Publishing SoTL Work in Unusual Places – Jane Holbrook

Although it’s tempting to blog about the Royal Wedding this morning (yes, I did get up and rush down the street to watch the event with a group of “girls” , young and old), I’m instead going to carry out  some advice from the recent Opportunities and New Directions Conference, which was to share our research in unusual ways – this is pretty unusual for me  so here goes ….

I displayed my poster “What drives students’ preferences for face-to-face, online or blended courses?” at this event on Wednesday and had some good conversations with other participants. The poster describes some student feedback that was gathered through an end of term questionnaire that I was using to help instructors evaluate activities in five blended courses last fall. The students who responded to the questionnaire were all on campus, fulltime students in Soc 101, Earth 235, Psych 340, Cive 292 and Enve 292. The students were primarily Arts, Science and Engineering students in 1st, 2nd and  3rd year, aged 23 and under.  They were asked to choose which type of course they preferred: face-to-face courses with no online activities; fully online courses with no face-to-face activities; courses that have both online and face-to-face activities; or if their preference depends on the discipline of the course being taken; or on the level of the course being taken. They were asked to explain their choice.

The responses fell into three main categories with about 36% choosing courses that have both online and face-to-face activities, 32% choosing that their preference depends on the discipline of the course being taken and 26% choosing face-to-face courses with no online activities, (n=298). What were their reasons for these choices and what can we learn from their responses?

Those who chose courses with both online and face-to-face activities focussed on the usefulness of the online tools and the flexibility of time and pace of learning (including repeatability of online lectures) and how this has a positive impact on their learning. Half of them articulated how both environments contribute to their learning in some way, but the face-to-face environment was singled out as the preferred environment for asking questions because the answers are immediate.

Those whose preference was dependent on the discipline of the course being taken commented that they prefer face-to-face courses in their own discipline, but that online elements or online courses are useful in disciplines other than their own. Fifty percent commented that they prefer to learn mathematics in a face-to-face environment. A few respondents said that difficult concepts in their own field were better learned online through simulations.

The face-to-face course advocates communicated that, for them, the instructor’s presence in the classroom is important and they want to be in the classroom while the instructor presents concepts and solves problems, answers their questions, emphasises important concepts and communicates information about assessments. They believe that being with the instructor increases their understanding and retention of concepts. They also appreciate the ease of social interactions and communication with the instructor and peers in the classroom. Their comments clearly conveyed that asking questions and getting answers quickly is key for them. Another common theme was that these students perceive that the online environment has a negative impact on their motivation to learn and on their attention span.

This is by no means  a “rigorous” research project,  it’s more of a fishing expedition for next questions. This feedback could be the springboard for formulating interesting research questions. For instance, what is the optimal mix of face-to-face, blended and fully online courses in undergraduate programs? Which courses in a program might be most effectively developed as blended or fully online courses? How can we help students develop online learning skills;  skills they will surely need during co-op terms, in graduate school, or for life-long learning in their professional and private  lives?  What are the most effective ways to design online and blended courses that provide the modelling of conceptual thinking and problem solving for students who are at the “dualistic thinking” stage of development? How do synchronous question and answer opportunities, both in the face-to-face classroom and online, impact learning?  What are the perceived barriers to learning Math online;  do we need to design online math-based courses differently?

Some would argue that students don’t know “what’s good for them” or what’s best for their learning,  but I think that we do need to understand their perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of different learning environments and to use this information to improve learning designs and help them become effective and engaged learners in a variety of learning environments.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

Wikispaces Goes Free for Higher Ed — Trevor Holmes

I have been using Wikispaces for many years now. It’s been a space to collaborate with peers on research, a space to house an organizational website that needs to be very flexible and easy to use while we seek permanent solutions, and a space for my students to go when other tools go down. By no means have I used Wikispaces to its full potential, but I do administer several wikis there and I’m thrilled that they are extending their ad-free version to higher education, after serving nearly a million K-12 users this way. A couple of examples of how I’ve used it:

  • A backup site for my Cultural Studies 101 course over at WLU
  • A working site for the Council of Ontario Educational Developers

If you’re interested in wiki use, we do have advice for you. And for ease of use plus the newly free adless version, I’d recommend Wikispaces as a strong contender for your time and energy.

The Pricing Game- An online Activity- Samar Mohamed

In my role as the CTE Liaison in the Faculty of Engineering I work with instructors in creating pedagogically sound online activities that enhance the students’ learning experience. I really like an activity that I worked on with Prof. Benny Mantin, a Management Sciences Professor who wanted to design an online activity that proves to the students the importance of a specific topic. Continue reading The Pricing Game- An online Activity- Samar Mohamed

On Lecture Capture and Talking Heads… – Scott Anderson

Talking Head Machine
Image from Laputan Logic

At the end of last week, I attended a conference on blended learning (essentially integrating face-to-face and online activities in an instructionally sound way, though there’s debate about whether it entails a reduction of face-to-face time).

One presentation that stood out for me was one about lecture capture at Queen’s University, something we’ve been experimenting with here at Waterloo. Essentially they’re capturing live lectures on video using automated mechanisms and then making the video available to students online. Continue reading On Lecture Capture and Talking Heads… – Scott Anderson

Khan Academy: Free and Straightforward Learning Resources — Marlene Griffith Wrubel

I recently found an online resource that even Bill Gates and his children use.  Khan Academy is a website dedicated to teaching.  It is the product of Salman Khan, Harvard MBA graduate and a former hedgefund manager.  The information contained on the site is free, available around the clock, and requires just your time and interest in learning the material presented. Continue reading Khan Academy: Free and Straightforward Learning Resources — Marlene Griffith Wrubel

John Michela’s Response to Gwyn Morgan — Mark Morton

In response to Gwyn Morgan’s Globe and Mail editorial (in which he decries the quality of university teaching), John Michela (of UW’s Department of Psychology) submitted a countering letter to the editor. The Globe and Mail published that letter on October 5, but in an edited form. Here, for the record, is Professor Michela’s unedited letter: Continue reading John Michela’s Response to Gwyn Morgan — Mark Morton

eHarmony: CTE’s relationship with KSU — Mark Morton

Recently, staff members in the Centre for Teaching Excellence went on a two-week “blind date” with 20 faculty members from King Saud University. I call it a blind date — even though it was really an instructional development program — because none our staff had previously met or even spoken by phone to any of the KSU faculty members. All of the coordinating took place over the course of several months via email between CTE’s Director, Donna Ellis, and KSU’s Dean of Deanships, Dr. Mohammed Al-Sudairi. On the morning of July 12, when the KSU faculty were scheduled to arrive in CTE’s FLEX Lab, our staff members were nervous: Would they like us? Would we like them? Would cultural differences make it hard to talk about issues pertaining to teaching and learning? Would they appreciate my jokes?

Our anxiety, as it turned out, was needless. Within an hour of arriving, CTE staff and the KSU faculty members were laughing together and engaging in excellent discussions about educational issues, teaching strategies, and learning technologies. We discovered that the instructional challenges facing KSU faculty are essentially the same ones our own faculty face at the University of Waterloo: finding ways to effectively motivate and engage students, devising opportunities for active learning, managing large classes, encouraging students to focus on “mastery” (or “deep”) learning rather than “performance” (or “surface”) learning, discerning which educational technologies are most effective, and balancing teaching and research. Moreover, the KSU faculty members’ evident dedication to their students also mirrored that of our own faculty, as did their willingness to reflect on their teaching, and their generosity in sharing pedagogical insights with one another and with us.

Our CTE staff, too, did a first-rate job in developing and offering a host of workshops, with the first week devoted to educational technologies and the second week devoted to teaching excellence. We also strove to make our guests’ visit to Southern Ontario as enjoyable as possible by developing an online description of leisure activities they could undertake on weekends. We heard many stories from KSU faculty members about memorable trips to Niagara Falls, Grand Bend, Long Point, Toronto, African Lion Safari, and elsewhere. Many KSU faculty members also took the opportunity to meet with UW faculty members working in their discipline, who kindly made themselves available. I might mention, too, one of my own highlights — namely, the lunches catered by Kitchener’s Arabesque. The food was delicious and the pleasant lunchtime conversations among KSU faculty members and CTE staff re-invigorated us for the afternoon workshops.

At the end of the two-week program, our Centre hosted a closing ceremony, attended by UW’s Dr. Leo Rothenburg, Associate Vice-President International, Dr. Geoff McBoyle, Associate Vice-President Academic, and Drew Knight, Director of International Programs, during which every KSU faculty members received certificates recognizing their completion of the program. We also viewed an interactive presentation using an online platform called Glogster, showcasing photos and videotaped interviews from the program. We were sad, at the end of the day, to say goodbye.

After returning to Saudi Arabia, the KSU faculty members sent us many emails expressing their thanks and warm wishes. My favorite message is this one, because it also reflects the feelings of our CTE staff:

“I have acquired knowledge and skills from attending these workshops, but certainly I won so many friends. I am proud of knowing such great people like you. Hopefully we continue seeing each other again.”


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.