A turning point for teaching

Increasingly, students are listening to their course lectures on their laptops, far from campus. The emergence of MOOCs (massive open online courses) looks to be a game-changer. What does this all mean for the future of university teaching?

by Patrick McDonagh


Macdonald Professor of Chemistry David Harpp was impressed. One of his students had managed to score the top marks in two of Harpp’s courses, each of them with enrolments of about 500 students. Harpp approached the young man to congratulate him on his remarkable feat.

“When I asked him how he did so well, he looked nervous, shuffled his feet a bit, and then admitted that he hadn’t attended a single class in either course,” recalls Harpp. “[He] had relied entirely on the recorded lectures we had posted online. He watched the classes on his computer, took notes, and reviewed the material he didn’t understand.”

Harpp is a pioneer of advanced teaching technologies at McGill, having recorded all of his course lectures for the past 13 years. His story illustrates one of the changes facing university teachers, as technology transforms the traditional classroom.

A new dynamic in the classroom


Anila Asghar, an associate professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education, chats with a student (Photo: Owen Egan)

Today, McGill has more than 50 classrooms equipped with a Lecture Recording System (LRS) that can record lectures and post them online. The recordings allow students in about 350 different courses to review the course material at their own pace – possibly without attending class at all.

Other recent innovations include “clickers” that allow students to respond en masse to questions posed by professors – enabling a teacher to assess on the fly how well students are comprehending the material being presented – and “flipped classrooms,” in which students listen to recorded lectures beforehand, so that class time can be freed up for more intellectually stimulating exchanges.

But what impact might these changes have on the qualities that define a good teacher? After all, one respected model of an effective learning environment hasn’t altered since Socrates gathered together some bright Athenian youth at the agora: a teacher, some students, and lively discussion.

Harpp, who holds the Tomlinson Chair in Science Education, has won pretty much every major teaching award available at McGill, including the University’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Learning. His teaching abilities have also been widely recognized outside McGill. His many awards include a 3M Teaching Fellowship, Canada’s top prize for university teaching. While Harpp might have been an early proponent of using technology in classrooms, he insists the key ingredient to good teaching isn’t something you can download onto a laptop.

“You need empathy for students. As a teacher, I ask myself if I would want to be in a class I’m teaching,” he says. “If I got 95 per cent in every course I took, I might not fathom why students couldn’t understand triple integrals and calculus and so forth. But I didn’t get those grades.”

Student-driven learning


Teaching is never a one-way dynamic. Students must be engaged in their own intellectual growth. “The learner needs to have control over the learning process, and the teacher’s job is to support them as they gain that control,” says Anila Asghar, an associate professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education and the winner of the Faculty of Education’s 2013 Heather Reisman and Gerald Schwartz Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Asghar’s students are training to become science teachers, so her work has a ripple effect. “If I ask them to build a speakerphone, they have to investigate engineering principles. So, instead of me teaching them content, they must discover what they don’t know and what they need to know. Content learning still comes in, but is student-driven.”

The process can be time-consuming. “You have to be patient and flexible in working with [the students], and give them the space to make mistakes, while supporting them so they eventually achieve the skills you want them to achieve.”

A similar approach is endorsed by George McCourt, MSc(Agr)’94, a faculty lecturer with the McGill School of Environment, and the winner of multiple teaching awards, including the 2013 Macdonald Campus Award for Teaching Excellence. Some of the courses that McCourt teaches probe multidisciplinary terrain. “I’m not [always] an expert in these fields, so when students ask me to supervise projects, I say, ‘Fine, you do the research and be the teacher, and I’m going to be the student.’ I pose questions about why they are pursuing a particular line of investigation, but I facilitate more than teach,” he says. “I’m a huge believer in applied student-centred research.”

Big doesn’t have to be bad

John Lydon, the 2013 winner of the Faculty of Science’s Leo Yaffe Award for Excellence
in Teaching, employs some out-of-the-ordinary demonstrations in his lectures
(Photo: Owen Egan)

Large, introductory courses involving hundreds of students have a reputation for being tough on both teachers and students. Still, psychology professor John Lydon, the 2013 winner of the Faculty of Science’s Leo Yaffe Award for Excellence in Teaching, refuses to accept the notion that meaningful connections can’t occur in classes with large enrolments. “I don’t make the assumption that a room of more than 50 people has a wall to communication.”

Lydon currently teaches “Introduction to Social Psychology” to a class of 650 students, but he regularly shrinks the classroom by strolling through the lecture hall with a wireless mike – an approach that has prompted comparisons to former TV talk show host Phil Donahue.

His lectures also feature out-of-the-ordinary demonstrations involving students. “I was teaching a three-hour evening class that finished at 8:30 pm, and when I arrived home, one of my daughters confronted me and asked, ‘Dad, what did you do tonight?’”

Lydon had set up a demonstration involving a test of gender differences – one that was rigged so that the male student would do better than the female one. “It ended with me standing on the desk holding up this stick and saying, ‘Men are superior!’ And my daughter received a photo of me caught in the act.”

Indeed, the image circulated through the cell phones and inboxes of many students who had never set foot in a Lydon lecture. But in the classroom, after the laughter subsided, the real lesson began. Lydon asked his students why they seemed so unconvinced by his declaration; they then identified a host of flaws that gave the man an unfair advantage. “I wanted them to understand the kind of critical assessment they need when looking at gender biases in research,” he explains. The demonstration was instrumental in getting students engaged with the topic.

The rise of the MOOCs


Today’s students come into the University fluent in the ways of digital communication. “Our students are digital natives. They’re used to these technologies being part of their environment, and we have to deal with it,” says Provost Anthony Masi. That being said, Masi acknowledges that “we just don’t know what impact [these new technologies] have on how students learn.” The research on this phenomenon is still in its early days.

The most buzzed-about IT innovation in university pedagogy, the massive open online course (or, as it’s more commonly known, the MOOC), may provide some answers.

MOOCs are new: The first one was offered in 2008 by two professors who designed a University of Manitoba course on learning and connectivity. They taught a small seminar on campus and then offered it online to anyone wanting to audit it. The idea quickly caught fire. A scant five years later, three major consortia – Coursera, Udacity and edX – are offering a plethora of online university courses, dealing with everything from introductory paleontology to contemporary literature. McGill formally entered the world of MOOCs in April when it joined edX, a consortium founded by Harvard and MIT in 2012.

While some educational experts suspect that the appeal of MOOCs will be short-lived (in a report prepared for the British Columbia Institute of Technology, an award-winning BCIT teacher with experience in online education predicts that MOOCs will be “a flash in the pan”), there is ample evidence to suggest that there is no shortage of prospective students interested in a MOOC experience. The total number of students enrolled in Harvard courses on edX recently topped 500,000.

MOOCs represent a comprehensive experiment in digital education, and one of edX’s aims is to gather information to better understand how students function in a completely digital environment. Those findings can be applied to classes at McGill, says Masi. “With the right data and analysis, we will be able to learn how information technologies are affecting the face-to-face education that takes place in our bricks-and-mortar environment. With edX, we have access to tools developed by people who have been thinking about these things in ways we haven’t yet.”

McGill-made MOOCs

David Harpp, McGill’s Tomlinson Chair in Science Education, is part of the teaching
team for the University’s first MOOC in January (Photo: Owen Egan)

“We are excited about the possibility of learning from the MOOC experience things we can transfer to the campus environment,” stresses Laura Winer, the associate director of Teaching and Learning Services at McGill. Winer heads the team that is managing McGill’s initial MOOC offerings. Each course will run for about 13 weeks, like most regular McGill classes. All McGill MOOCs are expected to meet the same academic standards as regular McGill courses.

January will see McGill launch its first MOOC, “Food for Thought,” a course examining the science of what we eat, taught by Harpp and his Office for Science and Society colleagues Ariel Fenster, PhD’73, and Joe Schwarcz, BSc’69, PhD’74 – McGill’s uploaded course veterans. But all involved insist that an uploaded course is not a MOOC. “The distinction between McGill’s uploaded courses and the MOOC is analogous to that of a filmed play and a movie, and the uploaded format of [‘Food for Thought’] is like a filmed play. We plan to make the movie of the course,” explains Winer. “Ultimately, we aim to develop outstanding resources that can also be used by professors and students on campus as well.”

Two more MOOCs will follow later in spring 2014, with “Rebalancing Society,” taught by Henry Mintzberg, BEng’61, and Leslie Breitner from the Desautels Faculty of Management, and “Natural Disasters,” taught by earth and planetary sciences professor John Stix and atmospheric and oceanic sciences professor John Gyakum. Another MOOC or two are planned for the fall of 2014.

“I would have been disappointed not to have tried to develop a MOOC version of this course,” says Stix, a leading authority on volcanoes. “I would have seen it as a missed opportunity.”

Gyakum, an expert on cyclones, agrees. “MOOCs are a very interesting pedagogical experiment. They could provide a way of sharing knowledge and expertise with others who can use it – for people in parts of the world where they really are the natural constituency for a course on natural disasters.”





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