On Thursday afternoon, Dr. Bob McClelland sat alone in front of a telephone.
This is what a university-level psychology seminar looks like in the 21st century.
McClelland was basically holding a conference call with his 18 Psychology 101 students.
The dual credit course (offering both Grade 12 and University level psych credits) was being offered at Yukon College through distance education.
Of the students, 11 are currently in high school, while seven are at the college.
All the students are located in Whitehorse. But in theory, they could be anywhere in the territory. Or the world for that matter.
Classes are taught online through the college’s new learning management system, which acts like an online classroom.
Students log in and run through lectures, exercises, readings and multiple-choice questions on their own time.
If students have any questions, they’re free to participate in the Thursday afternoon conference calls. Or to call in privately during McClelland’s office hours.
And for that really retro educational experience, students can dropin to McClelland’s conventional classes at the college.
This psych class is just one of the ways that Yukon College is changing the way education works, to meet the learning needs of its students.
David McHardy is overseeing many of these changes as the head of the college’s extension division.
The division is responsible for just about everything that the college does outside of its standard classes at the main Whitehorse campus.
McHardy oversees the college’s 12 community campuses, as well as the House of Learning with the Kwanlin Dun First Nation.
He’s also involved with what’s called the Distributed Learning Department, which handles the high-tech video conferencing and online teaching resources that make many of the courses in the communities possible.
His division also runs the school’s continuing education programs and learning assistance centre.
As if that weren’t enough, the extension division also runs the centre for teaching and learning, which is an internal service for faculty and staff to help meet their professional development needs.
“A certain percentage of that is around new technologies and how we support instructors in their quest to introduce new technologies and methods into the classroom,” he said.
“What ties all of that together is that they’re all about trying to open up learning to populations that wouldn’t necessarily be served by Ayamdigut Campus in Whitehorse.”
And the communities aren’t just using the college’s system of distance-learning technologies to study.
Last year, the college ran an experiment to see if they could teach a program from its most remote campus, in Old Crow.
“We had always thought that it wouldn’t be possible, because if you’re taking a course in Old Crow, you’re not on the system all that much. But when you’re teaching from there, you’re on the system pretty much the entire time,” said McHardy.
“We were concerned that we’d run into significant bandwidth problems if we tried to teach from there. So we tried it and it worked like a charm.”
Rather than relying solely on video conferencing, the math-upgrade course was taught using the college’s learning management system, as well as other online conferencing software.
“For me, that was pretty cool. If we could find ways for the communities to teach, not just receive, it makes people feel like they’re not just taking. They’re also contributing as well,” said McHardy.
“The beauty of it was that those people in Whitehorse didn’t have to get involved. Virtually all of the students were in the communities. It was by the communities, for the communities. “
One big issue that Yukon College is facing, along with all other post-secondary school institutions across Canada, is how to deal with the interests and demands of millennials – the young people just graduating from high school.
“Their comfort with technology and their almost demand that you use technology is just so much higher than previous generations of students,” said McHardy.
“Colleges around the world are trying to figure out how they can change their system to keep up with this level of interest.”
This may mean incorporating not just computers but also smart phones into the learning process.
Currently, 85 classes are using the college’s learning management system.
That’s up from 28 last year, when the new system was introduced.
“Like any new technology, there are glitches in it,” said McHardy.
“But people, generally speaking, have found it very helpful. Even if they’re teaching what we consider to be a classroom-based course, they can still post their class notes on the learning management system.”
The college is hoping that all this technology will make learning interesting and interactive for students, even exciting and entertaining, he said.
“Because if you can engage them and make them feel like it’s kind of semi-entertaining, then it’s amazing what they’ll learn.”
Technology helps create a level playing field in education. Someone living in Ross River could theoretically take the same online courses as someone in downtown Vancouver or Toronto.
But only if they have access to a solid Internet connection and the technology that accesses it.
“In many ways it’s the great equalizer, while in other ways it’s the great separator, because, clearly, if people don’t have the financial means to purchase these technologies, that can put them at a disadvantage,” said McHardy.
Right now, a student who can’t afford their own laptop can use the computers at any one of the Yukon College campuses.
“It’s not as convenient as having their own laptop, but I’ve never heard any concerns about students being able to get access to a computer,” he said.
“There’s certainly been discussions about whether or not we should set up a system whereby every student gets a laptop.
“But we just haven’t gotten there yet.”
Contact Chris Oke at