Teaching Commons marks five years with a look forward to the future

The Teaching in Focus conference offered by the Teaching Commons always enjoys a full attendance.

Quietly and with purpose, the Teaching Commons at York University has cultivated a reputation for excellence in educational development and recently marked its fifth anniversary.

Since it was formally established in the fall of 2012, the Teaching Commons has supported teaching and learning at York University. Through an emphasis on educational development, the commons’ activities have focused on assisting thousands of full- and part-time faculty, lecturers and teaching assistants by enhancing their teaching practice through workshops, courses and individual advising.

Celia Popovic

“We have never actually done any kind of official ‘Razzmatazz’ opening or celebration of the Teaching Commons fifth anniversary,” says the Teaching Commons Director Celia Popovic. “Instead, we have worked to create the structure required to offer the kind of specialized services, space and supports for the development of teaching at York University.”

Over the course of the Teaching Commons’ history, it has added six accredited Educational Developers (in addition to Popovic), two postdoctoral visitors and an administrative assistant to its ranks, held hundreds of workshops and course, and convened an annual Teaching in Focus Conference as well as having a permanent office complete with a drop-in space and online blog.

The Teaching in Focus conference offered by the Teaching Commons always enjoys a full attendance

Popovic, who is a British expat, modelled York University’s Teaching Commons on teaching development units at universities in the United Kingdom, she is also a professor in the Faculty of Education. The Teaching Commons’ Educational Developers are academics and members of the international Society for Teaching & Learning in Higher Education and its affiliated Educational Developers Caucus.  “Five of our six Educational Developers have doctorates, the sixth developer is midway through her doctoral studies,” says Popovic. “We publish in academic journals, conduct research into the development of teaching and attend and present at conferences.”

The Teaching Commons team during last year’s annual retreat

Popovic and the Teaching Commons staff are marking the five-year anniversary, which they have dubbed TC@5, with a reflection on where they will take the Teaching Commons in the future. “I am a member of the executive of the Educational Caucus and as such, York University has an increasing role in educational development in Canada,” says Popovic, noting that the field of educational development is still quite new. “We hosted a successful Educational Developer Institute and numerous research projects and Yelin Su is working on an E-textbook which we’ve trialed at York University. I have just completed my third book on the subject of conferences.”

The courses offered by the Teaching Commons are all accredited, meaning each course meets the strict criteria and standards laid out by the Educational Developer Caucus.  “We are seeing huge gains and are making real headway in Canada in the scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education,” notes Popovic. “Our work is research based and experiential and while we are viewed as somewhat ‘in between’ administration and the academy, we are really striving for balance and remain focused on what students experience in their learning.”

Participants at the annual conference for teaching assistants, which is known as STAY

Looking forward, Popovic says that she hopes to expand the courses and workshops offered by the Teaching Commons. Currently, the Teaching Commons has workshops in experiential education, eLearning, student experience, marking, dealing with large course enrolments, and more. The full calendar, which is frequently updated, is available at http://teachingcommons.yorku.ca/calendar/.

“Going forward, we need to do better at letting the community know what we offer,” says Popovic, noting that many faculty and teaching assistants are still unaware that the courses, even those that are accredited, are offered completely free of charge.

To achieve greater awareness, Popovic and the Teaching Commons staff are planning to host a series of pop-up presentations to faculty councils to highlight services, courses and the accreditation. “Our concept for the pop-up presentations is that in 15 minutes we can tell you all about how to use Twitter in teaching, or how to stimulate active learning in large lectures.” The pop-up presentations will be brief and focused with a goal of attracting faculty and teaching assistants to enroll in a course or workshop offered by the Teaching Commons.

As part of the future forward approach, the staff in the Teaching Commons is hoping to continue to build the Teaching Commons Blog into a comprehensive resource for faculty. The blog is unique, says Popovic, in that it is written by faculty who have taken a Teaching Commons workshop, course or worked with an educational developer. There’s a dedicated lounge space with comfortable chairs and terrific coffee for faculty seeking a quiet place away from the busy campus. There’s always someone available to answer a question and the journal club explores the pleasures and pitfalls of teaching in higher education.

In a blue sky look forward, Popovic aspires to see a Canadian university offer an educational developer degree that could meet the demand of what is quickly becoming an emerging professional career path.

To learn more about the courses, workshops and educational developer services offered by the Teaching Commons, or to book a pop-up presentation, contact Celia Popovic at cpopovic@yorku.ca.