learning online had they already had some experiences from online learning in order to inform what they wanted from both synchronous and asynchronous learning prior to the pandemic i would say that we we were starting to dabble a little bit in um like a flipped classroom model so we would have some digital digital learning where students had to do something prior to coming to their synchronous sessions but it was still very early um we were still kind of trying to figure out how that would look for our program and as i mentioned before the culture in which we were enacting a lot of this made it difficult to change quickly so i would say we we started to do it but we didn't do a great job of it prior to the pandemic interestingly um the pandemic sort of offered us a bit of an opportunity so in terms of moving to online it opened some doors for us where resistance to change was not it wasn't really possible for faculty to be as resistant to change because the change was required it was a necessity so it allowed us i would say to expedite the process of shifting to a digital learning experience that might have otherwise taken a year two years three years so in some ways we really embraced that the disruption that was caused by COVID
IDB: and i'm just wondering what kind of things did the students want what did you get from those focus groups in terms of their feedback what were they actually looking for say for example with synchronous learning what were some of the things that they wanted there?
DD: so this this actually is a very interesting question because our students largely just wanted exactly the same lectures that they had in the classroom just recorded and stuck online and i think that was both because of some of the failing of the design of our digital learning prior to the pandemic where students felt like it was a it was an inferior learning experience to the lectures they're used to um and also just a level of comfort of what they were expecting but at the same time when you heard like a lot of the discourse that was going around around in digital learning communities and like talking to other practitioners they're all like make sure you listen to your students they don't just want recorded lectures so we kind of had this weird tension between what the best design was and what students thought they wanted and so what we needed to do was not ask students how they wanted it designed but what problems they were anticipating with moving online kind of where their concerns were and using that to design to address those concerns while still adhering to some of the best practices that we we thought would provide them with the best learning experience great and what were some of those concerns could you speak about that i think their their biggest concern especially in medical education was the the lack of clinical learning which is something that we can't really replicate online so as much as possible those aspects of our program they try to create i would say a facsimile or kind of a smaller version of it virtually and then have left room in the schedule for when we do return to campus to address those areas of learning um those aspects of the learning are what sometimes make students more competitive when they're applying for their postgraduate programs so that's something that i think students felt was a big gap and then the other piece that was a big concern i think is assessment and the assessment piece is something that we're still trying to navigate a bit of as we move online but i think students as we kind of structure the program assessment is still really what drives students it's where they see the values and i think for them they're still trying to figure out what the change in delivery means for the change in assessment and then their future progression
IDB: absolutely yeah that's really really fascinating and do you think that these courses will remain online for the time being Dani or are you looking to go back in person for next year and keep some parts online um we are will very much be just driven by the policies of the university and public health in canada which kind of gives us our directive on how many students we can have online and um sorry how many students we can have on campus at the same time but what we ended up doing so at the very beginning of the pandemic we were just finishing up a term and what we did then before we sort of involve students in the process before we had a real conversation is we did just find recordings from the year before posted them online and it was not ideal and then when we took the time to really figure out what we wanted to do we stopped and we decided to think about all of the goals that we had for the program pre-pandemic in terms of shifting more to the flipped classroom providing more opportunities for active learning in our synchronous sessions and we tried to design this so that regardless of whether or not we would be on campus or online for the synchronous learning the asynchronous learning would still become a kind of a cornerstone of the program so when we do return to campus hopefully soon all of that asynchronous learning and that sort of flipped classroom model will remain obviously with constant iterative improvements hopefully i'm continuing to be both student and faculty informed
IDB: great and what kind of technologies have you been using and with the teaching online and flipped classroom as well what kind of things have you found have worked best for students and in terms of maybe group work or collaboration and how they're learning online?
DD: so for for the synchronous sessions we are we actually piloted a couple of different video conferencing tools um our students and faculty unanimously preferred zoom um and then for collaboration we're still we're still trying to help faculty make the shift to collaborative facilitation but we are looking at more kind of cloud-based document sharing type tools so either google or our school is a microsoft school so the microsoft online suite for kind of co-creation of materials i would say in terms of our design and how rapidly we had to move it online our focus was much more on the design of the asynchronous content so i think for next year our big project is going to be creating more engaging more more opportunities for kind of dialogue and collaboration in the synchronous sessions in both supporting learners on how to learn that way faculty on how to teach or to deliver that way um but then also finding some good modeling to help support them both great and i'm really interested in this um the flipped classroom approach and specifically in terms of the medical program and what kind of things does that what does it look like there and what kind of practical activities can students be learning in that online format which are applicable and still kind of as effective as being in a clinic for example so that so in terms of how our content is sort of laid out um we kind of start with the threshold knowledge or the bodies of knowledge the information that students need in order to go through clinical cases but the the big thing we're asking students to do is to look at authentic clinical cases or patient cases and start going through the steps of a physician as they encounter each of these fictional patients and then pulling that knowledge from the foundational knowledge from the asynchronous materials into how they want to go through the case i think we're trying to do more and more of that prior to the pandemic our curriculum was very heavily just lecture based so it was a lot of didactic learning with some small group cases and now it's all of that didactic learning is what we've tried to package into the asynchronous we're not trying to eliminate it because it's still very important for students to have that foundation um but we're trying to put it online so that all of the opportunities where students are able to interact directly with the physician there's much more value embedded in those and that would be either the physician walking the students through a case uh through a real case or kind of giving anecdotes from the clinic or walking them through different kind of clinical problems that they may encounter
IDB: and in terms of the students themselves maybe new students or establishing that network of students where they can collaborate and co-construct their knowledge together how easy or difficult do you think that has been for students and have you received any feedback on that?
DD: i think that's actually been one of our biggest challenges so um most of the work that we've done has been for year one and our year two students our year two students had already established their network they already established a lot of connections with their peers because they had eight months in the classroom um but for our year one students they're now four months into the program and many of them have never met any of their colleagues and that network is such an important part of the experience especially in med school which is is tough and exhausting and there's just so much going on that we we haven't found the best way to replicate it we have actually talked to students about it and a lot of them said that it really should be student driven initiatives to try and build that network for us what we try to do is um we've established small groups so they sort of have um working groups or peer groups that they work with often throughout the week and in groups where they have where the students have been paired well so they have formed like a cohesive group that's worked really well but obviously there are always the groups that were not paired well so we're trying to figure out a good balance between new groups mixing it up offering opportunities for students to meet to virtually meet other people while also providing them with enough time with their peers to really form those connections so i don't i don't actually have the best answer for that i would say that's one of the things that we're still trying to figure out absolutely a work in progress
IDB: and with your expertise what are some of the key issues do you think currently with online learning or specifically with the courses that you have what would you say are the key things or any myths that you'd like to debunk around it?
DD: i think i think that the biggest issue and even just kind of looking at my own personal learning networks and people who i follow is is thinking that there is an approach to online learning um so as i mentioned but prior to working in medicine i worked in language and if we had and i we actually worked primarily in online education by the time i left that organization the way that we had structured our programming there would in no way be applicable or useful for medical education in between the two i also did some contract work overseeing a shift to online for an engineering program and again it needed to be entirely different than both medical education and language so i think it's nice to reach out to others it's nice to learn from others but i think you really need to start locally look at your own context your own culture the needs of that culture and the governing bodies medical education is very much driven by accreditation bodies and different organizations in canada that say what it means like what what we need to deliver and that all is going to kind of constrain what we're able to do digitally and what our goals are for program design
IDB: could you speak a little bit more about inclusive design and things you've been doing around that? i think particularly for students maybe um in it for inclusion or any access issues that they may have encountered with teaching online do you have any feedback or um words of wisdom around that?
DD: so for all of our materials we are trying to provide them in multimodal formats so text and video and interactive questions right now we are constrained by time so i would say that's sort of going to be an ongoing goal is is to continually to improve our asynchronous materials in order to make them more accessible across the board for our synchronous sessions digitally um we're sort of still trying to figure out some aspects of that i can say that for one example um an ongoing debate that we've been having is should we force students to have their webcams on which i'm sure is not a new or shocking debate for anyone um but i feel like we spent weeks and weeks going back and forth on this with faculty saying we need to we need to make sure everyone has their webcams on because it's so uncomfortable to teach to a bunch of blank screens and then recycling the conversation on reasoning or the rationale behind not forcing students but instead what i've been trying to suggest to our faculty is invite students to turn their webcams on make it clear why like what is your rationale for asking them to have their webcams on but more important than that is create a learning experience where they want to engage they want to have their webcams on and i do a lot of sort of auditing just watching our various sessions to see what's going on in them and i can see the sessions that were designed to be more interactive more engaging a much larger percentage of students will by default have their webcams on so it's that sort of thing that you need to sort of understand the rationale behind it um and just talking to faculty again about sort of that that shift and how we see the students and how we invite them into the classroom
IDB: great and i'm just wondering with that shift how has the shift been do you think for some of the lecturers who maybe online learning was really new for themselves and they're used to teaching in the classroom in that face-to-face situation maybe particularly with clinics how have the staff actually found that transition for them and with feedback from students?
DD: I think it's been very challenging for them we've had some that have been kind of keener to embrace the change our biggest challenge though was sort of helping faculty shake that idea that this was um temporary so there were a lot of faculty i would say who are less willing or less inclined to sort of learn this new skill because they felt well maybe by the time my lecture comes up we'll be back in the classroom i think obviously now i think we've kind of gone over that like we know that we're going to be online at least until the end of this academic year so that's helped us push them a little bit but there's definitely some learning to do there so one of the big projects that i'm hoping to see that we'll be working on in the next couple of months is a lot more faculty development both around how to do a mini lecture recording which is also a brand new skill but also we've been running workshops on large group facilitation small group facilitation in a virtual environment and we're trying to get reach more faculty with those learning opportunities but i'd say it's it's a lot of new skills that we're demanding of both our faculty and our students
IDB: absolutely and and some members of staff will really embrace that and go for it and others i think there's quite a lot of fear um around that and new technologies so what advice would you have Dani for teaching and learning support staff who want to develop or enhance their online learning beyond this emergency provision?
DD: especially related to let's say inclusive learning or even co-construction of knowledge with students and collaboration so i think the biggest thing um is kind of working on creating a community like this this idea of we're all in this together we're all trying to figure this out together whereas before it might have been more directive where staff would say to faculty we need you to do this and then faculty were never part of the conversation and what the needs were or what might work best for them but what we've started to do especially over the summer is talk to faculty and say okay so our goal is to deliver is to meet these outcomes how are we going to be able to do this together and then saying well this is what i can reasonably do and i'm saying well this is what we need and kind of making it more of a conversation and less of a demand where we're really trying hard to sort of build that community and make it so everyone's working together but i think also understanding i actually in my phd work i've been talking about this a little bit but the idea that especially in this particular context we're working within a network of practice which is slightly more complex actually i'd say significantly more complex than working within a community of practice because it's kind of at the intersection of all of these different groups of people and all of our faculty well i wouldn't say all but most of our faculty are also practicing clinicians so as you can imagine during the pandemic they're also very busy in that way and all of our students have all these other competing demands so we have to kind of figure out where in that middle where our values align and figure out how we can work together with that alignment within that kind of intersection between all of these varying communities
IDB: absolutely such a complex complex web at the moment and Dani we're really interested in your phd research as well and how that ties into your practice and and what you're looking at currently with your research maybe some of your findings would you be able to talk a little bit about that?
DD: so i can't talk about my findings yet because i'm still trying to narrow down the research focus that i would like to have for it i went into my program really thinking about just wanting to focus on digital design from a very kind of design theory my my way back background is in computer science so kind of thinking about like user interface design and user experience design and a very prim pragmatic kind of focus but through a lot of my research and reading i'm kind of shifting more to the human and culture side of things so i've taken this huge swing and i'm trying to figure out where i land between the two but one thing i'm very interested in is sort of um i was looking at an institutional ethnography project which is the idea of looking at the governing bodies that kind of dictate curriculum design particularly digital curriculum design but sort of things that that allow us to do what we need to do or that kind of shift the way you look at how design works so that's why earlier i was talking about how important it is to sort of look at the micro look at the local because when we look at all this design theory and these articles they all seem like a great idea but you have to figure out how they fit into your your local culture your local community and the people that you're actually working with on the ground so i think a lot of what i may end up studying is kind of that culture um within my institution i am considering doing doing an institutional ethnography looking at some actor network theory um and how all the pieces kind of played together because it's fascinating i just haven't quite figured out what lens i want to take exactly for that
IDB: oh fantastic that's great and in reference to digital design or curriculum design could you have a recommended resource like a book a website or a person that you'd like to share with us?
DD: i don't really have a specific one i think for me twitter really is the best place to go because you get so much like such a breadth of things my my personal background has been so interdisciplinary that i also kind of get to look at things from all different from all different angles which has been really really interesting because you never know really what to expect but i would say there's not one specific resource that i would say would be the ultimate at least for me?
IDB: absolutely no problem and what what really inspires you or um excites you about the future of online learning?
DD: i i love the idea of of this this co-construction of knowledge is co-construction of information um actually one project that i'm potentially kind of hoping to work on is a way to shift from this going back to my the model that we've established a way to shift from these kind of didactic asynchronous sessions to turning it into kind of a co-co-construction project so right now our model is essentially that we have um mini lectures kind of hyper focused on different disciplines across the medical sciences and medical disciplines and students watch those and they come to the synchronous sessions and they do something with that so i'm trying to find a way to kind of bridge the gap between the two of those where that kind of static body of knowledge that we're building at the onset can be something that students are constantly contributing to so we're looking at designing a tool and embedding it in our digital learning environment where students are able to ask questions or to pose scenarios or to kind of constantly be refreshing that sort of like wikipedia but not quite but it's more um governed by our experts so then faculty can come in and respond or can verify answers and then that body of knowledge starts becoming more and more dynamic where we're having students and faculty and everyone sort of always refreshing it always adding to it and becomes sort of more of a living entity for me right now as you can see i'm kind of dabbling in a lot of different things so i'm still trying to figure out where where i want to focus so i can actually develop a certain expertise
IDB: sounds like you have a lot already and where can people find you Dani where's the best place to get hold of you?
DD: i'm on twitter @DanielleDilkes or by email i'm Danielle.Dilkes@gmail.com and i'm happy to invite any conversations on any of this because i find it all very fascinating
IDB: absolutely thank you so much for your time today
DD: thank you for again for having me here and i again i'm very excited to see um or to listen to other people's podcasts and expertise and learn from others