Category Archives: Universities today

Adapt or die?

Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome

Prof. Terry Hébert, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, comments on an article  originally published in “BBC News Business”

The founder of Wikipedia is a big fan of MOOCs. Does that give you confidence in them? Like Alec Baldwin said in “The Departed”, cui bono (you can look that up on Wikipedia). Let’s hope our response is not the same as Matt Damon gave in in that movie! Maybe we can consider that a challenge to make our material more relevant and more interesting by becoming better teachers, not by driving our students to the web for more exciting lecturers.

Read the full article here.

The New Space Age

Google Office, Zurich, Switzerland (Doorly & Witthoft, 2012)

Lauren Soluk, graduate student in DISE , shares an opinion piece on the importance of designing institutional spaces that promote creativity.

Many of us have heard Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk, Schools Kill Creativity (if you have not, I urge you to watch it here). He argues that schools are educating people out of their creativity capacities and as a student, I would agree with this statement. That said, I am not here to write about the perils of schools or how to fix them because that topic is much to extreme to cover in less then 500 words. Instead, I want to consider a small change in institutional design that might help to spark the creativity movement in higher education. Today, I am going to write about space.

In recent years, there has been a shift in learning pedagogy for teaching practices to follow student-centred, constructivist methods[1]. Constructivist methods, and more specifically, social constructivist methods advocate that knowledge is constructed through the active participation of individuals and crowds. If we compare what we know now about learning to our current institutional infrastructure, one is bound to recognize that they do not parallel each other. Institutional classrooms were, and many still are, built for passive learning in a lecture format. There needs to be a change.

Space can be created and manipulated to foster innovative and creating thinking. For example, consider Google’s office in Zurich, Switzerland (see image at left). Rather than having standard cubicles for their staff, Google has opted for a more creative “office.” While I recognize that it is nearly impossible to have a space similar to this one in a university setting, I urge institutional designers to use this image as a springboard for creative classroom and learning commons designs.

Long & Crawley[2] have offered an alternative design method to the traditional approach to space design. They have developed the CDIO process (conceive, design, implement, operate), in which the learning environment is not viewed as space that needs to be redesigned but rather a “product” which needs to be developed. Following this CDIO process, we can ask the questions, “What kind of a space will produce creative and innovate thinking? What kind of space will support social constructivist learning pedagogy?”

From the Institute of Design at Stanford University, Scott Doorley and Witthoft brought readers a book entitled, Make Space, which was designed to set the stage for creative collaboration. Doorly and Witthoft provide tools (e.g. furniture and wall designs), situations and scenarios that can inspire thinking, case study examples, and a design template for how to build collaborative environments[3]. They introduce readers to design concepts such as Cul-de-sacs (spots to gather, linger, and chat), the peanut gallery (where spectators can drop in and out without disturbing people), T-walls for writing, and foam cubes for sitting .All of these concepts combined, and others, can blend to form collaborative and innovate learning environments.

So, with all of this information on how space can inspire and foster creative and innovative thinking, it is time for institutions to step up and put student learning first; let us take a step towards re-designing institutional space that supports active, student-centred and constructivist learning pedagogy (and maybe even dispose of the dismal lecture hall, for good!).


For further reading:

Doorley, S. & Witthoft, S. (2012). Make space. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

OWP/P Architects, VS Furniture and Bruce Mau Design. (2010). The third teacher. China:Abrams.

Moore, A.H., Watson, E. & Fowler, S.B (2007) Active learning and technology: Designing change for faculty, students and institutions.  EDUCAUSE Review, 42 (5), 42-61. Retrieved from

Lomas, C.P. & Johnson, C. (2005).  Design of the learning space: Learning design and Principles.  EDUCAUSE Review, 40 (4), 16-28. Retrieved from

Lippincott, J. K. (2009).  Learning spaces: Involving faculty to improve pedagogy. EDUCAUSE Review, 44 (2), 16-25. Retrieved from

Long, P. D., & Ehrmann, S. C. (2005). Future of the learning space, breaking out of the box. EDUCAUSE Review, 40(4), 42-58. Retrieved from .

Wedge, C. & Kearns, T.D. (2005). Creation of the learning space: Catalysts for envisioning and navigating the design process. EDUCAUSE Review, 40(4), 32-38. Retrieved from

Brown, M. (2005).  Learning space design theory and practice. EDUCAUSE review, 40(4), 30. Retrieved from

Teaching and Learning Services. (2013). Teaching and learning spaces. Retrieved from



 Doorley, S. & Witthoft, S. (2012). Make space. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Lomas, C.P. & Johnson, C. (2005).  Design of the learning space: Learning design and Principles.  EDUCAUSE Review, 40 (4), 16-28. Retrieved from

Long, P. D., & Ehrmann, S. C. (2005). Future of the learning space, breaking out of the box. EDUCAUSE Review, 40(4), 42-58. Retrieved from

[1] Long & Ehrmann, 2005.

[2] as cited in Lomas & Johnson, 2005, p. 20.

[3] Doorly & Witthoft, 2012

How students rate their experiences at 62 Canadian schools

Prof. Terry Hébert, Pharmacology & Therapeutics, shares an article about the 2011 Results from the National Survey of Student Engagement:

Ratings! Rankings! What does it all mean? Why does McGill score highly on some and not so highly on others? The NSSE suggests we have a lot of things to think about before we pat ourselves on the back too hard.

Read the article here.

Higher education – not what it used to be?

Prof. Terry Hébert, Pharmacology & Therapeutics, shares an article originally published in “The Economist.”

Everyone should read this one! What are we trying to achieve – an educated citizenry or provide students with easy A’s? Chasing ratings doesn’t help. Can we blame postmodernism for this? 😉 It also seems the growth of university administration is not a unique problem here.

Read the full article here.

New York Times Opinion piece: Who will hold colleges accountable?

As McGill considers developing massively online open courses (MOOCs), perhaps we should begin to reflect on how students are graded now and how this will change. With large classes we already have, there are concerns about how well we evaluate student learning and how those outcomes prepare them for their futures. Attached here is an interesting piece which covers the history of the credit hour and how our current methods of assessment are already failing students. Given the diminishing commitment of governments to higher education, perhaps it is not time to expand in this direction. Perhaps it is time to think about how to survive with our missions of teaching, research and service intact.

Click here to read the original NYT opinion piece