Of lectures and laptops: civility and engagement, Part 1 – Trevor Holmes

A couple of years ago, I asked someone who kept falling asleep or listening to his iPod during my lectures (even though I break things up with “activities” every 20 minutes or so) why he didn’t just stay in his residence room. He said he always went to lectures in case he might pick up something by osmosis. I’m not blaming the student here — just reminding myself that not every second of my craft needs to be gripping to every single student! The increasing use of laptops in class (especially for MSN, Facebook, YouTube, and other non-course-related stuff) is, however, a very public display of what some would call incivility, or inappropriate behaviour amongst lecture attendees.

For the past two days (predictably — it’s the end of term and who doesn’t need a break from grading?) the main discussion list for the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education has been awash in opinions about boring professors and unengaged students. The topic began as a question about banning laptops. Of course banning laptops sounds good to those of us who teach or have observed large first year courses. Until you remember the doodles we did, notes we passed, and other things we did during certain lectures in our own freshman years. Until you remember that some students require laptops to help accommodate disabilities, and banning everyone else’s laptops would “out” them to their classmates. Some good advice came in the form of “use the laptops that show up in class” — which is what I try to do, especially given the possibilities of Web 2.0 tools — and we did get a great reference to an issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning about this very topic in different disciplines. A quick search of the blogosphere revealed a Chronicle of Higher Education article about this topic too.

This is about more than laptops though.

What concerns me most about the discussion, I think, is that what started as a “blame the lazy millennials” for their lack of civility became a “blame the unprofessional professors” for their inability to keep people awake with entertaining cartwheels (I think I’ll try cartwheels this Winter in my class of 160 students). Blame the students or blame the professors. Pick your side.

I’m simplifying things, but only a little. At least two posters so far have placed the blame for disengaged students squarely on the shoulders of the professors. Ironically, this happens the same day that we find out the data on why students are at university in Ontario and at Waterloo in particular. Sure, 42% really want to be here in an engaged way. Fewer than half. Just over a fifth come because they think they have to, and another fifth have no idea why they bothered. Luckily, a fifth still want to change the world.
http://www.bulletin.uwaterloo.ca/2008/dec/12fr.html

The same holds true of informal polls in a couple of first year courses my spouse and I have taught at another university — fully half the students each year claim not really to want to be at university at all, and cite peer pressure, parental pressure, or just aimlessness as their only reasons to bother going for a degree.

And yet it’s up to us to engage every one of them? Surely, surely it’s a shared responsibility! As a student in the 1980s, when I faced a so-called “boring” lecturer, I saw it as my job to FIND something interesting in the lecture. I was free to leave if I couldn’t. And I knew (as a Trent student) that we’d have a lively tutorial after even the most mind-numbing lecture (there really weren’t many of these; virtually all my lectures in first year were top-notch, and they were delivered by tenured professors, who also ran the tutorial discussions).

This leads me to reflect on the data-driven findings of the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Washington, three members of which visited UW last Friday for the annual Physics Teaching Day, organised by Rohan Jayasundera. They have found time and time again that students CAN in fact improve markedly on basic understandings of fundamental physics concepts through guided inquiry and guided tutorials. This seems to square with the Harvard research on “interactive engagement” techniques (now with clickers) in large lectures. More on next term…

trevorholmes

As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Programming, Trevor Holmes plans and delivers workshops and events in support of faculty across the career span. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Trevor worked at a variety of universities teaching courses, supporting faculty and teaching assistants through educational development offices, and advising undergraduates. Trevor’s PhD is from York University in English Literature, with a focus on gothic literature, queer theory, and goth identities. A popular workshop facilitator at the national and international levels, Trevor is also interested in questions of identity in teaching and teaching development.

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On global campuses and internationalized courses – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

Some interesting global developments related to new cross-border delivery of educational services are currently taking place in higher education.  In recent years many Canadian universities have joined their Australian and British counterparts in establishing their presence overseas. To this end, several universities have established various partnership agreements  and opened branch campuses and franchises in Asia and the Middle East. Some that come to mind are Hong Kong campus of the UWO’s Ivey School of Business, University of Calgary’s nursing education program in Qatar, Al-Ahram Canadian University in Egypt and Canadian University in Dubai. Our own institution has also began the foray into cross-border education. Many of us here at UW are currently following with interest the developments related to the opening of UW campus in Dubai.

Amidst all these exciting and bold global initiatives by Canadian universities, it is easy to overlook the efforts of individual faculty members who are trying to find creative ways to bring the international and the global into their classrooms. In higher education literature, this process of bringing international perspectives into the content and delivery of the course is known as course internationalization. While there is a perception that some disciplines and courses lend themselves better to internationalization while others are not, there is emerging evidence reported by faculty from various disciplines as to how the possibilities of applying international lens to virtually any course. Here are a couple of examples of how faculty members in computer science internationalized their courses:

Here, at UW, we also have some interesting course internationalization projects underway. A couple weeks ago I had a chance to talk to Josh Neufeld of Biology about his fourth-year biology course. Josh and his tech-savvy undergraduate student, Forest Rong Wang, created a collection of digital interviews from international researchers whose articles were used in the course. Josh came up with an idea to send Webcams to the international researchers in his field and to invite them to return recorded interviews with their ‘behind-the-scenes’ perspectives on their scientific discoveries. All ten researchers responded enthusiastically and provided insightful interviews, telling Josh’s students about how their scientific discoveries were made, how this discovery shaped their career, and what they love about science and academia. During the course, Josh’s students not just did presentations based on research articles but also watched interviews with each of the researcher who conducted the research and wrote the article. What a neat idea! And the best part is that this approach can work in many other courses.

Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

As a Senior Instructional Developer, Svitlana Taraban Gordon oversees all aspects of the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program and works with graduate students who are interested in developing their instructional skills and expanding their teaching horizons. She is also developing new programming related to the internationalization and university teaching. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Svitlana worked with the international education office at York's Faculty of Education, taught several courses at York's teacher preparation program and coordinated Microsoft-funded project on youth and technology through her work with Toronto-based NGO TakingITGlobal. She received her PhD in Education (Language, Culture and Teaching) in 2006 from York University. In her free time, Svitlana enjoys traveling with her husband and young son.

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New Educational Technologies: eHere Today and eGone Tomorrow? – Mark Morton

A question that I’m often asked when I give a workshop on a new educational technology (or what I like to call “NETs”) is this: “How can I be sure that this technology is here to stay?” Well, no technology is really here to stay. Clay tablets had a pretty good run of about three thousand years, but they were eventually supplanted by paper scrolls. And scrolls gave way to books. And now books are being challenged by ebooks and ebook readers. The anxiety behind the question, though, is legitimate, and it arises from the fear of investing a lot of time and energy into learning or implementing a new technology only to have that technology become obsolete a short time later. Occasionally, this has happened to me. For example, a couple years ago I began using an online “to do list” program called Todoist. I loved the program because it was a boon to be able to access my task list from anywhere — including from my Blackberry. But then I discovered Toodledo, another “to do list” program that does everything that Todist does and more. So I decided to switch. The change, though, was painful. There was no way of exporting my tasks and categories from Todoist into Toodledo. I had to move everything over manually, by re-typing or cutting and pasting.

Hopefully, though, I won’t have to go through that tedious process again, if and when I decide to switch to yet another online task management program. That’s because one of the features of Toodledo is that it allows you to export your tasks and categories in a variety of formats, including iCal, XML, and CSV. The same thing is happening with ebooks: early products tended to be based on proprietary formats, meaning that an ebook purchased for one ebook platform couldn’t be read on a different ebook platform. Since the middle of 2008, though, there has been a movement to adopt an open standard (known as epub).As a result, ebooks published in the epub format can now be read on a variety of platforms such as Adobe Digital Editions, Lexcycle Stanza, BookGlutton and the Firefox plugin OpenBerg Lector. Several hand-held ebook devices, too, now support the epub standard format, including the Sony PRS 700.

The trend with digital technologies, then, is toward open standards. Does this mean that in the near future you’ll never again have to worry about transitioning from one product or platform to another product or platform? Well, no, there will continue to be some growing pains as technologies continue to evolve and supplant one another. But for the most part, the transition will be eased by open standards, and by widgets that will help you convert your data configurations from one format to another when you decide to upgrade. In the long term, of course, everything will change dramatically: in twenty years, finding a hand-held device that will play MP3s will probably be as challenging as it is now to find a computer that accepts the old 5 ¼-inch floppy disks.

Mark Morton

Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.

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Seeing is Believing: Using Visuals and Demonstrations – Katherine Lithgow

I had the opportunity to attend Richard Wells’  Kin 160 Ergonomics in Industry class this past week and was treated to a variety of demonstrations which gave me a flavour of what ergonomics is all about.

During the last week of class, the students were able to apply what they had learned about factors ranging from furniture to noise and lighting, by using that knowledge to promote well being and system performance in the design of a call centre.  In class, we had a chance to ’feel’ what the various recommendations were like. We tried reading at various light levels; we measured the light level in the classroom to see how it compared to the recommended value; we noted the classroom temperature and compared it to the recommended value. We also got a sense of what it was like to carry on conversations in a number of work place settings by talking at a normal level with our neighbours while various recordings of different noise levels were played ranging from factory noise to household noise. We also ‘heard’ how pink noise could improve the noise levels in work environments.

Demonstrations during the lectures are not new for this class. I looked at the Kin 160 UW-ACE site and

This scene illustrates some of the worst outcomes of poor job design and work organization
This scene illustrates some of the worst outcomes of poor job design and work organization

read some of the weekly blogs that Richard posts for his class and found that the Candy Factory clip from the ‘I LOVE LUCY’ show had been used to ‘sum up some of the worst outcomes of poor job design and work organization.’

The students then participated in their own assembly line process of ‘writing a letter to Santa’ exercise which illustrated how one person could become overloaded while others had plenty of rest time. The Demand/Control Model was used to assess this situation and demonstrate ‘how important job design is to create system performance and human well being.’

Students also are given the opportunity to provide examples which reinforce what they are learning in the class by submitting photos of good and bad ergonomics design.

Throughout the term, Richard has used demonstrations to show how ergonomics concepts are applicable to most work and leisure activities. When you can actually experience to some extent the impacts of good and bad ergonomics design, you’re better able to describe the impact of ergonomic design on people’s health and performance, and from experience can describe how and why this can occur which, it so happens, is one of the course objectives!

One of Richard’s final blogs for the course encourages students to pay attention to ergonomics in their everyday life, ‘Make sure you use the ideas to improve your own well being and performance… there is now good evidence that university age people are developing chronic musculoskeletal problems from their academic computer use and setting themselves up for reoccurrences of these problems; remember, primary prevention is the way to go.’ Learning a lot easier when you can see how you benefit directly from the knowledge.

Katherine Lithgow

Katherine Lithgow

As Senior Instructional Developer, Integrative Learning, Katherine Lithgow facilitates ePortfolio and Integrative Learning initiatives, supporting instructors across campus with the design and implementation of activities that help students integrate learning in academic, workplace, community and social environments. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Katherine taught Cytology at The Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences. She received her BA from the University of Toronto, and a Master’s in Educational Technology from UBC. In what seems like another life, Katherine worked as a cytotechnologist graduating from TMI’s Cytology program.

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Social Networking in Teaching and Research – Trevor Holmes

Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the differences between Facebook and Academia.edu. While Facebook accomplishes so many different things (some great, some really horrid), Academia.edu seems to be a winner for those scholars who want to find contacts around the world in their research areas. It works based on a tree-like structure within each university that then cross-fertilizes according to one’s sub-fields across all universities in the system. Besides meeting academics with similar research interests, connections can be made via papers and citations (although I haven’t tested that aspect yet). Senior scholars and graduate students are getting involved. A brief review:

http://scienceroll.com/2008/10/11/academiaedu-social-network-in-science/

A final question: Will research-based social networking improve teaching? Directly? Indirectly? I’m asking this not only because I work at the CTE, but also because I do believe firmly that the “specialness” of university study is that one joins a community of intellectuals for a time — in short, there is and should be a link between teaching and research. More on that question later.

trevorholmes

As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Programming, Trevor Holmes plans and delivers workshops and events in support of faculty across the career span. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Trevor worked at a variety of universities teaching courses, supporting faculty and teaching assistants through educational development offices, and advising undergraduates. Trevor’s PhD is from York University in English Literature, with a focus on gothic literature, queer theory, and goth identities. A popular workshop facilitator at the national and international levels, Trevor is also interested in questions of identity in teaching and teaching development.

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Effective letters for teaching-award nominations – Trevor Holmes

What a boring place the world would be if all letters looked the same! Nonetheless, there are some features that make letters for major awards more persuasive…

  • Start with how you know the nominee, since when, and in what context
  • Give your own qualifications as a context for your comments
  • Get to know the award for which the professor, instructor, or teaching assistant is being nominated — address whatever criteria you honestly can address
  • Provide specifics: not just your favourite teacher ever, but the specific ways in which he/she (for example) helped you grasp a concept, choose a major, succeed in a career, teach others something, overcome test anxiety, become aware of your own skills, and so forth.
  • Explain with examples how you are different for having had this teacher. What did you take away from the course BECAUSE of his or her teaching style and/or methods? This might involve concepts, but it might also involve values, approaches, or attitudes!

trevorholmes

As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Programming, Trevor Holmes plans and delivers workshops and events in support of faculty across the career span. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Trevor worked at a variety of universities teaching courses, supporting faculty and teaching assistants through educational development offices, and advising undergraduates. Trevor’s PhD is from York University in English Literature, with a focus on gothic literature, queer theory, and goth identities. A popular workshop facilitator at the national and international levels, Trevor is also interested in questions of identity in teaching and teaching development.

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Blog: A four-letter word – Mark Morton

The word ‘blog’ was invented in 1999 as a shortened form of ‘web log.’ Since then, blogs have increased exponentially in number. Many blogs are created and abandoned after a few weeks while others have thrived for years. Most blogs are read by a small number of people but a few — such as the Huffington Post, a political blog — is read by more than a million people each month. In higher education, blogs have also come into their own: blogs by Stephen Downes and Will Richardson are read by thousands of educators around the world.

So, if there are so many blogs — good ones and bad ones — out there already, why create another one? Well, here at the Centre for Teaching Excellence, we think that a blog will help us communicate ideas and issues pertaining to teaching in a timely and (dare I hope) lively manner, ideas and issues that will be of special interest to the University of Waterloo instructors who make up our target audience. Our centre already has a newsletter that does an excellent job of presenting a round-up of news and events pertaining to teaching, but it only comes out once a term. This blog, as we see it, will be more dynamic, responsive, opinionated, and colourful — a kind of crazy uncle to our more sober newsletter. We hope to share new research and best practices pertaining to teaching, but we also hope to inspire engaged debate — because that, surely, is at the heart of all learning.

By the way, here’s a link to an interesting post on another blog entitled “The Arrogance of Blogging.”

Mark Morton

Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.

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