MOOCs and human interaction

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology and Therapeutics

An interesting article by the president of my Alma Mater, David Naylor at the University of Toronto on the continuing need for interpersonal contact in the university educational setting. Here, he is commenting on the use of MOOCs (massive open online courses). To quote him:

“At U of T, recent curriculum reforms have deliberately leavened academic and technical skills with what one might call “renewable competencies,” such as critical thinking, effective writing and communications, problem-solving, teamwork, and ethical and social reasoning. These are competencies for a lifetime, for any job and for every citizen.”

This is also the raison d’être for McGill’s Inquiry network (

Naylor also says: “It’s hard to imagine nurturing such attributes effectively without some in-person interactions. It’s even harder to imagine how traits such as resilience or emotional self-awareness can be developed in an online cocoon with its pseudo-socialization. In contrast, if student A debates student B in a seminar, neither can reboot as their pet arguments get shredded. And the good news is that they might thereafter engage in civil discourse and discover the most important piece of human geography: common ground.

Also, here is a link to a lot of good articles on the risks and opportunities of online learning and MOOCs:


To lead or to manage…

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology and Therapeutics

Thought-provoking commentary on the use of metrics to evaluate academics. The most striking thing to me was how ultimately damaging they can be when (as they are now) they are used to run universities the way businesses are run. Who benefits from this? Students- no. Academics- no. Universities- no. Society- no. Both articles conclude that universities don’t need managers- they need leaders.


Student evaluations as customer satisfaction surveys

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology and Therapeutics

Are student evaluations the best way for professors/lecturers etc. to get helpful and critical feedback on their teaching skills? In my time at two universities, after being evaluated by a large number of students- what have I taken home from these evaluations? Frankly, not as much as the few times that I have been evaluated by my peers- which must be solicited and can be time consuming. Student evaluations feel more like customer satisfaction surveys- sure there are some helpful comments but mostly it is uncritical complaining or just as bad uncritical praise. Why do we do this if not to give students some way to demonstrate their satisfaction/dissatisfaction as paying “consumers” of education? On the other side, the university also seems very concerned with the amount of grant dollars we bring in as researchers- rather than with the research outputs themselves. There must be better metrics to critically and constructively evaluate teachers and academics. I would argue that a meaningful, peer-to-peer system which has mentorship as a goal rather than customer satisfaction or dollar values of grants would really help us new and established academics get better at our chosen professions. Who has the time to do this though? I don’t know the answer to that but in the coming age of MOOCs, it will be education consumers rather than producers who will have more to say about this then ever before. Let’s prepare ourselves to be the best- not just to say we’re the best.


Back to Dewey

By Jennie Ferris, Teaching and Learning Services.

He is among the key educational philosophers of the late 20th Century, and until recently, I confess that I had only read about John Dewey and his ideas, and had not actually read his work itself. When I finally read Experience and education, I was impressed by how the themes, questions and challenges that he addresses remain relevant today, 75 years after the book was first published.

Dewey is categorical when it comes to the question of experience: “It is not enough to insist upon the necessity of experience, nor even of activity in experience. Much depends upon the quality of the experience which is had” (pp. 27-8). He recommends an organic connection between education and personal experience, but cautions that education and experience cannot be directly equated to one another, as not all experiences are equally educative. After proposing a philosophy of education “of, by, and for experience” (p. 29), he articulates the situated nature of experience – how it relates to the past and impacts the future, and how the environment and its level of authenticity can be expected to impact the nature of the experience and its usefulness.

He advocates for the learners’ involvement in forming the purposes that direct their activities in the learning process, and challenges instructors to “arous[e] in the learner an active quest for information and for production of new ideas” (p. 79). Educators are encouraged to select issues “within the range of existing experience that have the promise and potentiality of presenting new problems which by stimulating new ways of observation and judgment will expand the area of further experience” for students (p. 75). This is consistent with Vygotsky’s idea of the zone of proximal development – a concept introduced just a couple of years before Dewey wrote this book. Dewey goes on to note the importance of building in time for genuine reflection after these experiences.

Finally, I was struck by the simple elegance of one of his concluding thoughts: “The educator should view teaching and learning as a continuous process of reconstruction of experience” (p. 87).


Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. Toronto: Collier-MacMillan.

In defense of libraries and librarians

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology and Therapeutics

Everyone thinks that search engines like Google can “replace” librarians. Here is a defence of the need for librairies and trained librarians to assist scholars in their research. It also discusses some of the challenges facing modern university libraries. At McGill, I think we are beginning to understand that changes are coming. If we’re going to make them- let’s make them in a way the benefits librarians, students and academics. The new chief librarian at the University of Toronto has some ideas. Read the full article here. 

New Canadian student blog on higher education

By Jennie Ferris, Teaching and Learning Services.

Readers of the Teaching for Learning blog who are interested in discovering another recently launched effort may be interested in UDaimonia. This combination online magazine / blog is written by Canadian university students, with the aim of providing a space to consider and engage contemporary issues in higher education from a Canadian student perspective. What do you think of this initiative? What are some of the key or defining aspects of a Canadian student perspective on higher education…and how may this perspective differ from the perspectives of students who are studying in other countries?

Discussing what matters in higher education.