The Challenges and Opportunities of University Administration: reflections from a Deanlet

A “Deanlet” is a cutesy name for an Associate Dean. I have no idea who came up with this title, but I first heard it from Terry McGlynn about a year ago, just before I started my first year as an Associate Dean of Student Affairs. Yes, it’s been a year. A very quick and exciting year. And a year is a good point to stop, pause and reflect on life as an Associate Dean*.

An Associate Dean is a level of the university administration just below a Dean (who typically oversees a Faculty). A Deanlet helps run a Faculty because there are too many bits and pieces for one person to handle. In my case, I oversee the affairs of undergraduate students in our Faculty (of which there are about 1,400 undergraduates). This includes recruitment efforts, aspects of student records, dealing with and helping students in academic difficulty, sitting on various committees at various levels in the University, working closely with my Faculty’s executive committee to help establish and oversee larger projects, and a myriad of other tasks (for example, reading names at convocation – something I get to do tomorrow!). In my role I spend a lot of time communicating and collaborating with students, staff, professors, and administrators. I see and experience many aspects of our Faculty.

So, let me report and reflect on three challenges with being a Deanlet, and three of the greatest opportunities that the position has offered me in the first year.

Challenges:

1) Perhaps the biggest challenge in my role has been learning how to help students in difficulty. Student wellness is a priority for me, but it’s not always easy to navigate and find the best solutions when students are struggling, and every situation is context-specific so few ‘generalities’ exist. Sometimes the struggles are academic, and sometimes they involve issues of mental or physical health. I’m often on the front line, and have to make difficult decisions: decisions that affect people. This can be stressful and difficult at times, and certainly means the work doesn’t always stay at the office. Thankfully I have received some excellent training, and have a great team to help, I feel supported, and I am gaining experience that will certainly help me into the future.

2) A second challenge is time management: I have meetings scheduled almost every day, and although they are worthwhile and important, they take time. I remain active as a teacher and a researcher, and I will continue to have a lab and teach my classes, but it can be difficult to balance everything. Before becoming a Deanlet I had a high degree of flexibility in my schedule, which is something many Professors value. However, that flexibility is much diminished, and it has required a lot of adapting. I have no regrets and I expected this (and no, I’m NOT complaining about how busy I am), but I would be lying if I didn’t state that this year has been a big adjustment. The other issue around time management is that when many hours are spent in meetings, this means squeezing other work into weird times of the day.

3) Being a Deanlet sometimes places me in a position of having navigate collegiality: being a colleague in one circumstance, but an Associate Dean in another, can be a challenge. I sometime have to make decisions that do not always please my colleagues (e.g., here’s a new policy XYZ that required you to change how you fill in paperwork XYZ), but also collaborate with my colleagues in research projects, in teaching and on committees. Another example is when a student brings an issue to my attention, perhaps in reference to a grade they received – I sometimes need to bring this to the attention of an instructor and these are not necessary simple or easy discussions. We are all adults, of course, but there is sometimes a divide between administrators and academics, and a professor who is an administrator (this is more-or-less the model at my institution) needs to be cognizant of the different hats, when to wear them, and how to strike the right balance. That being said, I can honestly say that my colleagues have truly been collegial. In my opinion, our institution runs relatively smoothly and effectively in part because our administrators keep one foot in the classroom and research lab.

Opportunities:

1) It may sound cliché, but the best part of my Deanlet position is the people I get to interact with. A professor sees students in a classroom or research lab, and interacts with her or his peers, and certainly a Departmental chair, on a regular basis. A Deanlet gets to do this, and more: I see students for a suite of reasons (beyond teaching), and I meet Profs from many different corners of the University, largely because of the University-level committees I sit on. I also work in an office with *amazing* staff, who really run the show! These are individuals deeply committed to the University, and who have the students’ best interests in mind. A university runs well because of its staff, and the Deanlet appointment has afforded me very new and important perspectives on this. In general, Academic staff do not always appreciate the administrative and support staff, and the stresses and challenges they face. This is among the most valuable lesson that my Deanlet appointment has given me so far.

2) The second reason being a Deanlet is a great opportunity is because it places you in a position to understand the inner workings of a University. I have been able to see how the different arms of the University operate, and been in a position to compare and contrast operations in different Faculties with those in my own. It has allowed me wonderful insights into my institution, and allowed me to be an active player in the future directions of my Faculty, something I had hoped to do as part of this appointment. It is sometimes easy to criticize the ‘administration’ from the outside, but once being part of the process, I am much more sympathetic and sensitive to the reasons why some processes, policies and procedures are a certain way, and I am learning about how the system of collegiality at a University works to make change, and why that change sometimes takes time.

3) From a more selfish reason, a valuable gift of my Deanlet appointment is the constant learning it has provided: every day is different, there are always new projects, and the academic year brings different waves of activity, with each wave bringing its own sense of adventure. I’m the sort of person who thrives on variation, and thrives on new problems to solve, whether it be learning the finer points of a student assessment policy, or figuring out the best wording for recruitment materials. A University is a complex place, and delightful in this complexity. University Administration is another set of doors, levers and handles, and figuring out what they all do, and where they all go, is a good fit for me.

I hope this post provides some insights into the role of an Associate Dean in a University (don’t believe everything you read!). Of course, every University is different, and many of the challenges and opportunities will depend on institutional contexts and culture, but I would also think that some of the challenges and opportunities are relatively general (any Associate Dean’s out there wish to comment, below?). When others are afforded the opportunity for administrative appointments, I hope it’s considered seriously, as it’s certainly been a rewarding experience for me.

I will end with a sincere thanks to all the people who have supported me over the past year. The learning curve has been steep but my colleagues, staff, mentors, and my family have been patient and supportive. I’m excited and feeling ready for the years ahead.

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* I’m not 100% sure why I wrote and published this post. And it was one that I wavered on for a while. However, I suppose it’s a way to time stamp my own thoughts, for selfish reasons – at the end of my term as a Deanlet, in four years from now, it will be interesting to see how my perspectives change. Perhaps it also because many people don’t know what a Deanlet does and I wanted to provide a glimpse into this portfolio.

A University in the future

What will the University of 2050 look like?

This was the fundamental question that guided a three day workshop /conference /event that I attended last weekend (you may have seen some activity on Twitter about this!). It’s a very difficult question, but an important one! Conference attendees prototyped a future university but did this in a very structured way, starting with a discussion (on the first day) about the “core values” that need to remain in University 35 years from now. There was general convergence around these values: critical thinking and unfettered curiosity, access & freedom of expression, diversity, community, and the importance of person-to-person interaction.

The second day was devoted to discussions about “game changers” – broader factors that might challenge the core values of Universities. These game changers included external factors such as shifting geopolitics or environmental catastrophes, to technological advancement such as artificial intelligence, “holodecks”, cognitive enhancement or ever-increasing life expectancy (and its implications), or some kind of Black Swan event.

Day three was about designing a future University given the core values and given the influence of game changers.

Here’s my group’s vision* for an institute of Higher Education in 2050: an institute we called “Horizon University”.

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Horizon University is still a campus, but is part of a globally connected network of Universities. Campus remains as a physical space for intellectual discussion, social engagement, clubs, activities, and a safe space for its students. The students themselves are from around the world, and many are returning to University after holding down a first (or second) career for many years. Although many students may attend HU classes virtually, there will still be students who will be present, physically, in classes. There are no longer large lecture halls, and instead HU is comprised of suites of collaborative learning spaces. Enrolment in a class may be large but the number of participants in each room remains small: the instructor’s avatar can move among the rooms. Students are paired with peers in most activities, and collaborative learning is the norm.

Our group's visual representation of Horizon University, warts and all.

Our group’s visual representation of Horizon University, warts and all.

Failure is also the norm: the process of learning takes precedence. The instructor is less a “professor” and more of a facilitator, largely because the sum of all information is at everyone’s fingertips (or implanted in our neuro-cortex). The classes are mostly “topic” or “project” based, because Universities are nimble, agile, and a place in which research and teaching are focused on society’s needs and struggles, although there remains places and spaces to discover for the sake of discovery. Professors still exist as subject experts, but are never working in isolation. Learning is truly interdisciplinary.

Classes run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and individuals from outside of HU may (virtually) drop into classes that are of interest to them. Many of the administrative functions of HU itself are largely run with the help of AI (artificial intelligence). In fact, AI acts as a type of “virtual assistant” for students: helping students schedule and get to class, checking in on their health and wellbeing, and doing the (objective) course assessments (i.e., to divorce this from the act of instruction), and doing the credentialing (assuming some kind of “degree” is still granted). The AI assistant can pick up on cues related to student wellbeing, and help get a student in to see a real person whether it is for counselling, advice, or to meet the facilitator for a course they are following.

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Our group then assessed what important actions would be required to see Horizon University come to fruition, and we felt there needed to be, in this order, (1) equality (ie, at a global scale), (2) teams of people to develop AI, (3) interdisciplinarity (within and among institutions) (4) rethinking the concept of “9 to 5″ to the concept of “24/7″ education, and (5) complete redesign of all learning spaces.

We then thought about the feasibility of those five actions, into the future, and came up with the following order: (1) learning spaces, (2) AI development, (3) 24/7 scheduling, (4) interdisciplinarity, and (5) Equality

Clearly feasibility doesn’t align with the importance of the actions, which is itself interesting, and challenging!

Caveats: I don’t believe everything we came up with, nor should you. Our group didn’t agree all of the time, and there are certainly some rather large flaws in some of the ideas, the logic, and the entire model may not be economically feasible.

But it doesn’t matter: it’s about the discussion. It’s about reflecting on the things we value in a university and the challenges we face. It’s about charting a path forward in an increasingly technological age and an age where research and knowledge is moving in new directions and where we are questioning fundamental concepts around teaching and leaning. Prototyping a University in 2050 is about starting a conversation and being part of an incredibly exciting time.

On a more personal level, the most valuable part of the experience was learning from people from different places, different career stages, and from different perspectives. The conference included writers, artists, computer programmers, undergrad and grad students from a suite of disciplines (e.g., humanities, social sciences, and STEM), professors, university administrators and more. It forced me to open my mind, listen, and reflect on my own biases. There is so much value in diversity, and tackling questions about the future of University means bringing in as many stakeholders as possible.

I leave you with a few questions:

What do you envision as the future of your own institution?

What are your ideas about how to maintain core values of a university in the face of game-changers?

How can technology facilitate higher education?

Have you had this discussion at your own institutions? If so, what have you learned?

Please join the discussion. And you can follow the Event Horizon Blog here.

Postscript: the day after the conference I did some field work in an amazing forest near Montebello Quebec (see photo, below). What a contrast after three days of intense discussions, full of technology, data and information! I breathed in fresh air, watched some butterflies for a while, heard the birds singing and there was no cell reception. It was wonderful, refreshing and uplifting. This had me reflecting a bit more about a University of the future, and how that University should perhaps be much more closely integrated with our natural systems. That would be a good goal.

The forest.

The forest.

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*  I hope I have adequately described the key aspects of our group’s vision – it was more detailed then what I have presented, and I wholeheartedly admit that my writing may not reflect everyone’s opinion of our prototype University. (Sorry if this is the case!)

© C.M. Buddle (2015)

Expanding boundaries and increasing diversity by teaching with technology

“As teachers, technology encourages us to be more creative, more influential, and more mindful of the implicit and explicit impacts our words have on students, and to explore new ways to make our classrooms more diverse”.

That’s a quote from a paper by Josh Drew, published last week. In this paper, Drew provides some fascinating case studies about how teaching with technology can help break down some strong barriers in higher education, with a focus on STEM disciplines. For example, students from the LGTBQ community, visible minorities, and other marginalized groups are often at a distinct disadvantage in a university context, whether it’s lack of access, finances, support, or mentorship. Drew argues that teaching with attention to this problem, and in a way that embraces diversity, is critically important, but is also a challenge. Technology can be a potential facilitator for this, and help overcome the challenge. To help other instructors, we need creative ideas, approaches and case studies, which is what Drew provides.

In the first case study, Drew gives an example of a marine conservation course that pairs students from a poor neighbourhood of Chicago with students from Fiji and through online resources, student learn content together, and do group projects with their peers. I was most impressed with how the capstone project in this course meant the students needed to problem solve with other students who were from entirely different cultures – something that is very difficult in a more traditional classroom setting. Typical courses in STEM seldom embrace a learning context that literally connects students from around the world.

The second case study focuses on how Drew used Twitter to continue teaching at Columbia University after hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, and many students could not get to class. Students were given access to class notes via Figshare, and lectures were delivered in 140 character packets. Given the open format, the tweets could be viewed by anyone in the world, which created an inclusive learning environment for everyone, whether registered in the class, or not. Although this is a more indirect way of teaching with attention to diversity, Drew argues that Twitter is an effective tool to help break down barriers and can be used effectively to increase student engagement. (The Twitter course was, by the way, how I got to know Josh Drew on Twitter, and his example helped me shape my own teaching with Twitter).

Active Learning: Watisoni Lalavanua (l) and Josh Drew (r) [tweeting!] at the Suva Fish Market, identifying species and talking about the best way to manage fisheries based in their life histories.

Active Learning: Watisoni Lalavanua (l) and Josh Drew (r) [tweeting!] at the Suva Fish Market, identifying species and talking about the best way to manage fisheries based in their life histories.

The third case study was a hands-on marine conservation workshop in Fiji, held jointly by Columbia University and the University of the South Pacific. The “real world” aspect of the course was facilitated by simple and inexpensive scientific equipment, and had a focus on open-access data by the participants. Of note, the students in the workshop were from six different countries, brought together to work on conservation priorities of relevance to the South Pacific. This case study certainly resonated with me, as I try to have my students tackle projects in the field (with all its challenges) as this provides a rich learning opportunity for all. However, unlike my course in Montreal, Drew’s example includes a very unique cultural experience for the participants. Teaching and learning in different places certainly embraces diversity in STEM, and although not always practical or feasible, such opportunities should be sought and supported.

In sum, Drew’s paper resonated strongly for a few reasons. The case studies are themselves great examples for all of us involved in teaching in higher education. The technological aspects are relatively straightforward and inexpensive, and many of tools highlighted are accessible. I appreciated his arguments at the end of the paper about ensuring accessibility; instructors must pay attention to ensuring class participants are able to get and use the tools, especially when thinking about students access to computers, smartphones, data plans and WIFI.

Perhaps the part that spoke to me the most was thinking about how technology can be a facilitator for increased diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom. I must be honest in saying that I don’t typically consider my own teaching with technology thought this lens, but I am now starting to look at this differently. Not all students from all communities will face a traditional classroom in the same say, and the “podium style” of teaching and learning in higher education may really marginalize some people more than they already are. Online classrooms, Twitter and active learning in partnership with peers are great examples of ways to open up our universities regardless of potential constraints, whether they be economics, race, culture or gender identification.

Thanks, Josh Drew, for making me pause and reflect, and for giving us all some good ideas.

Reference:

 Drew, J. Using technology to expand the classroom in time, space and diversity. Integr. Comp. Biol. (2015) doi: 10.1093/icb/icv044

How to become an Arachnologist

So you want to be an Arachnologist?

You just need to immerse yourself in the world of eight-legs: read, watch, connect, share & study.

I recently did an interview with a high school student from Indiana, who wanted to be an Arachnologist. This is not a common occurrence, in terms of a high school student expressing interest in this field of study, and because there are actually relatively few Arachnologists out there to act as role models!

I Tweeted about the interview, and a few people were quite intrigued by this, and asked me how they could train to be an arachnologist: a question worthy of a blog post! So, here are some thoughts and ideas, separating into three categories: elementary school, high school and finally, students entering college or University.

The younger years:

Kids like bugs. Children are naturally fascinated by arachnids: often not exhibiting as much fear as adults. They are curious, keen observers, and sponges for neat factoids about spiders and their relatives. At this age, responsibility for fostering arachnophiles really falls upon parents and teachers. Within the classroom, teachers should be encouraged to take kids outside, think about doing units/projects about natural history, and see about getting special activities into the classroom that focus on ‘biodiversity’. To me, it matters less that these activities are about spiders (or insects), but that they are celebrations of the natural world. It’s about keeping kids keen on the natural world continually engaged and interested in the natural world.

Parents can do a lot outside of the home – connecting with local naturalist clubs could help connect youngsters with some mentors and experts. Getting kids out to “Bug shows” is also a great idea – these are sometimes done through local museums, colleges or community centres. I always like to scroll through photos from these kinds of events: you can really see the enthusiasm on kids’ faces! Birthday parties could also be an opportunity to bring in biologists instead of clowns or princesses. A few quick web searches will reveal a suite of amazing workshops out there.

Bug shows: keeping kids exciting about arthropods. Photo by Sean McCann.

Bug shows: keeping kids exciting about arthropods. Photo by Sean McCann.

The teenage years:

I currently have two teenagers in my house, and this is a very interesting age: an age where habits get set, interests develop, and passions for hobbies either solidify or disappear. In the classroom setting this is where some students can really get turned on to science and biology, and for those keen on natural history, most students find the curriculum doesn’t satisfy as they are looking for a lot more. The high school student who interviewed me is a good example: she wanted to take courses more related to insects and spiders but such courses just don’t exist at high school – if lucky, they may just show up as part of the biology unit.

For those teenagers wanting to become arachnologists, some work is required. It may be possible to connect with local naturalists, or perhaps the nearest museum or college/University. These places may help facilitate the interests, and may even allow opportunities to have volunteers work with an insect of arachnid collection. Getting into an actual lab or research museum could be a positive life-changing experience for a teenager, but certainly isn’t an opportunity available to everyone.

I think during the teenage years the Internet and social media are invaluable tools. Heaps of information is available thought organizations such as the American Arachnological Society, or the International Society of Arachnology. Facebook groups or Twitter can also be a great way to connect with other Arachnologists: I personally use Twitter all the time to discuss spiders with colleagues from around the world, and these networks can also help spread the news about exciting discoveries in Arachnology.

Unfortunately it is rather difficult to recommend specific “spider courses” for teenagers wanting to become arachnologists. Instead, becoming an arachnologist at this age is really about learning what you can, wherever you can, and trying to connect with other arachnologists. For those wanting more academic pursuits, the best advice I can give to aspiring arachnologists is to become a good naturalist: observe, record, and be fascinated about the natural world. Good things will always come from this! In school, take the sciences and maths, especially biology, and when it’s time to head to College or University, think about selecting one that offers some courses in entomology.

Arachnologists get to study these cool things... Photo by Sean McCann.

Arachnologists get to study these cool things… Photo by Sean McCann.

Off to college!

There are virtually no Arachnology programs at colleges or Universities, and instead college student should look to the sister discipline of Entomology. Many (most?) Universities offer some introductory entomology courses, and in these courses it may be possible to get some exposure to Arachnology. The instructors of these course can probably help point to other resources or local people with additional expertise or interest in arachnids.

When seeking an undergrad program, I do advise aspiring arachnologists to take a strong Biology or Zoology Major: this will give a great grounding and foundation and be perfect for a springboard to graduate school. It’s certainly worth considering selecting a University that has an entomology program, or at least a Department or solid offerings of insect-themed courses, and has some arthropod-themed research happening.

If time and money permits, there are some “spider courses” out there and perhaps it’s worth taking one of those (although I have never taken one, I have heard they can be quite worthwhile). At the very least, do LOTS of reading, including books like The Biology of Spiders and field guides like Rich Bradley’s (for North America), and stay active on social media.

Becoming an arachnologist is about finding good mentors: these people may or may not be arachnologists, but their encouragement and support is so important and can change lives. This was certainly the case for me, and an entomologist at University of Guelph helped facilitate my interests in Arachnids and gave me a desk to work at, and offered plenty of encouragement. My independent undergraduate research project about spiders set me on a path to becoming an arachnologist.

It’s a bit of a shame, and a bit of a mystery that Arachnology just doesn’t show up on the radar for very much of K-12 nor does it show up in undergraduate programs: becoming an arachnologist with a deeper level of training really happens at graduate school, so for those who are really passionate about arachnids may need to take a long view and plan on moving on to a Master’s degree. This certainly doesn’t mean you can’t be an arachnologist in other ways! (Some great Arachnologists I know don’t have advanced degrees). However, the more advanced training can help formalize and structure the learning process.

Meet Catherine! She's an Arachnologist, and is searching for spiders... Photo by Sean McCann

Meet Catherine! She’s an Arachnologist, and is searching for spiders… Photo by Sean McCann

How do you know you are an Arachnologist?

This is a great question, and a difficult one to answer! There certainly isn’t a certificate or plaque that you get once you become trained as an Arachnologist. As you accumulate knowledge you will also realize that there is so much we don’t know about Arachnids. New species are described all the time, and we continually hear amazing stories about their natural history. Expertise is all relative, and once some expertise is acquired, the limits of our knowledge become exposed.

You don’t need to publish in scientific journals or do experiments on spiders to become an Arachnologist. You do have to learn some biology and arachnid natural history, and do your best to share what your know with others. Bottom line: once you have acquired enough knowledge about Arachnids, and people start looking to you for advice and answers to their own questions about our eight-legged friends, you can probably call yourself an Arachnologist.

So, to sum it up: to become an Arachnologist you need to read, watch, connect, share & study.

But..

Are there jobs for Arachnologists? That’s a topic for another post…

 

Robb Bennett: a most exceptionally wonderful person (and Arachnologist). Photo by Sean McCann.

Robb Bennett: a most exceptionally wonderful person (and Arachnologist). Photo by Sean McCann.

 

 

Do students do better when they write exams faster (or slower)?

As I was grading my final exams last week, I wondered about ‘quantity’ of answers to written questions as opposed to ‘quality’ of the answer: in other words, some students write a lot of stuff for an answer, but could have received full points on a question without filling a page with tiny handwriting. Here’s what I tweeted about this.

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 12.09.46 PM

The students that fill the page certainly take longer to complete an examination, and this reminded me of a little project I did many years ago* about the speed at which students write their exams relative to the grade they received on that exam. For one of my larger undergraduate classes the final exam is meant to be about a two hour exam, but some students finish in just over an hour, and some students wait until we take the exam from them at the end of the three hour exam period.

One year I tracked the order that students forwarded me their exams and after the course was over I plotted their grade on that exam relative to the time it took them to complete the exam**. I’ve always wondered whether or not students who finish quickly are the ones that really know the material, or whether the ones who take the longest are so careful to check and re-check everything that they tend to do better than their peers. Here are the results:

A grade on an exam relative to the order in which that exam was handed in.

A grade on an exam relative to the order in which that exam was handed in.

Bottom line: there is NO relationship.

Some students write an exam quickly and do very, very well. Some students simply do not know the material, and write the exam quickly and hand it in early. Some students stay to the bitter end and do very well. For some students, staying to the end doesn’t help their grade. And, of course, a lot of students are in the middle.

This was a good little project to do, and actually helps me as an instructor. It helps me to NOT judge a student by the speed at which they write the exam. It provides a reminder that everyone works at their own speed, and will do poorly, or very well, even if they write quickly or slowly.

The other lesson this teaches me is that it’s important to have an exam length that aims for the middle ground. A three hour examination that takes the ‘fastest’ students three hours just isn’t fair. Every student is different and need different amounts of time to read, digest, think and answer questions. Assessments are always tricky business, but one overarching goal of assessments is to test about how well a student may be able to recall content, integrate that content, perhaps do calculations, and think about the material that was discussed in the classroom. Assessments shouldn’t be used as a means to weed-out poor students, especially when the ‘tool’ for this is the length and size of an examination.

Good students write exams quickly or slowly, and should be allowed the time to do so.

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*To preserve anonymity around this project, I will not comment on what class it was, or where I was working at the time, and the data are presented in relative terms (i.e., the actual scale is not presented)

**The order was tracked by writing a small number in the top corner of the front page of the exam as students handed in the exam: I did not look at or see this number when I graded the exam, to ensure I would not be biased or influenced by that number when I was grading. The scatter plot was done weeks after the final grades were submitted.

 

© C. M. Buddle (2015)

The effects of Twitter on student engagement and learning

There are lots of ‘feel good’ stories about using Twitter in teaching, and I’ve long been a supporting of using social media in undergraduate classes. But does it work…? What effects does Twitter have on learning?

An example of a student Tweet, used to promote their blog post.

An example of a student Tweet, used to promote their blog post.

This was a question we decided to tackle in my field biology class, and recently, in a collaboration with Lauren Soluk (as part of her graduate work), we surveyed students about using Twitter in the classroom*. Here are the take-home messages from the work:

  • Students Tweeted over 200% more than what was required as part of the course work
  • Students used Twitter in many different ways, from informal communication, to promoting their own blogs, to asking questions of each other or of the course instructors and TA.
  • Students used Twitter to communicate with their instructor or TA 56% of the time, with their peers 27% of the time, and with people external to the course 17% of the time.
  • 94% of students felt that among-group communication was beneficial (i.e., either ‘yes” or ‘somewhat’) to their learning, and 78% of students surveyed felt Twitter increased this among-group communication.
  • When asked whether Twitter had an impact on how they engaged with the course content, 67% of the students answered ‘yes’ or ‘somewhat’.
  • When asked whether Twitter is a good tool to help student learn in the classroom,  78% of the students answered ‘yes’ or ‘somewhat’.
A learning community: One student group Tweeting at another student group, to ask them a question.

A learning community: One student group Tweeting at another student group, to ask them a question.

Interesting, most students surveyed said they wouldn’t continue to use Twitter after the class was over. They certainly preferred other tools (e.g., Facebook) to Twitter. Despite this, the students felt Twitter useful in the context of the field biology class, and could see its value independent of their own personal views.

Overall, the results are impressive, and suggests there are good reasons to consider using social media tools such as Twitter, in a University class. It’s certainly not a tool for everyone (and there are important guidelines to consider), nor would it be useful in all contexts, but it clearly serves an important role in my field biology class. Twitter allows students to engage with different audiences, and helps create a rather novel learning community: a community that can include experts from around the world.

A question asked by students, over Twitter

A question asked by students, over Twitter

The answer... from an expert from a different country.

The answer… from an expert from a different country.

Reference:

*Soluk, L & CM Buddle Tweets from the forest: using Twitter to increase student engagement in an undergraduate field biology course [v1; ref status: awaiting peer review]

Note: this paper is currently awaiting peer review – please consider reading the full paper and providing a review! 

 

Student for a day (Part 3): operation dissection

This is the third and final post about going back to the classroom: you can find the first post here and the second one here.

We rushed from the lecture hall to the basement of the main teaching complex on campus. I walked down the hall towards the lab, that old familiar smell was in the air: it was the “face-muscle dissection day” in Comparative Anatomy. This took me immediately back to my undergraduate days at the University of Guelph.  There were just over a dozen students in the lab, and the ‘specimens’ (I shall NOT mention what they were!) were sitting on stainless steel lab tables, with the dissection gear at the ready. Scalpel? CHECK. Forceps? CHECK. Scissors? CHECK. It was operation: dissection. I was nervous…. then I was handed rubber gloves and a labcoat. I was WAY out of my element…

The instructor started with an extremely detailed 45 minute lecture, providing an excellent overview of the game-plan for the dissections: the expectations of the students was exceedingly clear, and the instructor’s own deep expertise was obvious.

Checking the notes before the dissection commences...

Checking the notes before the dissection commences…

And then the music went on (yes, music! One of the TAs always picks a lovely selection to work to) and the clang of forceps, scalpels scissors started: the students were off, peeling skin and searching for ever-elusive face muscles. It was hard and tedious work: after 30+ minutes our team had only just begun to expose the first layer of muscles. The students expressed how tough the class was, and how it took an incredible amount of time to study their notes after labs. In addition to their own notes, the textbook, and the laboratory notes, my team was taking photos with their smartphones, and taking some videos to use as future study aids. They have a test coming up soon, and were working hard to remember the content and link the ‘thing’ to the ‘name’. I asked the students why they were taking such a challenging course… surely it was required for their program? It turns out that the course wasn’t required, and the students were taking it because they wanted to. It was one of their favourite classes because it involved ‘doing’ things and involved experiential learning on a topic they were deeply interested in (animal biology). The act of dissecting was how they were learning, and the act of dissecting allowed them to really understand how animals work: from the shape and size of salivary glands, to why certain muscles were more developed than others, or how whiskers are embedded deep under the skin surface.

At one point I looked at the clock and was amazed that a full hour had already passed. I looked up from our specimen (and yes, my lab partners had given it a name…) and did a scan of the laboratory: everyone was hunched over, smiling, and now and then you heard ‘COOL’ and ‘WOW’. They were learning together, learning by doing, and loving it. They loved the challenge of the class and they weren’t watching the clock.

I had to leave and get back to my office, and the instructor came up afterwards to say thanks. I was told that never before had another instructor or Prof stepped into the classroom to see what they were doing. That’s a shame.

With my lab partners.

With my lab partners.

I come away from my “student for a day” experience with some vivid memories, new perspectives, and the following take-home messages:

  • There’s a lot of material! Wow, there was a lot of material! The students are learning a very high volume of content, and this happens day after day after day. No wonder they are sometimes stressed and fall behind. As Profs, we need to perhaps better recognize and respect work loads.
  • Different teaching styles are valuable: from lectures to discussions to hands-on laboratories, the variation was much appreciated. It would be tough sitting through six straight hours of lecture, but varying it between different formats works very well. Education is not, and should not *ever* be uniform. One shoe doesn’t fit all, and there is incredible value to ensuring our students get the variation in educational styles.
  • Spaces are important, perhaps more so than I appreciated before: the physical space itself had a great influence on my time as a student, from the angle of the screen to the placement of the door. The little things matter and the space is a key partner in learning. Variation in available spaces must match variation in different types of courses and instructors. We need big and small lecture halls, well-equipped laboratories, and collaborative learning spaces.
  • Students are bright, motivated, serious, and have high expectations: this is good to recognize. I already felt this about students on my campus, but seeing this first hand in three different classes confirmed my suspicions. We should maintain rigor and approach each course with an expectation that the audience is ready to learn and ready to be engaged.
  • Instructors always rush around from class to class and meeting to meeting, but we sometimes forget that students need to rush around too! There isn’t always time in their schedule to eat, line up for the washroom, or physically get from one classroom to another. This is a reminder for me to end class when it’s supposed to end, and be a little more forgiving when students come in a little bit late.

In sum, I will do this again, and would urge my colleagues to do the same. It’s important to see what students see, learn about different approaches to the classroom, and be sensitive to a full timetable and to the high workload that students experience.

A very special thanks to the students who allowed me to tag along: you were patient, kind, and made the experience extra-special.