Designing the perfect learning space

Fri, Mar 16, 2012


burnside511-293x197McGill continually works to create top quality learning spaces and teaching styles to support the success of its students. In recent years, the University has responded to the challenge, in both these areas, of adapting to rapid shifts in technologies and conceptions about teaching. In order to give you an update on how recent changes at McGill have positively affected student life and learning, we consulted the experts; they’ve told us the key to student success in 2012 is in fostering learning environments that are collaborative and democratic.

Cynthia Weston is the Director of Teaching and Learning Services (TLS). She and her team collaborate with other McGill units on a variety of learning and teaching initiatives that better the student experience.

Sharon Roy directs Content and Collaboration Services, leading a team that provides centrally supported tools and services for managing, publishing and sharing content at McGill.

Ryan Ortiz leads the IT Customer Support service, which is the primary point of contact for problem resolution and IT help to the McGill community.

Learning how to teach; teaching how to learn

According to Weston, “Learning requires that students actively engage with the content and with each other.”

Weston and her colleagues explain that “through active engagement, students link new knowledge to previous knowledge, resulting in deeper and longer lasting learning. “

One of the best ways to engage students is to keep them interactive in the classroom. Group work is considered especially beneficial, as “students tend to process at higher intellectual levels when working in collaboration than when working individually.”

With this in mind, whenever TLS encounters a new practice, they consider not only its level of academic challenge, but the level of student-faculty interaction it will include, as well as the potential for active and collaborative learning.

Here are some examples of recently adopted practices that are proving effective:

Online course evaluations, which “give students a voice in improving teaching.”

• There’s an entire university-wide working group devoted to renovating classrooms to promote active engagement. This creates “a more democratic learning environment – one in which the instructor and learners collaborate in the learning process. Students use writable walls and computers individually or collaboratively; instructors and students can use projection tools to spontaneously share work-in-progress and/or prepared presentations.”

• The NEXUS project works to increase opportunities for students to learn about and engage in research, which is especially good for students who may want to continue on to graduate studies.

• Speaking of graduate studies, there is now an entire suite of workshops designed for graduate and postdoctoral students to complement their research training.

• Through partnerships with Faculties and departments, McGill supports curriculum redesign to foster student engagement and learning. The Faculty of Law, for example, has been continually refining its curricula and teaching methods to better serve the needs of students.

Course Design and Teaching workshops help professors revamp existing courses or design new ones, taking into consideration the latest pedagogical research.

Technologies for teaching

TLS is also making use of new and emerging educational technologies. McGill has been keen to adopt tools and services that facilitate communication and collaboration, such as the following:

myCourses, the McGill online learning environment, continues to provide students with tools to support online collaboration on, and presentation of, course assignments, and spaces for course-related discussions. myCourses also provides a space in which instructors can post and share a variety of course materials ranging from links to course-specific library resources, lecture notes, and recorded lectures and class presentations by instructors and/or special guests.

Clickers are used to support in-class student participation. Professors can ask students to answer questions by clicking, and gain an understanding of the class’s collective grasp of a given concept. If there are a lot of incorrect answers, the instructor knows more explanation is needed. This helps the students tremendously by keeping them engaged, and by giving them immediate feedback on where their understanding is relative to the course materials and their peers.

• Web Conferencing is being used increasingly often for cases where the instructor (or guest instructors/experts) and/or students are not in the same geographic location. The web-based software allows participants to link up via audio, video, and chat.

• McGill hires tech-savvy students to provide in-class support to instructors using the newer Active Learning Classrooms. This ensures a smoother transition for professors new to this kind of technology and a better classroom experience for the students.

• Some instructors have begun using blogs, wikis, YouTube and other social media tools for the collaborative development and sharing of course-related materials.

While it’s certain that teaching and learning at McGill will continue to evolve, increased collaboration between students, faculty and staff, as well as technological advances, are accelerating the pace of evolution. In this case, change is a good thing.

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