Working outside the box

Over 70% of our courses offered on-campus use LEARN to some extent to manage course content and communications and to support online learning activities. Data extracted from Waterloo’s LEARN system can provide us with the details of which courses are using its various built-in tools, such discussion forums, quizzes and rubrics. This data can give us a preliminary snapshot of our innovative courses that use instructional technologies.

However, this snapshot is incomplete because we are currently unable to identify blended courses that use external instructional technologies, such as Piazza, Twitter, peerScholar, Diigo, Top Hat, mobile apps, and so on. As a result, we have not been able to document the full extent of courses that are innovative by virtue of the technologies that they employ to support active, student-centred learning. Such technologies often offer learning opportunities that are not otherwise available, but tracking these non-LEARN instructional technologies is challenging and had not been attempted in the past. However, we know that many instructors are working outside the box. girl looking over a box

Innovative Instructional Technologies Project

This spring the CTE Faculty liaisons, myself, and the SID Emerging Technologies, Dr. Mark Morton, embarked on a project to gain a fuller understanding of the extent of use of instructional technologies outside of the LEARN environment on campus. CTE’s work in this area supports the Outstanding Academic Programming part of the current strategic plan, with the goal to “to expand the appropriate use of technologies to enhance students’ learning experience”. Our first step was to send a request to all instructors to indicate whether they were using Twitter, Quizlet, TopHat, IF-AT cards or Dropbox and to identify tools they were using in categories such as Google tools, polling tools, blogging tools, wikis, or screencasting tools. Many instructors replied and we have started to build a picture of the number and variety of external tools that are being used across campus.

What we found

Over 50 different tools were identified by instructors. Piazza, Google Tools, Camtasia (a screencasting technology), Dropbox (the external Dropbox, not the Learn one) and Twitter were the most frequently mentioned, and the categories with the most variety of tools were presentation tools, blogging tools and polling tools. Screencast-o-matic, Explain Everything, WordPress, MediaWiki, SurveyMonkey and Doodle are just a few of the tools that instructors are integrating into their teaching and learning activities. We will continue to collect information on the many and varied instructional technologies that are being used across campus. We will also be adding a new section to the CTE website in the fall outlining the objectives instructors have for using some of these technologies (for example, dissemination of course content, supporting group work, fostering a community of learners, etc.) as well as identifying  “friendly contacts” for specific tools (instructors who are willing to talk to their colleagues about how and why they are using these technologies in their courses).

As we look to the future and how technologies will enhance students’ learning the trend seems to be towards a more modular or LEGO-like learning ecosystem rather than an LMS, but we may already be there as more courses use a diverse, and likely dynamic, set of technologies for a variety instructional purposes.

photo credit: t whalen via flickr cc

10th Annual Desire2Learn Users Conference July 2013 — Paul Kates

Math MOOC Un of Wisconsin The 10th Annual Desire2Learn Users Conference took place in Boston this year and I was lucky enough to attend.  There were over 200 presentations throughout the three day event.  I was drawn towards talks about mathematics and MOOCs  – massive open online courses. You can find my notes on the talks I attended online.

Many of the presentations were recorded and most presenters provided slides. If you find a talk in the conference schedule or list of talks in my notes that you want to know more about please send me email at

Redundancy and Contingency – Mary Power

stormWe weathered the storm of the three and a half day outage of our campus learning management system and have come out the other side relatively intact. It has left me thinking about our reliance on this technology and about redundancy and contingency. Basically, what do we need to do to prevent complete immobilization in the (I hope extremely unlikely) event of another shutdown?

An IT colleague described redundancy as: “If a system crashes, or the building falls in a sinkhole, an identical backup system takes over within minutes.  Like our Connect email server. We have 5 servers in the Math building and 5 identical in another building. If the math building gets sucked into space, within minutes the other building takes over and users notice little or no change.” Obviously, Desire2Learn needs to be responsible for the server redundancy – but it behooves all of us to have backup plans, our own redundancies, in place in case another black hole event occurs.

That brings me to contingency. In hospitals contingency plans are required to be in place to cover the eventuality of any system outage. Arguably there are more serious consequences of a system failure in a hospital environment. However, since so many are reliant on our course management system, a framework both system wide and as individuals should be in place – at least for peace of mind. The conversations have begun at an institutional level and I believe many individuals created their own workarounds.

It seems to me that the key in an event such as this, as with so many other things, is communication. A great deal of anxiety can be alleviated if communication lines can be kept open.  Keeping an email list of your students is a good idea. If you have sent an email to your class the copy that the system sends to you will have all the Bcc: addresses – keep that. The classlists available for download from Quest contain the student email addresses as well.  Just having the ability to let students know that you know what is going on and what your expectations are of them is a good first step. A number of faculty members are already using twitter as a means of communicating with their students. Generally a course specific Twitter account is created and then students are invited to follow and important information can be broadcast. Bill Power in Chemistry has been using this for several semesters now and his students did not feel the pain of the recent outage. Bill presented on his successful use of Twitter last year at the OND conference. During this downtime the Biology Department began using its departmental Twitter account to communicate with students.

Course materials are the other thing of primary concern to students.  IST supports a secure file transfer service called Sendit by which faculty can send a link via email to their students. The advantage of this route is that it is secure and supported by the university. Many people already use Dropbox to share files (even just between their own computers). With Dropbox, a url to a specific file can be shared to students via email or tweeted via Twitter.  Google Drive is another option.

These are just a couple examples of the contingencies that had been devised and I would love to hear of others that were used.  Of course we hope that something like this does not happen again, but if it does at least we can be prepared. I wonder if that is the silver lining? Or the 100s of new followers of the Biology Department on Twitter!

Engage your students: A SYDE Example — Samar Mohamed

Group 2 working with their TA, Justin Eitchel

What is student engagement and how can we achieve it? These questions are always in my mind. Heller et al state that:

 “Faculty stimulate engagement by providing students with active learning experiences, conveying excitement and enthusiasm for their subject, and providing opportunities for student-faculty interactions.  Students show their engagement by participating in class discussions, doing research projects, and interacting with their professors and peers.”

 An example of an engaging engineering course was discussed in a previous blog in which the course instructors used several blended activities to engage the students with their course material.

 Another example on engaging engineering courses is SYDE 411 “Optimization and Numerical Methods”, which is the focus of this blog. I have been working with Prof. Paul Calamai and his teaching team to design and implement engaging blended activities for their students. The designed activities satisfy the previously mentioned criteria by giving the students the opportunity to:

  • interact actively with both their peers and their teaching team
  • do research projects
  • participate in group discussion
  • provide constructive feedback to their peers
  • reflect on their own work

SyDe 411 is a new fourth year core Engineering course with an emphasis on understanding and applying numerical methods and optimization techniques as tools for problem solving and systems design. Students’ engagement with the course material is an important aspect of their learning. In order for them to be actively engaged with the course material, Professor Paul Calamai and his teaching team implemented several blended activities that were designed to keep the students engaged with each week’s topics and eager to learn more about these topics. Group Projects and Group Assignments are two main blended activities in this course:

Group Projects:

Prof. Calamai took the group project beyond the regular boundaries and created an enjoyable learning experience for everyone. The group project activity is summarized as follows:

  • Each group is responsible for a project topic that is worth 25% of the course total grade.
  • Each group researches a specific topic and submits:

o   Lecture notes on the topic including examples of application and/or demonstration.
o   One project topic Problem per group member with their solutions.

  • Groups are paired and dry run presentations between paired groups are conducted to provide the presenting group with feedback and recommendations for improvements.
  • The presenting group’s project is then posted to a discussion board and another group (reviewing group)  reviews it and provides the presenting group with questions and feedback through the discussion board. The presenting group is expected to respond to these questions during it’s presentation.
  • The presenting group delivers a 30 minutes presentation/lecture on it’s specific topic followed by 10 minutes for questions and answers.
  • Peer evaluation is conducted twice during the term among each group’s members using the “Comprehensive Assessment for Team-Member Effectiveness” CATME online tool. Peer evaluation provides the students with feedback regarding their effectiveness as team members throughout the academic term.

Group Assignments:

Prof. Calamai presented an interesting scenario for the group assignments in which the students engage with the material and come to the tutorial prepared and ready for the learning experience. The group assignment activity is summarized as follows:

The class is divided into groups in which each group, under the supervision of the TA, is responsible for solving and presenting their specific group assignment problems. Students are encouraged to prepare excellent solutions because a subset of these questions will contribute to parts of the Midterm and Final exams. Each student in the group prepares a solution to a specific assignment problem according to the following schedule:

  • Individual questions are sent by email to each student in Group X.
  • Each student submits the answer to his specific question/s to a dropbox.
  • Professor Calamai grades and gives personal independent feedback to the students.
  • The students submit a revised version of their answers to a dropbox.
  • After Professor Calamai approves the answers, the TA posts them to a discussion board so that the rest of the class can see them and ask for clarification.
  •  Group X will run the tutorial and facilitate a discussion around their assignment problems.

I think that SYDE 411 teaching team puts a lot of time and effort in providing an exciting and enjoyable learning experience to their students.

1-     R. S. Heller, C. Beil, K. Dam, and B. Haerum “Student and Faculty Perceptions of Engagement in Engineering”, Journal of Engineering Education, July 2010.

Writing Math: MathJax and Desire2Learn — Paul Kates, Oct 18, 2012

Please visit the MathJax and Desire2Learn page to read about writing mathematics using MathJax in the Desire2Learn course management system here at the University of Waterloo.

Paul Kates
Mathematics Faculty CTE Liaison, x37047

Introducing ePortfolios – Six Things to Help You Get Started- Katherine Lithgow

graphic by Carey, Penny Light and Kirker
ePortfolios and Integration

Our new learning management system, LEARN, includes an integrated ePortfolio.  EPortfolios can be used to help students make connections to learning experiences regardless of where those experiences occur. They can help students document their learning, see how they are developing over time, and make plans for future growth.  EPortfolios provide a space for students to reflect upon what they have learned in the classroom, in the workplace or in community and social environments, and provide evidence of how they have been able to apply skills and knowledge learned in one setting to another setting.

Since we’ve adopted LEARN this past year, there has been a significant increase in the number of instructors (and students) interested in using ePortfolios. Once instructors have decided they would like to use ePortfolios, the next question is often “So how do I go about incorporating the use of ePortfolios into my course or program?  What do I do next?”

Here are six things you can do which will go a long way to help ensure the best learning experience for both instructors and students using ePortfolios in a course or program. (Based upon presentation by Lithgow, K. and Penny Light, T. (2012). Six Degrees (or so) of Integration: What Students Have to Say about ePortfolios. Presented at the Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEEBL) Conference – “ePortfolios as a Catalyst for Connections: Celebrating the Curious, Creative and Capable Learner.”, Boston, MA.)*

  1. Introduce ePortfolios and Expectations Early
  2. Give ‘em Grades
  3. Provide Feedback (Early and Often)
  4. Respect disciplinary context
  5. Encourage meaning making
  6. Acknowledge that ePortfolios are a different way of providing evidence of learning


Unpacking the Process

  1. Introduce ePortfolios and Expectations Early– Let your students know as early as possible in the course that they will be using ePortfolios.       Outline what they will be expected to do and how the ePortfolios activities      will help them achieve goals and outcomes for the course or the program.  This can be done in a number of ways.  Show an example or examples of previous students’ work (with permission, of course!).  Show them an example of an ePortfolio  presentation that you’ve created which models your expectations.  Provide a rubric or statement of  expectations.
  2. Give ‘em Grades – Although we  would like our students to be intrinsically motivated, the reality  is the  majority of our students are motivated by marks.  The ePortfolio activities should be an   integral part of your course or program, not an add-on.  The mark assigned should reflect that this is a worthwhile activity.   ePortfolio activities which are most successful in terms of student buy-in and student learning are those where the time and effort expected  of the students is reflected in the weighting of the activity in the final  course mark.  The least successful and the least valued ePortfolio activities are those that are voluntary or are assigned minimal or bonus marks.
  3. Provide Feedback (Early and Often):      Incorporating reflective activities into the ePortfolio is an integral part of creating an ePortfolio presentation. Reflection is a learned  activity; receiving constructive feedback from classmates, instructors,  TA’s and mentors helps the student develop the capacity to reflect critically.   You can create opportunities for students to get feedback by having them submit their work in progress midway through the term.  Divide the students into small groups and have them peer-review      each other’s work-in- progress using a rubric or guideline of expectations      which you’ve provided.  This gives students the opportunity to see other examples and exposes them to  different perspectives. When students provide constructive feedback to others, they can consider ways to improve their own work prior to the  final submission.
  4. Respect disciplinary context- Students will see value in the ePortfolio activity when they can see how it will help them develop within the discipline.  The activity has to allow them to use the language, skills and knowledge of the discipline.  They have to understand how the activity will help them achieve program goals and outcomes.
  5. Encourage meaning making (making connections-reflection) – Give your students permission to make connections to other courses, other disciplines, to their work experience, volunteer experiences, and social and community environments.  Ask the students to explain what they’ve      learned and how that learning is personally meaningful to them. Create a      learning environment which provides them with a ‘safe place’ to share this      with classmates, mentors and instructors. Encourage them to examine what they’ve learned in their academic and non-academic environments and how that impacts their learning as a whole.  Ask them to reflect on past experiences-   what have they learned? How will this affect future actions?
  6. Acknowledge ePortfolios as a threshold – Asking students to explain what they’ve learned, provide evidence to support what they’ve learned, and demonstrate how they have achieved learning outcomes and goals you’ve set is not something students are accustomed to doing. Incorporating multimedia to  demonstrate this is very different than asking students to write an essay      or answer a multiple choice test.  Students are accustomed to getting things ‘right’, rather than being rewarded for focusing on the process of learning- part of which ncludes making mistakes. Providing early and often feedback helps them reassure them that they are on the right track or gives them the opportunity to get back on track.  Providing examples  of ePortfolios from previous students (with permission!), or showing how you, the instructor, have completed a particular section of the ePortfolio, provides guidance and structure that students will need when hey are first introduced to ePortfolios.  Provide a template or some sort of  structure in the early years- decrease this over time.  Take some time in class to review the  ePortfolio functionality to address technology related concerns.

Trent Batson has proposed the following definition – “ePortfolio technology enables learners to manage the complexity and variability of learning designs and opportunities in formal and informal settings in order to gather evidence of their resultant deep learning.” T. Batson. (2012, Sept.18).  Definition of “ePortfolio”. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

Interested in learning more?  Don’t hesitate to contact me

*Influences on our work include:

Cambridge, D., B. Cambridge and K. Yancey (eds.), Electronic Portfolios 2.0: Emergent Research on Implementation and Impact, Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2009.

Cambridge, Darren, Eportfolios for Lifelong Learning and Assessment, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Chen, H.L, and T. Penny Light, Electronic Portfolios and Student Success: Effectiveness, Efficiency, and Learning, Washington: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2010

Huber, M., and P. Hutchings, Integrative Learning: Mapping the Terrain, Washington D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2004.

Rodgers, Carol, “Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking,” Teachers College Record, 104, 4 (June, 2002): 842-866.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, Reflection in the Writing Classroom, Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1998.


Launching the new Instructor Resources Repository in the LOR of LEARN

The summer
is a great time for catching up on projects that get lost in the flurry of the busy fall and winter terms. With the roll out of LEARN (replacing UW-ACE) and all the associated changes and transitions that we have been facing, one part of the old UW-ACE system that is in my prevue and that was getting short shrift is the Instructor Resources Repository (IRR). However, with LEARN more on course and the slower pace of the spring term, I’m glad to say that we have almost completed the migration of the IRR to the Learning Object Repository (LOR) in LEARN. Continue reading Launching the new Instructor Resources Repository in the LOR of LEARN