Category Archives: Universities today

Co-teaching a blended class across universities: why? and why not?


This term I am co-teaching a graduate class in advanced groundwater hydrology with Grant Ferguson (University of Saskatchewan) and Steve Loheide (University of Wisconsin – Madison). In co-developing and co-delivering this course we have learned a lot – I’ll start here with our initial motivations and write later about our pedagogic decisions, software tools and reflections after the course. It is mostly win-win for students and professors, but I’ll describe some of the disadvantages below. Continue reading Co-teaching a blended class across universities: why? and why not?

Using social media and mobile technology in the classroom


Last week I had the pleasure of presenting at an Education Technologies conference, on the topic of using social media tools and mobile technology in teaching and learning. The conference attendees were diverse and included educators (from elementary school through to Universities), information technology officers, school board representatives, and others. The presentation was focused on using the case study of McGill’s St Lawrence Ecosystems course to illustrate advantages of using social media tools and mobile technology in an outdoor classroom, and during the presentation, the audience (situated in groups, around tables) was asked for comments on three questions. Each group provided verbal feedback, and also provided written comments.  These responses are shared, below. Continue reading Using social media and mobile technology in the classroom

Food for Thought – CHEM181x – McGill’s First MOOC has begun


McGill has released its first MOOC, Food for Thought (CHEM181x). This course was developed by Teaching and Learning Services from an on-campus course titled “World of Chemistry: Food” that has been very popular since the mid 1980s. Extensive work has been done with the the three instructors (David Harpp, Joe Schwarcz and Ariel Fenster part of the Office for Science & Society) to redesign their course to take advantage of some of the tools available in the MOOC. They are a dynamic trio with a passion for good science about food. The description of the MOOC is:

Eating and understanding the nuances of food has become a complicated and often confusing experience. Virtually every day brings news about some “miracle food” that we should be consuming or some “poison” we should be avoiding. One day it’s tomatoes to prevent cancer, then flaxseed against heart disease or soybeans for menopause. At the same time we may be warned about trans fats, genetically modified foods, aspartame or MSG. Dietary supplements may be touted as the key to health or a factor in morbidity. According to some, dairy products are indispensable while others urge us to avoid them. The same goes for meat, wheat and soy; the list goes on. This course will shed light on the molecules that constitute our macro and micro nutrients and will attempt to clarify a number of the food issues using the best science available. Other topics to be presented will include the diet-cancer relationship, the link between diet and cardiovascular disease, food-borne illnesses, food additives and weight control.

There is also an introductory video that gives you a teaser about what the course will be about.

This MOOC is available for free for anyone with access to a computer. It has just begun this week and will run for the next 10 weeks online. If you are interested, register now!

Robotutor marking student homework


By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology & Therapeutics

Finally something (someone) who can teach thousands of students at a time. I give you… Robotutor!

Is this where our flirtation with MOOCs will lead? What are we trying to achieve with MOOCs anyway? That has never been made clear to me. I could imagine MOOCs as a way to prepare students FOR university but I still have grave concerns about what they mean for the future of universities if we remove the real interactions between professors and students and we stop pushing both to be their best.

TENS of thousands of students across the world will log in to online classrooms this week. A large portion of them will be learning to write code in computer science courses. The scale and reach of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is growing year on year, and many argue they have the potential to vastly improve access to education. But size is also their biggest weakness: a human teacher can’t guide, correct and give feedback to legions of students all working simultaneously.

Read the full article from NewScientist: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22029444.400-robotutor-marks-the-homework-of-a-class-of-thousands.html

McGillX MOOCs – Librarians in the Virtual Classroom


Kristen Emmett, graduate student in the McGill School of Information Studies (SIS), writes about some of the intersections between librarianship and teaching in higher education.

I wrote in a previous post about how librarians were getting more involved in the teaching on university campuses across North America (see the post here). Now I’d like to offer a glimpse into how librarians are actively playing a role in advancing and innovating teaching and learning right here at McGill.

Set to begin in January 2014, the first McGillX MOOC, CHEM181X: Food for Thought, is currently in the late stages of development with the help of an extensive team. The team consists of the course’s three professors, Ariel Fenster, David N. Harpp, and Joe Schwarz; educational consultants from our own Teaching and Learning Services (TLS); and April Colosimo, liaison librarian for the Schulich Library of Science and Engineering.

April is one of several librarians collaborating with faculty and education specialists in the early stages of McGill’s involvement with MOOCs. As the Chem181x team’s librarian, April’s current role revolves around copyright and licensing issues. She works to update datasets, assists in the sourcing and citing of images, and points to open-source alternatives. Her job, as quoted from Daniel Boyer, Associate Dean of User Services, is to “propose creative solutions to information needs”. April is enthusiastic about the possibilities for involvement during the course, and although she is unsure if it’s sustainable to be the contact librarian for a course the size of a typical MOOC, she hopes to contribute by providing links to other courses or open-education software, or by producing guides for further reading tailored to each module for students interested in pursuing further a particular aspect of a course.

Low completion rates are often a criticism against MOOCs, but April does not see completion rates as an accurate reflection of how people use MOOCs. She has enrolled in a number of MOOCs herself, and feels that the flexibility they allow and the ability to pick and choose what you engage with is what makes them great learning tools, especially for lifelong learning. When asked about how she feels MOOCs will affect the future of universities, April responded that she did not think MOOCs threatened the viability of the traditional university model. MOOCs will “support current activities, especially continuing education, rather than replace the university.” She appreciates the effect MOOCs are having on the discussion about student learning and the learning experience, and believes the attention “will have a positive effect on teaching and the mindful use of educational technology, and a stimulating impact on libraries”.

April also sees MOOCs as having a positive effect on libraries. MOOCs are bringing pedagogy into the library and librarians into contact with the research on teaching and learning, as well as the educational development work happening at McGill. It’s early yet, but “the more experience we get with these courses, the more we become embedded, and the more we can answer questions about copyright, conduct research, and work with the data these courses produce”.

Twenty top tips for interpreting scientific claims from University of Cambridge


By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology & Therapeutics

We talk about giving students the tools to evaluate research in their disciplines critically. These tools can also be applied to their roles as citizens as well. We are sold a lot of things now- it is more important than ever to judge  the claims of our colleagues, our leaders and even ourselves honestly and critically. Here are some really good tips for developing that critical spirit from the University of Cambridge:

Aiming to improve policy-makers’ understanding of the imperfect nature of science, academics from the Universities of Cambridge and Melbourne have created a list of concepts that they believe should be part of the education of civil servants, politicians, policy advisers and journalists…

See more at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/twenty-top-tips-for-interpreting-scientific-claims

Learning to scythe


By Marcy Slapcoff, Teaching and Learning Services

This summer my husband taught me to use a scythe. I accepted my friends’ indulgent smiles when I raved about the experience but I knew that many considered this to be a foolhardy and retrograde pursuit. Some asked, “Would you like to borrow our mower?” or “Why not pay your neighbor to cut the field?” assuming our choice was due to lack of funds or lack of awareness of the advancement in power tools since the Industrial Revolution.  I, however, grew to love the scythe and savored the time I spent moving the blade back and forth across our meadow in Vermont.  I  could extoll the virtues of the scythe at length – the contact it allowed me with the grass and the ground,  the slow and steady pace it set, the satisfaction it led to  a job well done —  but I could never match the accuracy or the beauty of the celebrated essay by Wendell Berry A good scythe.” In this essay, Berry recounts how short-lived  experience with a power scythe led him to believe in the superiority of the hand-held, human-motored version.

Berry writes, “These differences have come to have, for me, the force of a parable. Once you have mastered the hand scythe, what an absurd thing it makes of the power scythe! What possible sense can there be in carrying a heavy weight on your shoulder in order to reduce by a very little the use of your arms? Or to use quite a lot of money as a substitute for a little skill?”  (Organic Gardening Magazine, January 1980)

I consider these words of Berry’s to be wisdom for the ages. There is a common belief right now in higher education that students are so accustomed to communicating via digital technologies that traditional modes of education are no longer adequate. I resist this notion. It is true that today’s digital natives are much more at home with new technologies than previous generations but that does not mean that they can’t learn from older, slower forms of instruction that prioritize human contact, dialogue and interaction. Like the old-fashioned scythe, the old-fashioned classroom has a place IF it is well-made, with attention to details that make it powerful. In the case of the scythe that might be the arc and sharpness of the blade, the length of the handle, the overall weight of the tool. In the case of the classroom the details that matter are the potential  for instructors to convey the changeability of knowledge, the opportunity to invite questions and dialogue, the time to celebrate collaboration and reflection. These elements are old-fashioned but they are still powerful and they still need to be nurtured in the modern university.