e-Learning courses delivered to thousands of conservation professionals

29 April 2013 | News story

How two universities are using e-learning to provide access to high-quality courses and facilitate global collaborations among students. CEC member Ben Wilson reports on success at Charles Sturt University in Australia and the University of Edinburgh, UK.  

By Ben Wilson, Charles Sturt University, and Tim Squires, University of Edinburgh 

The request for the newsletter asked CEC members to contribute their experience on a range of topics defined by the steering committee. We provide our experiences of e-Learning courses at our institutions, Charles Sturt University in Australia and the University of Edinburgh in the UK.

At CSU, we teach more than 20,000 students – more than half learn solely by distance education and e-Learning courses. The School of Environmental Sciences teaches more than 400 undergraduate and 300 Masters level students via the online environment. At Edinburgh, the Global Health Academy delivers a portfolio of online distance programmes to over 500 students around the globe. Our degree programs range from environmental and ecological sciences, biodiversity, wildlife, ecosystem health, nature based and eco tourism, geographic information systems, water resource management, natural resource management, protected areas management and even what is probably the world’s only e-Learning degree program in ornithology. Class sizes are no larger than traditional face to face programs.

Every course within these programs is offered via the online environment and the courses range from introductory biology, to environmental policy development and everything in between. The online tools utilised differ between individual courses but all include online content that students work through, web based forums for communication and collaboration with other students and the teacher, electronic assignment submission and, significantly, access to the large resources of the university’s academic research library. Other tools used include live or recorded lectures, lecture notes and audio, blogs, chat rooms, RSS feeds, e-portfolios, online collaborative spaces and much more.

There are clearly benefits of this type of learning. It provides access for people who otherwise just could not attend a traditional university campus and allows people to learn in a way that suits them, not some institution imposed timetable. Additionally, e-Learning facilitates global communities of practice - something which traditional on-campus education cannot achieve.

However, it is not as simple as taking an existing face to face course and developing for the online environment. E-Learning is successful at CSU and Edinburgh not because we have fabulous e-Learning courses or exceptionally talented faculty members (although we do have a good share of both), but rather it is due to the extensive support e- learners receive from their teachers and the university more widely. The needs of e-learners differ greatly to those learning face to face, and the most successful e-Learning courses are those with extensive backup support that addresses the technical expertise of the student, personal issues, differences in learning experience and different styles of learning, all from the perspective of the e-learner. If such support is not available, any e-Learning course is doomed to fail.

So, what do we bring to biodiversity? We train people who protect and conserve biodiversity. But we do it in a way that provides access and flexibility, and at the same time improve the global connectedness of professionals around the world.

For more information, contact:

Ben Wilson, Charles Sturt University bwilson@csu.edu.au 
Tim Squires, University of Edinburgh Tim.Squires@ed.ac.uk