Online courses just got personal

KPU professor creates a “SPOC” for students with unpredictable schedules

David Burns (photo courtesy of KPU)

Kwantlen Polytechnic University instructor David Burns is aiming to make higher education easier for full-time workers, parents, and students travelling abroad.

He created his own Small Private Online Course (SPOC) to teach his Education 1100 classes. Where most current online courses are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) that are often based on a series of video lectures, the SPOC is “tailored to students needs, applied and responsive.”

“There are a whole lot of these all over the place and I’m certainly not the first person who has done something with them, but I wanted to make sure that when we build something for educational studies at KPU, it’s more like a SPOC than a MOOC,” says Burns. “It’s much better suited for Kwantlen and it’s better for students overall […] They come to Kwantlen for instructors that respond to students, that give students time, that work side-by-side with students in creating things and making things better, so I wanted to make an online course that was somehow much more personal than people think they are.”

Burns keeps his courses personal by “making more of the course material responsive,” and using his free time to have “a lot of lectures and activities online [and] more office hours,” than he ever had while teaching in classrooms. He created all of the materials from scratch, whether they were podcasts, videos, or more traditional mediums, to make them as interesting as possible.

The course has been worked on for two semesters in seven sections, and Burns has found that the biggest difference for him and his students so far is the constant correspondence that they share.

“Just assume that I’m here every working day of the week in my office and I have time for you,” he says, to all current and future students. “With some people, I said, ‘look, if you’re scared or anxious about taking an online course, just come to my office every single week, because I have that flexibility when I’m teaching online,’ and lots of people did.”

Although the personal drop-ins do help several of his students, Burns has taught some who “did the entire course from other continents.” According to him, “the course should be flexible enough that someone who wants to never be on campus can access everything just as well as someone who wants to see somebody every week.”

Judging from the student survey feedback gathered at the end of the SPOC, students did find it more personal than many of their in-class courses. He has also gotten an “extraordinary” response from KPU faculty and staff, from being given ample time to build his courses to inspiring other professors campus-wide.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive reactions he has gotten, he does warn other professors of the risk of burnout. The immersive nature of the course means that “it blurs the line between teaching and preparing for teaching [so that it] permeates a lot more of your day and life than it otherwise does.” As a father of a small child, he initially had struggles with getting used to the hundreds of emails he might receive per day, even opening them during evenings with his family.

Fortunately, however, he did not burn out while teaching the course, citing considerate students and proper scheduling as solutions to the risk.

“Certainly you wouldn’t want [students to be messaging with urgent requests] every night because it would change your work-life balance in an unhealthy way, but it didn’t happen every night. It happened once every week or two, and being able to text back and say, ‘I’m going to put my daughter to bed at nine and then I’ll send you a Skype message,’ is just to make sure that students don’t spend the whole night panicking,” he says.

Burns encourages more faculty at KPU to adopt SPOCs as “a much better model than other kinds of online learning.” He hopes to see more of them being taught in other faculties in the future.