Prof. Terry Hébert, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, reflects on a March 2013 article published in “Nature.”
The Provost recently asked for proposals for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) at McGill. Interestingly, he also asked for feedback on the open question as to whether MOOCs might irrevocably change how we teach at McGill. The article linked here suggests that changes are coming- will these changes fundamentally alter the nature of the university campus? Will students even have to show up for some programs? The best interactions I have with students are not online- they are contacts in the hall, in the classroom and occasionally on the squash court. What will the university be like if we embrace MOOCs to the full extent possible? I don’t know. Maybe we ought to start thinking about that.
Prof. Chris Buddle, Natural Resource Sciences, writes about a podcast assignment he and his TA designed for a large undergraduate ecology class.
As a University Professor, I’m always experimenting with new ways to assess students in my undergraduate classes. This can be a significant challenge with larger class sizes, especially since I’m not a fan of multiple choice style questions. It’s nice to be able to assess students on the basis of how they are integrating and synthesizing course content, and traditionally this is done with longer-format essay-type assignments. These long-format assignments are great, but do take a tremendous amount of time and energy to grade, and I seldom feel I can give enough time to each written assignment.
This past winter term I was faced with an increased enrollment in my undergraduate ecology class at McGill. I had a TA for the class, but I certainly didn’t have enough TA hours to include a large individual written assignment. I started to think of new and interesting ways to grade students, and I was looking for a way to test how students might be integrating content from different lectures in the class.
This got me thinking about podcasts. When I mow the lawn, or when I am on a long road trip I listen to a lot of podcasts, andThis American Life or RadioLab have become go-to places for me to hear new and interesting stories, from science through to art and culture. A good podcast entices the listener, is creative, informative, and overall, makes learning fun. Bingo: Makes learning fun.
Podcasts as an assessment tool seemed a perfect fit with the challenge I was facing in my ecology class. Together with my amazing TA, Carly Ziter, we brainstormed and came up with a podcast assignment. We assigned students to groups, and handed out the assignment. Here are some of the details, as provided to students:
The learning outcomes for the Ecology Podcast assignment are the following: (1) expose students to ecological stories in the news, (2) explore the ways that ecology is portrayed in the news media, (3) link these stories to ecological content as delivered during lectures, and (4) to communicate (orally, and as a group) the story and the ecological concepts linked to the story. Podcasts are an exciting way to communicate science, and can be an effective tool in helping to find a deeper understanding of ecological concepts.
The Ecology Podcast is done in groups, and is devoted to exploring the portrayal of ecological concepts in the news media and linking concepts to course material. Groups are required to get approval for their topic in advance of commencing the research and recording. Within the first 10 seconds of their podcast, each student in the group is requested to clearly state their name. Introductions should be followed by the title or concept that they discuss. The remaining time is spent introducing the story / concept, explaining it to the audience, and linking the story to more fundamental ecological concepts, including those discussed during lectures. It is expected that each group member spend approximately the same time speaking on the podcast. Students are encouraged to be creative with the podcast – to have fun, and find ways to provide an informative and entertaining podcast. Students are encouraged to interview other experts on the topic, and find other content to bring into the podcast. Podcasts are to be between 3-4 minutes long.
The podcast assignment is worth 15% of the grade in the class, and is graded using the following rubric:
Each of the following criteria is graded between 0 (poorly done) to 5 (excellent, above expectations) for a total out of 25 points:
Format & Quality (length of podcast, sound quality, all group members given equal time)
Broad coverage of ecological concept (introduction and explanation of broader topic, overview of portrayal in news media)
Link to fundamental ecological concepts (links to lecture content, links to other course materials)
Synthesis, integration (all parts of podcast linked together, evidence of deeper critical thinking about the topic, opinions presented and discussed)
Creativity (effort to make podcast interesting, fun, entertaining; evidence of creative thinking)
Overall, the students rose to the challenge and produced truly amazing and high quality podcasts. You could tell they had fun with the idea, and in many cases, the groups found ‘experts’ to interview about their topic. Here are links to two of the podcasts, and in both cases, the students sought out and interviewed another Professor in my Department, Dr. David Bird.
From an instructor’s perspective, podcasts were a true delight to grade, and it was a refreshing change from grading essays or tests. It also allowed students to exhibit creative talents that they otherwise would not get to explore in this ecology class. I believe the podcasts were effective at assessing how students were engaged with the course content. Explaining ecological concepts is difficult, and requires a deep and intimate knowledge of the content. “Teaching” in the form of a podcast, is an excellent way to learn.
Podcasts were an effective form of group work. In some cases, groups could not find time to work together, so individuals were able to record sections separately and merge them together after the fact. It’s also important to note that students had no complaints or technical issues with this assignment. They all were able to access software and hardware for this assignment, and uploading assignments to our learning management system was smooth.
In sum, podcasts are ideal as student assessment tool, especially when class sizes make written assignments unmanageable. Podcasts are fun to put together, enjoyable to grade, and because they force an explanation of content, they can truly test content in all the right ways.
I encourage instructors to try it out — You’ll like what you hear.
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.
University students and faculty may not think of librarians as teachers, but increasingly the role of librarians is shifting from reference and book providers to active educators. In the past, instruction in the library, often referred to as bibliographic instruction, served to orient students and other users to the organization of materials within the library’s collection. Now, the library is refocusing from a collection-centered model to a user-centered model, where instruction is tailored to the needs of the user.
So what does that mean in university libraries? It means that librarians are going out into the classrooms on campus and teaching not only how to use the library’s resources, but how to conduct research, how to sift through information and avoid information overload, how to recognize seminal articles, how to do citation linking, and how to think critically. McGill librarians teach formally and informally every day in classrooms across campus and as well as in the library. For example, check out the MyResearch workshops for arts undergraduates, physical sciences & engineering undergraduates, and graduate students.
Bibliographic instruction still happens, but the 21st century library also emphasizes critical information literacy skills. The Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (2000), set out by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), outlines five standards, 22 performance indicators, and outcomes for information literacy instruction. What is information literacy? The ACRL uses the American Library Association (ALA) definition: “a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information”. Librarians teaching information literacy design their instruction around the ACRL standards as well as their own learning outcomes based on the goals of the courses they are visiting. Information literacy instruction is student-centered and meant to be more just-in-time teaching than just-in-case.
Librarians are also getting involved in the digital classroom. MOOCs, or massively open online courses, have librarians across North America thinking about how librarians can play a role in assisting faculty and students. In a recent article in the professional journal Library Journal, Meredith Schwartz presents several ways that librarians can be “embedded” into MOOCs: preserving content, providing access to copyrighted content, and providing instructional support with resources and technology used throughout the course. Libraries are constantly seeking to evolve along with the needs of their users, and librarians are more and more going out of the library to where their users are – in both the physical and virtual classroom – to better improve teaching and learning in higher education.
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.
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. 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 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. 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.
Adam Finkelstein, Teaching and Learning Services explains McGill’s Active Learning Classrooms and how an instructor can teach their class in these new spaces.
Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs) are spaces that are specifically designed to “signal” a mode of learning focused on collaboration and interaction. ALCs offer many features, both furniture that encourages collaboration (e.g. round tables for group work, movable chairs for facilitating work in pairs or small groups) and numerous technological features (e.g., digital writing, screen sharing facilities, SMARTBoards) to provide a supportive and engaging learning environment. If you are an instructor that is interested in doing a great deal of active learning in your course, then these spaces were designed for you.
The ALCs at McGill range from 72 students (in Education 627) to 24 students (in 688 Sherbrooke Rm 1265).
ALCs can be more complex than traditional teaching and learning environments. These spaces are often brand new environments for instructors and students and while they present important new opportunities for learning, they also create unique challenges. McGill offers a comprehensive support system for instructors who would like to use these new spaces, everything from in-room support to consultations on using active learning strategies in your course.
These new classrooms have been a great success at McGill in the last few years. TLS created a video to help document some of the exciting things happening in these rooms. If you haven’t seen it, take a look:
If you are looking to teach in an Active Learning Classroom, contact the Timetable Coordinator in your Faculty or Department — they can help you book one of these new spaces. Feel free to contact TLS if you would like any more information on our Active Learning Classrooms.
Multitasking: can it be done? What are the implications for students’ learning? Students multi-task (in part thanks to technological advances) both in physical and virtual course environments. By and large, the research demonstrates that multi-tasking, or rapid switching between task, decreases one’s performance quality or increases the time a given task requires.
This recent article looks at the impact of multi-tasking upon students’ listening and writing performance during in-person and recorded lectures, and considers whether social presence (e.g. in-person versus recorded instructor) impacts task prioritization.
The results of the research clearly demonstrate that students’ completion of both the evaluated listening and writing tasks had a more satisfactory result in terms of student listening (accuracy of remembered information) and writing (quantity) for those who did not multi-task. However, the experimental design was such that multi-tasking students had 15 minutes to complete both tasks, rather than the 25 minutes for task completion accorded to the single-tasking students group. This begs the question of how much time would be needed (between 15 and 25 minutes) such that the quality and quantity measures would have been equivalent for the two groups?
What implications does multi-tasking have for teaching and learning? Are their ways to capitalize on this habit to complement the in-class learning experience with learning-related tasks (such as twitter or back-channeling during class, for example)?