The FLEX Lab: Facilitating Innovative Teaching and Learning – Marta Bailey

What is the FLEX Lab? The Flexible Learning EXperience Lab is a unique learning space whose primary mission is to support innovation in teaching and learning. Located on the third floor of the Dana Porter Library, the FLEX Lab comes equipped with twenty wireless Tablet PC computers, two wireless data projectors (one on each end of the room), a document camera, Continue reading The FLEX Lab: Facilitating Innovative Teaching and Learning – Marta Bailey

Customizing Web Feeds – Scott Anderson

Web feeds are essentially a way for you to “subscribe” to receive information from a given site or organization. New content is delivered directly to you instead of having to check sites for updates. For instance, you can “subscribe” to this blog so that any new posting is delivered to you automatically. Often they’re called RSS feeds (RSS = Really Simple Syndication), but another common format is Atom. This is great for getting updates or news from sites or organizations, but one challenge can be the sheer volume of information. Finding relevant information can be like trying to drink from a fire hose. Continue reading Customizing Web Feeds – Scott Anderson

Mechanical Aids to Learning! – Mark Morton

02sept1930cropped-thumbnailInstructors have been urged to adopt new educational technologies for a long time: see the newspaper article below from the September 2, 1930 issue of the London Times. My favorite passage: “One of the difficulties of bringing together the teacher and the machine is that the former is not usually mechanically-minded. He is accustomed to working with his mind, and is shy of having to manipulate knobs and wheels and switches which may go wrong.” Continue reading Mechanical Aids to Learning! – Mark Morton

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…

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 ΒΌ-inch floppy disks.

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.