York U conference puts teaching in focus

Some 190 faculty at York University gathered on the Keele campus on May 22 for the second annual Teaching in Focus (TIF) conference. The conference was offered free of charge to all full-time, adjunct and contract faculty, and teaching assistants working at the University. The conference was organized by the Teaching Commons at York University.

It featured a carefully curated program comprised of two keynote lectures and a series of morning and afternoon workshops organized into five streams: Enhancing Teaching and Learning; eLearning; Experiential Education; Student Transition and Engagement; and Approaches to Teaching. Each of the sessions offered information about innovations in teaching techniques and the classroom experience and the workshops were presented by faculty volunteers who are leading experts and award-winning teachers.

TIF began with a morning keynote by York Vice-President Academic and Provost Rhonda Lenton.

Teaching and learning, enhancing the transition into first year, providing experiential education, skills, technology enhanced learning, and two-way feedback are all important factors in the University’s global reputation, said Lenton.

“Valuing and advancing quality education is essential not only to our student success but the success of the entire University,” said Lenton. “At the end of the day, the health and well being of the entire institution relies on our ability to attract, educate well and to graduate our student populations.”

“I have to thank everyone in this room. I know that I am talking to a group of colleagues in the University who care passionately about teaching and learning and student success,” she said. “All of you have the potential to be champions of teaching and learning and student success in the University and I hope that you share what you are learning and discussing today with your colleagues.”

What followed was a morning of workshops that explored technology in education, experiential education and the importance of the student experience.  Click here to view the expanded conference program program, keynote presentations and recordings of a selection of the TIF sessions.

Following a brief break for lunch, the conference attendees gathered for an afternoon keynote presented by Harvey Weingarten, president and CEO of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Weingarten reinforced the message in Lenton’s presentation and added his own twist. He urged the faculty present at the conference to think seriously about their role in the University and what they are prepared to offer students in the classroom.

“With all of the talk about higher education, worries about funding, governance, challenges that have occurred in western universities about prioritization let’s just remember that subject matter of the group today teaching and learning is really what is at the heart of the university,” he said.

“All of those other things… issues of funding, program prioritization etc. are secondary to the matter at hand — that is our major responsibility to provide a high quality education to our students so that they can go out and live productive, useful, quality lives. It is the discussions of the type that are going on here that fundamental to that,” he said.

He asked faculty to consider several questions. What are students learning in university? Are students graduating from Ontario’s universities with numeracy and literacy skills?  Have they achieved the skill set necessary to lead productive lives?

The answer, he said, should include a focus on  learning outcomes. To achieve a degree, a student must be able to demonstrate that they have the skills and knowledge necessary, said Weingarten, and he challenged the faculty at the conference to adopt learning outcomes as key measures in assessing their teaching.

“Students, parents, employers and taxpayers are demanding clear evidence of the value of a postsecondary education,” he said. “Learning outcomes are the key to providing that evidence.”

Following the afternoon workshops, conference attendees gathered for coffee and to discuss what they had learned. “I would definitely attend next year,” said Anna Blake, a professor in the Human Resource Management Program in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies. “It is so important to meet others and discuss teaching and learning. This has been a wonderful experience.”

Registrations for the conference filled quickly with the initial 150 spots expanded to 190 in order to meet demand. Planning is already underway for next year’s Teaching in Focus.

More about the Teaching Commons at York University

The Teaching Commons brings together like-minded individuals who are interested in exploring and sharing teaching and learning innovation across York University. The Teaching Commons team is based in Room 1050 Technology Enhanced Learning Building (or “TEL”) on York University’s Keele campus. It maintains a virtual presence via the Teaching Commons website and Moodle courses. More than a presence, the Teaching Commons is built on the power of networking that is focused on a collegial, collaborative environment. Staff within the Teaching Commons works across and within all of York University’s Faculties and Support Services.