Show and tell: Academic innovation at York

Catherine Salole interviews student RED Zone ambassadors using Skype to connect the RED Zone information desk in Vari Hall to the AIF celebration

A day-long event held on May 9 at York University’s Keele campus was a show and tell of epic proportions.

The results of 39 projects supported by the Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) were presented to the University community during the inspiring celebration, which featured a virtual symphony of multimedia, a dizzying array of projects and keynote talks from leading thinkers in higher education.

Established in 2010 following a pan-University strategic planning process led by Patrick Monahan, York’s vice-president academic & provost, the Academic Innovation Fund offered $2.5 million in funding to community members to support projects that sought new ways to advance innovation and change at the University. Wednesday’s event was the culmination of a year’s work by the 39 project teams whose work was facilitated by Susan Vail, associate vice-president teaching & learning.

“Why celebrate teaching and learning innovation?” asked Monahan in his welcoming remarks. “The answer is pretty clear when I am asked as provost what are my top priorities. I say that I have three top priorities. My number one priority is students, my number two priority is students and my number three priority is students. The students are the reason why we are all here.

“When I started as provost almost three years ago, we began the White Paper planning process [to plan York’s strategic priorities]. It was energizing, and there were a lot of people involved in the process, and they had many ideas,” said Monahan.

Following the completion of the White Paper, Monahan identified three key priority areas of change:  eLearning (the use of technology in higher education), experiential education (real-world experience through course and community-based project work, including internships) and enhancing the first-year experience (a positive first-year experience is crucial Patrick Monahanto student success). He launched the AIF as a way to empower people in the University to bring their ideas for change to life in these three areas.

Patrick Monahan

“The world is changing. We see this change in the use of technology to deliver higher education. We can’t be complacent, and the status quo is not good enough. There is a great need to be innovative,” he said. “The way to do that is to capture the energy of people around this campus and to empower them to turn their dreams and hopes for our students into a reality.”

The stage was set for the presentations with a keynote lecture by David Trick, former assistant deputy minister for postsecondary education in the provincial government and former vice-provost of the University of Guelph-Humber. Trick spoke about why universities need to transform undergraduate education to better meet the needs of current and future students.

The morning presentations centred around the “three Es” – eLearning and experiential education. Highlights from these presentations included:

  • The important role that technology plays in enhancing student learning. Specifically, the project leads highlighted how they used the best elements of teaching and the power offered by technology to create a blended model of innovative teaching. Geography Professor Robin Roth recounted her experiences using Skype to connect with students in a refugee camp located on the Thai-Burma border.
  • Faculty of Health Professor Susan Murtha talked about a suite of innovations that led to the development of a sustainable, quality eLearning program for the faculties of Health and Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.
  • York associate librarian of information services, Mark Robertson, spoke about a new virtual learning commons that provides 24/7 support for students seeking academic assistance.
  • Osgoode Hall Law School Dean Lorne Sossin interviewed students from across the University about AIF-funded experiential education initiatives and the real-life career experience they gained from the opportunities. News-styled interviews with project leaders by senior administrators and deans highlighted how faculty and staff involved in the projects were energized by the opportunity to find new ways to support student success at York University.

In the afternoon, Tricia Seifert, professor in the Higher Education Program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, spoke about what research has found about enhancing the first-year student experience. She shared best practices from other universities.

Graphic artist Ashley Grenville recorded her thoughts on each of the presentationsAbove: Graphic artist Ashley Grenville recorded her thoughts on each of the presentations. Here she captures York Professor Avi Cohen’s comments to the audience about the merits of blended eLearning and its role in enhancing teaching.

The afternoon presentations focused on enhancing the student experience – specifically the first-year experience – and included:

  • Student actors from Vanier College Productions performing a segment from The Text Race, an engaging and funny play made possible by the AIF. It highlighted how a positive experience in first-year forms an important foundation of strength for students throughout their postsecondary years.
  • HealthAid peer mentors and class reps delivered “classroom announcements” to the audience to demonstrate how just-in-time advice from upper year students can be incorporated into a large classroom setting to support first year students’ curricular and co-curricular success.  The classroom announcements are just one element of the course-based peer mentoring program, which places first year and upper year students into mentorship teams that meet biweekly. The students spoke of the positive influence the program has had on their curricular and co-curricular development. The project is led by the Master of Stong College, Martha Rogers.  HealthAid created a spin-off program named Making Connections, which was also highlighted at the conference as a way of developing students’ sense of purpose as they transition into York.
  • RED Zone student ambassadors using Skype to connect to the event from Vari Hall, where they spoke about their work with new students as part of a host of new student transition initiatives designed to make the first year of University a positive, supportive experience right from the moment students receive their acceptance.
  • Project lead Catherine Salole, director of student community & leadership development, demonstrating an innovative online enrolment system that linked first-year students with student video guides to help them navigate the process of registering for courses.

Catherine Salole interviews student RED Zone ambassadors using Skype to connect the RED Zone information desk in Vari Hall to the AIF celebrationThe day closed with a series of guest reflections from key thinkers in higher education about what they had seen and heard throughout the day.

Catherine Salole interviews student RED Zone ambassadors using Skype to connect the RED Zone information desk in Vari Hall to the AIF celebration

Peter Gooch, senior director of policy & analysis at the Council of Ontario Universities, offered this insight, which best captured the energy of the day: “When I hear about the innovation and passion that people have put into these projects to improve teaching and learning, it makes me think that the people criticizing higher education are not only on a different page, but in a different galaxy.”

The next cycle of projects will be announced over the next few weeks.

To learn more about the projects in the current cycle, visit the Academic Innovation Fund website.

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor