Jan. 18, 2023

Beyond screens: UCalgary initiative paves the way for innovation in blended and online learning

Funded by Flanagan Foundation, initiative explores future of post-secondary education
An illustration of a home desk with a cat and a computer screen showing an online meeting.

No one needs a reminder of how we were collectively launched into a world of virtual gatherings in 2020. We were all there. We moved our classes, book clubs, and family dinners online. We streamed from our living rooms, connected to each other by tiny squares on a screen. Zoom, a previously niche platform, became a noun, and a de facto replacement for boardrooms and cafes alike.  

There is perhaps nowhere this shift was as seismic as in our teaching and learning spaces. And as that reality has once again changed and classes are no longer limited to virtual spaces, what does the future of blended and online learning look like for post-secondary education? 

Since the winter of 2021, a Flanagan Foundation gift of $1 million has catalyzed a renewed investment in blended and online learning at UCalgary. “The most transformative impact of the Flanagan Foundation initiatives has been our ability to engage with and support innovative teaching and learning cultures across campus,” says Dr. Alysia Wright, PhD, educational development consultant supporting the three-year initiative. 

In a short time, the program has launched new communities of practice, trained and supported learning technologies coaches across campus, and provided educational leadership opportunities for academic staff and students. Wright has collaborated with colleagues across the Taylor Institute to develop new teaching development courses and workshops for faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars to continue in their blended and online learning journeys.

Most telling is that those who have engaged in the initiative’s programs have largely agreed that they felt more confident, capable, innovative and connected after participating, opening up new possibilities for teaching. 

A faculty perspective 

Dr. Wendy Benoit, PhD, associate dean of teaching and learning in the Faculty of Science, has seen first-hand the impact of the initiative’s work on the campus community. 

“We're learning about each other. This is why the institutional and Flanagan Foundation’s support are important. It's not in any one course where we see the impact. We have the ability, not only to hear from people but also to share out in a way that's not targeted at any one instructor or any one student on their individual choices. This is a shared experience and here are the things we're learning about it.” 

And what we are learning goes far beyond blended and online education. Flanagan Foundation initiatives have strengthened communities of teaching and learning across UCalgary communities and the initiative is “really giving a more formalized home for a lot of the feedback to land and for us as an institution to reflect,” says Benoit.

In her meetings with colleagues, Benoit has observed not only a “really good appetite from faculty members to think differently about online learning” but also a shift in relationships. Many in the faculty that leaned on each other during the pandemic are more willing to engage in asking tough questions and have difficult conversations with each other.

That’s something we continue to value and have learned. If we don't leave some space for difficult and important conversations and for building trust with each other, none of these difficult things get done.

Benoit’s dream is that we are purposeful about what we do when we're together. “We're going to get intentional about interacting online and asking, What makes online enjoyable, what makes you willing to open your computer and engage?

“It's really looking with deliberate purpose at all of these spaces, whether they're online interactions,whether they're synchronous or asynchronous, whether they're in person. I think the more we can zoom in on that purpose, just the work gets better.”

In 2021, a transformational $1-million gift from the Flanagan Foundation provided us with a unique opportunity to catalyze and set a bold new vision for blended and online learning at UCalgary. With this funding, the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning led a three-year plan to identify innovation in online teaching, support the creation of new and refined blended and online courses, and empower academic staff to create meaningful and engaging learning opportunities for students. This investment has accelerated innovation in teaching and learning at UCalgary, supporting us on our path to be a leader in blended and online learning.  

Learn more about the Flanagan Foundation’s initiatives to advance blended and online learning.